Presbyterian Writers Guild seeks Best First Book nominations Reply

The Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG) is accepting nominations now for its 2016 Best First Book Award, honoring the best first book by a Presbyterian author published during the calendar years of 2014-2015.

The award is given biennially and will be presented June 23, 2016, during the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland, Oregon.

Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2016. The award was established in 1996 by the Guild and the estate of the late James W. Angell, a prolific and respected Presbyterian writer, as a means to recognize and encourage new writers. It is now sponsored by the Guild and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

Books may be of any type: fiction, nonfiction, theological, how-to, photos with commentary, poetry, etc.

Entries may be submitted by the authors or by others on their behalf. Three copies of the book and a brief statement attesting to the author’s current active membership in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation or presbytery should be sent to the First Book Award Committee, c/o Jerry Van Marter, 2220 Woodbourne Ave., Louisville, KY 40205.

The book needs to be the author’s first book and has to have a publication date in 2014 or 2015. Include an email address if the sender wishes to be notified that the books were received. The three copies of the book cannot be returned.

Questions about the award or entry process may be directed to Jerry Van Marter by email at or by phone at 502-565-6757.

Previous Best First Book Award winners are listed at

Flash Fiction contest deadline is November 30 Reply

Practice Thinking Like Jesus

By Stephen McCutchan

Jesus wrote parables that confronted major issues in society. You can too. Submissions are coming in for the second phase of the Presbyterian Writers Guild An Experiment in Modern Parables contest. You are invited to submit Flash Fiction (1000 words or less) that lifts up some of the major issues that confront both the faith community and society. Deadline is November 30.

If you want examples of artful flash fiction, review some of Jesus’ parables. In less than 320 words (English version), Jesus engaged his listeners in probing our response to violence, bigotry, and hypocrisy in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In approximately 200 words, Jesus probed the destructive impact of materialism in the parable of the Rich Fool. In just a little over 100 words, Jesus paints a picture of the effort to which God will go in recovering those who have lost their way in this world (Luke 15:3-7.)

Whether or not you participated in the first phase of the PWG three-phase contest, you are invited to participate in the Flash Fiction phase. Please send your entry by November 30 to

The contest is open to all members of the Presbyterian Writers Guild. Join or renew your membership for $25 at

The top three winners will be published in future issues of The Writer. Also, the winning stories will be shared with editors of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Presbyterian Outlook, and the PC(USA) Communications Network. (The editors have no commitment to act on these winners, but it does introduce them to skilled writers within the Presbyterian community.)

If you feel the 1,000-word limit is too restrictive, consider entering the Short Story phase (under 4,000 words, due by February 15). Remember that the Bible takes on the whole issue of nationalism, bigotry, and religious narrowness in around 1,500 words in the book of Jonah. Ruth and Esther are other examples of short stories that examine complex issues.

Those who write the stories will be involved in judging them. We will ask all of you to read the stories and evaluate them according to some suggested criteria: Did the story grab your attention and hold your interest? Can you picture the main characters—how they look, feel, interact with others? Do you know what the tension or conflict was at the center of the story? Did reading the story expand your thinking?

The opening paragraph of the top eight short stories will be published in The Writer. The winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift certificate. Second, third, and fourth place will receive $50. In addition, the winner will be published in subsequent issues of the Presbyterian Outlook in serial form, and the second place story will be published on the PWG web page.

Opening Hook winners announced Reply

The winners of phase 1 of the Presbyterian Writers Guild writing contest have been announced! Here are the top 10 Opening Hooks, in order of votes received:

#1       Melissa Bane Sevier

The bedroom felt oppressive at 3:30 a.m. His arm around her, though relaxed in sleep, bound her to time and place, to anxiety and despair. She longed for the dim stripes of sunrise to seep through the partially open blinds, bringing the dawn of yet another pretense of normalcy. Then she would slip from his grasp, wearing the night’s fear into the day as if it were an invisible shroud.

#2       Elsie Gilmore

Whoever had that light on in the attic window has it on no more. It was like a beacon, like a dim city set on a hill of household happenings. It guided me from work to home each night. So dependent was I on its steadfastness that I drove past my own gate the first night it was missing. Its absence haunted me like a missing key to my own existence.

