How You Use Poetry to Sustain Your Ministry

Posted on December 14th, by nicholas in church, creativity, ministry, poets, rumination, theology, vocation, writing. 6 comments

How You Use Poetry to Sustain Your Ministry

{Ryan Strebeck reflects on how the power of words matter in both poetry and ministry}

I never expected or wanted to be a pastor, and I never cared much for poetry. So, it’s hard for me to escape the irony of this post and the question about poetry’s use in the life of ministry. I was deliberately ignorant of poetry (all literature, really) until I graduated from college, with one exception. Growing up in a ranching context, I spent time with old men and women who carefully used their words. They carefully spoke like they carefully shod their horses and cooked their meals and braided their hobbles.

I remember one man, in particular, who practiced reading and songwriting in a way that made me want to join him. He didn’t own a television, so in the evenings we sat around his kitchen table where he would roll cigarettes and tell stories – commenting on literary works like he knew the characters well. He was an icon, a window into the old ways.

The old ways simply meant treating ranch work as a craft and not a job. Poem-songs like Strawberry Roan and The Streets of Laredo helped.

So when I became a pastor, I wondered about the old ways. Who could show me pastor as craft, rather than the prevailing “pastor as job?” Who would tell me stories and let me peer over the round pen – someone for whom the practices are second nature? What was the pastoral equivalent of taking time in the evenings to mend and make your own gear? I have been lucky to find such folks along the way. I’ve known some of them personally and some only through their books. But all of them, one way or another, have pointed me to poetry. A few of them stand out though, as John the Baptist types who prepared the way for poets. Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian pastor longer than I have been alive. I knew when I read first read him over a decade ago that he gathered his words differently than most pastors. He quoted poets instead of leadership gurus.  He trained me to make sense of life by hanging on to the poetry of daily, ordinary things. More recently, I had a mentor at seminary who always wanted to talk about poetry. Sermon conversations became poetry conversations and poetry conversations became sacraments conversations and on and on we went until poetry was no longer marginal and highbrow, but central and everyday.

Pastor-as-craft, I learned, has everything to do with prayer and therefore poetry – hearing and speaking words: congregation words, my words, Scripture words, Spirit words. Carlo Carretto observes that in prayer “our words get rarer and deeper.” As my words deepen and become more scarce, I notice poetry at its slow work. All prayer is poetry – at home in a song or a line or a punctuated cry, but it’s when the words start getting rare that I really notice poetry’s sustaining place in the life of ministry. The fewer the words, the more attention they get.  The more attention they get, the more I wonder if they are the right ones. The more I need the right words, the closer attention I give to timeless lines and well-ordered stanzas.  The Spirit searches out the deep things…and so do the poets.


Ryan Strebeck pastors a Methodist church in Abilene, TX, where he lives with his wife Amberly, daughter Morgan, and son Athan. He enjoys keeping his hands in the dirt and building just about anything.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanstrebeck

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6 Responses to “How You Use Poetry to Sustain Your Ministry”

  1. iMac says:

    You are warrior. You are poet. And freedom follows in your footsteps. Thanks for being a man among men.

  2. Josh says:

    I always liked the line about George Fox, that his speech was remarkable for “the fewness and fullness of his words.”

  3. Jug says:

    dare to go deeper. sacred indeed.

  4. Just saw this – love it! Thanks. Also loved reading recently that over half the Bible is poetry, with or without King James to point it out. :)

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