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Many clergy members want to reach the “nones” – the fast-growing demographic of people who don’t identify with any particular faith tradition. Yet, clergy find that their traditional tools for talking about faith usually don’t work with that audience.
For help, clergy are turning to a weeklong writing workshop called Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
“More and more people are conducting their spirituality online, instead of coming to worship services,” said Sarah Kahrl, director of the Kenyon Institute, which hosts the program. “And we’re hearing that many clergy are not equipped to engage those audiences.”
Last summer, about 80 Christian and Jewish clergy, lay leaders and others attended the first Beyond Walls intensive; the second takes place July 10-16, 2016. At the workshop, attendees sharpen writing skills and learn new ways to connect with wider audiences through blogging, op-eds, social media and personal essays. Lectures by accomplished editors and writers are followed by afternoons devoted to writing assignments. Shared meals and morning and evening meditations round out the schedule.
From selling to sharing
Faith leaders typically communicate with parishioners through sermons, worship or community newsletters, but speaking to people outside of the faith demands different skills, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. A faculty member at Beyond Walls in 2015, Hirschfield edits TheWisdomDaily.com and writes occasional op-eds for The Washington Post. To communicate with wider audiences, he said, clergy must reach people “where they’re at.”
“When I write for a secular publication like The Washington Post, my goal is not to teach Judaism,” he said. “It’s to use the tradition I love to help people make better sense of their lives and the world in which we live.”
Writing for a broader audience, Hirschfield added, “you can’t write with the goal of getting more dues-paying members. It’s to enlighten the reader, not to convince, convert or cajole. It means moving from ‘selling’ to ‘sharing.’”
That can be a stretch for clergy, said Amy Frykholm, an associate editor of The Christian Century and Beyond Walls faculty member. By bringing together students and faculty from different faiths and denominations, the workshop gives participants a diverse, but friendly, space to experiment.
At last year’s program, “clergy couldn’t use their go-to vocabulary,” Frykholm said. “They struggled to get outside of that insider talk. It was a real live situation where they had to express themselves to people who didn’t necessarily share their vocabulary.”
Participants also tackle assignments in a variety of writing formats (such as blogging or op-eds) and learn basic mechanics of social media.
“I loved that Beyond Walls was NOT about sermons,” said Rabbi Eric Gurvis, senior rabbi for Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., and a 2015 participant. The demands of his job allow little time for writing other than sermon preparation; at Beyond Walls, he treasured the four to five uninterrupted hours each afternoon devoted to writing.
A story to tell
Many of the 2015 participants are “already off and writing” in blogs and publications they hadn’t written for before the workshop, Kahrl said. After attending Beyond Walls, the Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster started a personal blog, in addition to writing for a blog published by her denomination, the United Church of Christ.
“On Sunday morning, I know who I’m talking to,” said Foster, who serves East Woodstock Congregational Church in East Woodstock, Conn. “With blogging, I’m just putting it out there for a wider audience. I feel more vulnerable, but it’s also more exciting.” Her blog posts reach readers as far away as Uganda, Romania and Afghanistan.
The Rev. Dr. Teri M. Ott, an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and chaplain at Monmouth College in Illinois, started an essay at the 2015 workshop about counseling a student whose mother was terminally ill. The essay, which was later published in The Christian Century, described how she reassured the student, even though he had no religious affiliation.
While they may not attend church, Ott said, many “nones” still have a deep interest in spiritual wisdom, and for them, clergy do have an important story to tell.
“Ministers have the privilege of walking with people in their most vulnerable moments of life,” she said. “If we can share our experiences with a broader audience, in language that is authentic, I think it will bring great good to the world.”
For more information, visit www.kenyoninstitute.org.
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