#3       Cary Speaker

In the spring of 1963 my best friend, Barry, and I were standing on the toilet in one bathroom stall looking down on our friend Roger who was sitting on the toilet in the other stall, with his pants on. We were all three in the eighth grade. Barry and I had searched all over the school for Roger. We were angry and looking for a fight. When we found him we changed our minds.

#4       Ariel Lenarduzzi

What do you look like in color? Your photo is in black and white.

A picture in the back of the bulletin. Square. Like a picture from a passport for a foreign traveler who has long been forgotten by the passing of time.

The last time you spoke; the last time you preached. I was sitting too far to see you. I heard you. Your voice, your message, your call to action, your forgiveness.

#5       Alan Cutter

I woke up about 0430, buckled up my .45, grabbed a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and went outside to wait. The early air was already hot, a still humid haze hanging on the bay, morning light lifting the darkness, hinting at the tantalizing possibility of a beautiful day in Vietnam. Pouring three fingers, taking the day’s first sip, I said aloud, letting the words challenge the oppressive humidity, “It’s a good day to die.”

# 6      Matthew Rich

“It is fine,” he had said. Last year a few more new members joined the church than saints entered life eternal; steady giving with the expected December bump; a preschool full of laughing toddlers; programs every night of the week; no significant conflict. Yes, everything was “fine.” And yet . . .

Looking out the window, he wondered if fine was faithful, as someone slid behind the green dumpster. Who was she? What was she doing?

#7       Susan Baller-Shepherd

The vicodin settled in nicely as Stephanie pulled into the church parking lot for second service.

“Where in the world could I have put those? Have you seen them, Steph?” Joan asked at home, guessing her Rheumatoid Arthritis meds weren’t actually lost at all.

“Mom, you’re so forgetful, I swear!” Stephanie protested.

Getting out of the car, Stephanie held onto the door for support, nauseous and lightheaded, she felt herself going down for the count.

#8       Andrew Taylor-Troutman

On the morning her preacher promised that God would annihilate the world by fire, she awoke and crept outside, only to watch the pagan squirrels in her backyard scolding one another as they raced headlong around the ancient trees. By the time dust bit into the far horizon, she was unable to pray. But, damn it, could she ever curse!

#9       Lara MacGregor

I turned 40 that summer and I was between churches (an ironic way of saying “unemployed,” since “between” implies something on either side). Turns out, circulating a résumé when you are married with a toddler isn’t the same as looking for a new job when you’re single. Mobility becomes an issue. Money is more of an issue. And then there is your spouse’s job to consider. Where does God’s call fit in all of this?

#10    Deb Hadachek

The day she made three little boys and one mother cry during Sunday school, God made clear she was trying to claim a gift she did not possess.


An experiment in modern parables 1

Three-phase writing contest

PWG path to General Assembly 2016

Inspired by the way Jesus’ taught with parables, the Presbyterian Writers Guild has chosen to offer a three-phase writing contest building towards our luncheon at the 2016 General Assembly. We have chosen the fictional format as a parabolic way to inspire theological reflection on some of the issues that confront the church. Any genre—mystery, romance, fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction, etc.—is acceptable.

The contest is open to all members of the Presbyterian Writers Guild. There are three levels to this contest, and you may participate in any or all of these levels. By entering the contest, you agree to adhere to the timelines identified below and give permission for your work to be used in the manner described. (Join PWG for $25 by going to You may pay by check or through PayPal.)

Level 1—The Opening Hook

Participants are invited to submit by October 12, 2015 an opening hook for a fictional story based on a theme of your choice connected to an issue that confronts the church in 2016. It may be a sentence or a small paragraph (no more than 75 words) that will grab the reader’s attention. (You need not have written the story, only created the hook.)

Send your submission by email to by October 12, 2015. All entries will be placed into a single numbered document without names attached. This will be sent to all participants. Within five days of receiving the document, participants will vote for the best single entry apart from his or her personal entry. (We trust in your integrity not to vote for your own entry.) The winners will be announced by November 3 (Election Day). The top 10 winners will be published with names attached in a future issue of The Writer. This exposes your skills to a larger public.

