The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.”  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.


I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.

The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and then disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)


Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Check out my interview with Winn Collier.

What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

DHMudULVYAEEq0QLet me begin with the ‘ought to’s.  It ought to go without saying that what happened in Charlottesville at a gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists was an ugly display of our divisions in this current moment.

It ought to go without saying that an ideology that believes the white race is superior to other races is a discredited relic of some of the darkest moments of our American history.

It ought to go without saying that such an ideology is antithetical to the gospel and the inclusive message of God’s intentions for all creation and all people.  If Christ is our peace, as Ephesians 2:14 says…If, as the verse goes on to say, “he, with his body, broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” then there can be no place for another message, especially one claiming the name of Christ, that would perpetuate hatred and division.


Heather Heyer

It ought to go without saying that the deaths and injuries over the weekend—of Heather Heyer, a young Charlottesville woman who died in the vehicle attack, of two state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who were patrolling in a helicopter that crashed, of the many others wounded—are tragic.  We rightly weep for them and for their families.

It ought to go without saying that Charlottesville, a place where I have studied, lived, and worked at different times of my life, should not be defined by this act.  It is a city that has struggled, perhaps more so than most, to understand and learn from its history, including its troubling racial history.

All that ought to go with saying, but I’m saying it, because the fact that people openly espouse racist and Nazi ideas in America in 2017 shows that we still have the capacity to nurture evil in our hearts and minds.  We have not escaped the human condition.

19884025_490881374591713_1163294255372840333_nWhat more should we say?  On social media this weekend I saw many calls to pastors to speak about Charlottesville from the pulpit on Sunday.  Clergy were very visible in Charlottesville on Saturday – walking arm in arm in a silent witness against the hatred on display.  I was glad to see United Methodists in the midst.  On Sunday, in the Texas church I attended, no one offered a word about Charlottesville in sermon or prayer.

Some would say that to make a big deal about the violence at the protest would amount to “virtue signaling”—a marker so that others can see that we’re on the right side of the issue.  This kind of concern is a sign of the fallen nature of our public discourse these days.  There are many people who feel that, by acquiescing to the request to make a statement or a prayer, they may be coopted into a whole set of agendas that have far more to do with a political worldview.  If I put #Charlottesville in my Facebook post, am I putting myself in a camp?

There are also those who worry more about those who didn’t say what they thought ought to be said.  If my attention and my ire turns to those who didn’t bear the witness I felt they ought to make, am I distracted from doing the hard work of community building that it will take to overcome the Great Divide and renew our commitment to shared values?

I do expect that the clergy and lay leaders of the Eastern Shore will address Charlottesville and I expect that many did in services on Sunday.  But they should address it not because it is the issue of the day, but because the gospel illuminates it for what it is.

The truth is that racism is one of the powers that rule in our day.  It is a sin that infects us all, not just the ludicrous gatherings of white men with tiki torches and vile flags and signs.  They claim it openly, but racism is in the air we breathe, and if we were to get rid of every little pocket of supremacists, it would still be there in our souls to struggle with.  And to do that will take faith in God’s liberating work in Jesus Christ and the communion of the Church which invites us to continual confession.


The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh

The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh, a United Methodist and a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, was one of those clergy at the protest on Saturday.  He talked about his experience there on the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice on Sunday.  While the clergy were committed to a non-violent witness, he confessed that he found himself wanting “to grab a rod and start hitting a Nazi.”

In the aftermath, he found himself appreciating the ongoing work of learning to be a disciple, a work that kept him from taking up a rod.  “Christianity is a daily practice,” he said.  “It’s a daily practice of inculcating certain disciplines of the heart and soul that we might be those people that can stand in these moments of trial.”

I pray that we can be grounded in something far more than a stance.  We need to do far more than showing up in Charlottesville the next time the racist circus comes to town.  We need to show up every day to the places we live and the people we interact with, helping to expose and root out the racism that is around and within us.  We ought to be about the daily practices of being Christians.  And that ought to go without saying.