Level 2—Flash Fiction

Participants are invited to submit a piece of flash fiction (maximum of 1,000 words) centering on themes or issues that currently confront the church. (Connection with the opening hooks is not required.) Your submission is to be emailed to by November 30, 2015 (beginning of Lectionary Year C). The top 20 entries (as determined by PWG board members) will be emailed to all participants to vote on the best story. Again, you are on your honor not to vote for your submission but to select the best entry among other submissions and submit your vote within 10 days of receipt of the documents.

The top three winners will be announced January 6, 2016 (Epiphany of the Lord) and published in a future issue of The Writer. In addition, the winning stories will be shared with editors of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Presbyterian Outlook, and the Communications Network. (The editors have no commitment to act on these winners, but it does introduce them to skilled writers within the Presbyterian community.)

Level 3—Short Story

Level three builds on the first two levels, although additional topics may be introduced. This time, participants are invited to submit a short story (approximately 4,000 words) that will stimulate the readers’ appreciation for an issue confronting the church in a fictional format. The goal is for participants to submit a story that introduces the reader to the ethical and theological challenges before the church (e.g. a contemporary parable). The date for submission is February 15, 2016 (Presidents’ Day). The stories are to be sent via email to At least 15 of the top stories, as determined by PWG board members, will be returned to all participants. Within 10 days of receipt, participants are asked to send their vote for the best (apart from his or her own) of the stories submitted. If there are sufficient entries to merit this, we may have to send a different set of 15 to two or more groups and then have a second vote by all participants on the best entry.

The opening paragraph of the top eight stories will be published in The Writer. The winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift certificate. Second, third. and fourth will receive $50. In addition, the winner will be published in subsequent issues of the Presbyterian Outlook in serial form, and the second place story will be published on the Outlook Web page.

Winners will be informed by May 20, 2016 (Anticipating Trinity Sunday). While participants in any of the three levels of the contest do not need to be present at the PWG luncheon, we will seek to provide exposure to as many winners as possible. Our current intention is to bind the submission winners of all three levels in one bound copy that can be shared at the luncheon and also with the larger church for a minimal price.

The purpose of the three-level contest is to engage PWG members in creatively reflecting on the issues confronting the church in a fictional format. We want to challenge, in a parabolic manner, the thinking of the whole church. In the process, emerging writers among our membership will gain recognition among those within the Presbyterian media and beyond. Authors retain copyright on their submission but grant PWG permission to make use of their writings in publicity and in the manner identified in the contest. This permission includes having your piece included in a PWG book of all the winners. Our hope is that several participants will be invited to contribute their writing skills at many levels within the church.

If this initial effort is a success, we may offer future contests in areas of nonfiction, poetry, hymn writing, curriculum pieces, etc. We are learning as we go, so we invite your feedback and suggestions to improve our effort to identify and nurture the writing skills that exist within our Presbyterian community. We encourage you to spread the word about all three phases of this contest to your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. We would like to be overwhelmed by participation. Join the Guild today and enter any of the 3 phases:

The Opening Hook Reply

The Presbyterian Writers Guild is sponsoring an Opening Hook contest. We are seeking opening hooks that address real-life issues that people confront, not unlike what Jesus did in his parables.

Whether you are at an airport bookstore, browsing the Amazon website, at a yard sale, or thumbing through a book at a friend’s house, what is it that causes you to pause and consider taking the time to read a particular book? If you send your best efforts to an agent or editor, why will that person take a second glance at your work? Unless you are famous or infamous, the most likely answer is what they see in the opening pages. For busy people, you often have an opening paragraph or two to HOOK the reader.

Consider what your opening hook needs to accomplish in order to attract a person to continue reading.

First, it must establish the tone and setting of the book.

Some people like reading 18th-century novels and others don’t.

Some people like the mysterious and the frightening and others prefer history or romance.

The beginning should be a vivid invitation that entices us to commit several hours to read.

Second, people are attracted to a new perspective, the unexpected, or the humorous.

Readers want to be introduced to something fresh, but they don’t want to be fooled into thinking they are reading a mystery and it turns out to be a sci-fi fantasy.

The opening lines should be consistent with the core nature of the book.

Third, a reader should be able to grasp at least the basic quest that your novel is answering.

What is the human yearning that the story seeks to address?

The idea for the story that your hook proposes may deal with an ethical quandary, prejudice, what makes life meaningful, or how humans respond to the challenges of living in a church community. You may only have the germ an idea, but you can capture the essence of the story in a few sentences. Whether you ever write the story or not, our hope is that your first few lines may cause people to urge you to continue because they want to read it.

Take 3 Reply

An interview with Kathy Bostrom

62Kathy Bostrom, recipient of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s 2014 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award and other prestigious writing awards, has published numerous articles and more than three dozen books, most for children. Her books have sold several million copies and have been translated into 17 languages. Bostrom served as pastor of Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Chicago Presbytery for 22 years and now lives and writes full-time in Carlsbad, California. She responds to 3 questions asked by the Presbyterian Writers Guild:

  1. Whose writing has most influenced your work?

Frederick Buechner’s elegant and eloquent storytelling and his imaginative way of sharing biblical stories and concepts captivates me. I’ve read nearly everything he’s written, attended his lectures, and even had the audacity to hand him one of my early essays and ask him to read it. He sent it back to me with comments. I cringe to think how nervy I was, but he was so gracious and kind that I have resolved to always treat writers who approach me for help with the same spirit.

Barbara Brown Taylor was a later addition to my repertoire, but I poured through her sermons when I served as a pastor. As I now focus on my vocation as a writer, I’ve been drawn to the honesty and depth of her memoirs. I read Leaving Church for the second time when I found myself struggling with leaving ministry to devote myself to writing.

Katherine Paterson, as a writer and a person, has been my muse for writing children’s books. I interviewed her for a book I wrote on Newbery Medal authors and will never forget her willingness to give her time to a newbie author. We’ve kept in touch sporadically over the years and she is consistently gracious. Her love for children and for writing about tough and painful issues, even in the face of criticism, inspires me and makes me proud to be an author of children’s books, too.

Even though I’ve given up the dream of being The Next Frederick Buechner or Barbara Brown Taylor or Katherine Paterson, they have all inspired me to be Kathleen Long Bostrom, writer in her own right.

  1. In what ways has writing for children inspired your own faith?

I love the spiritual depth of children. They have an awareness of the divine that leaves me in awe. They aren’t yet jaded by the world, nor are they afraid to ask questions. My Little Blessings series with Tyndale began with a question a little girl at church asked me one Sunday morning: “Is God a boy or a girl?” I put a lot of thought into that answer, which became my first accepted book, What Is God Like? It’s been a great exercise for me as a pastor and writer to try to convey theological and spiritual truths for 6-year-olds. It’s made me think through my own understanding of faith.

We have much to learn from children. They are so resilient! They accept the traumas of the world far better than adults. They recognize death as part of life. They ask questions. They embrace the moment. Children embrace God, and the world, with open arms. They are my greatest inspiration in writing and in my faith journey.

  1. Do you have a vision for the Presbyterian Writers Guild?

The Guild has been a major part of my life as a writer, from introducing me to my first editor and my current agent, to encouraging me along the way, to honoring me with the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award in 2014. I count many of the Guild board members as my friends.

Vic Jameson, one of our deeply beloved Guild members, honored us with a bequest in his will that truly saved us as an organization. We are in a healthy place now. Our work continues to unfold as society changes and we are trying to stay current and viable. We seek ways to connect with new writers and encourage those who seek publication. Conferences are valuable but expensive to run and to attend, so we are trying to discover other ways to be a visible presence. We need to keep coloring outside the lines and trying new ventures. My vision is that in decades to come, the PWG will be strong and vital and visible. It’s up to all of us who are members to make this happen for future generations of writers.

Take 3 Reply

BuchananAn interview with John Buchanan

John Buchanan, who received the David Steele Distinguished Writer award for his contributions as a church writer, is a former moderator of the General Assembly and is widely known in church circles for his work as editor of The Christian Century. He is the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He responds to 3 questions asked by the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

  1. Whose writing has most influenced your work?

John Updike, more than any other. Over the years, I have read a lot of what he wrote. I was going to say everything, but he wrote voluminously and I doubt that anyone read it all. His novels caught me first. The Rabbit series will, I think, be read for years as a thoughtful portrait of American culture in the late 20th century. I used to wait eagerly for Updike’s newest book and have two shelves of them. Roger’s Version became a rich source of material and eloquent quotations for sermons and lectures and produced knowing laughter every time I used them to speak to clergy. Running throughout Updike’s writing is a strong current of orthodox Christian doctrine. It’s really quite close to the surface: creation as expression of God’s goodness, original sin, repentance, forgiveness, redemption. It’s all there, including the church. I loved his poetry as well, and his books of essays and criticism make for simply good reading. His influence was in teaching me to compose sermons carefully, choosing words intentionally, editing and rewriting right up to preaching time, even editing, scratching out, rewording between services. His selection of words is perfection.

Frederick Buechner has also been my literary companion and teacher along the way. I watched carefully as he crafted sentences, sometimes extending just a phrase or two beyond the natural stop. He did it in his preaching as well, very effectively.

  1. How has your work at the Christian Century affected your faith?

Working at the Christian Century for 12 years has been a wonderful reminder of several things a busy parish pastor is inclined to forget: the global community of Christian scholarship, for instance–the theological education, research, writing, translating, exegesis, arguing, contending that has gone on for 20 centuries and continues today. Augustine, I believe, attributed Christianity’s  success to out-thinking everyone else in the ancient world. There is still nothing quite like the sustained scholarly inquiry and work that continues in institutions of theological education all over the world. And working at the Century has reminded me of the depth and diversity of Christianity in our own contemporary culture.

  1. What Scripture passages do you think the PC(USA) most needs to listen to today?

Kurt Vonnegut said that the meek inheriting the earth was the best idea anybody ever had. I agree. So, Matthew 5:1-10 for starters. Then Mathew 25, when Jesus clearly says that we are judged on the basis of the love we extend to those who need us. Finally, the Last Supper discourses in the Gospel of John, when Jesus tells his friends that their love for one another will be the way the world will know God. I think about that a lot as we keep finding reasons to separate from one another. Every time it happens I wonder what the world sees of the gospel.

Take 3 Reply

An interview with Eugene Peterson

Peterson3Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, scholar, author, and poet, has written more than 30 books. He is perhaps best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, written to make the original meaning of the Scriptures more accessible for today’s readers.

  1. Whose writing has most influenced your work?

Dostoevsky. I observed and immersed myself in his writings in my early years of formation as a pastor; he gave me the imagination to discern the complexities of the spiritual life in a culture that does not affirm it.

Karl Barth. He gave me a theology that was both simple and profound, gathering Scripture into a cohesive interaction with the life of faith. He has seemed to me a well that never goes dry.

Both writers have been companions with me for 50 years.

  1. In what ways did your work on The Message impact your faith?

In the 20 years that I was doing the work of translating, it both confirmed and clarified my relation with the Scriptures. The clarification came through finding an American equivalent that kept the original Hebrew and Greek alive in my culture. The confirmation came as I recognized how congruent my life had become with what I had been reading and living for 40 years.

3. Which of Jesus’ parables do you think the Presbyterian Church most needs to listen to today?

As I was translating the parables, with a kind of shock of recognition, I recognized the fig tree parable (Luke 13:6–9) as my favorite. I renamed it “Manure.” Mostly, I think, because so much of the Presbyterian Church’s conversation has become so cantankerous, combative, and schismatic. And manure seemed the most effective and least contentious way to build up the soil and return civility to our church. (My reflections on this parable are in Tell It Slant, pages 65–74.)

Here’s what your DUES can do Reply

By Bill Lancaster

Small amounts add up to a lot for your Presbyterian Writers Guild. Your $25 annual dues payments make it possible for the Guild to carry on all its work.

With the help of your dues, the Guild publishes The Writer (this electronic newsletter), supports a website, offers a biennial General Assembly Luncheon, sponsors webinars, and gives prestigious awards. Two of these awards, the David W. Steele Distinguished Writer Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award, are funded by dues. The PPC First Book Award is now funded by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

The General Assembly Luncheon brings many members together, gives us an opportunity to draw others into the fold, and provides a setting for hearing world-class writers speak about their work.

The webinars bring experts in electronic publishing, marketing, and writing to your computer to assist you in your writing endeavors. These can be life-changing events in our fast-changing publishing world.

The Distinguished Writer Award allows us to recognize outstanding authors such as Eugene Peterson in 2009-2010, John Buchanan in 2011-2012, and Kathleen Bostrom in 2013-2014. This award carries a monetary grant of $1,000, plus travel and expenses to General Assembly.

The Lifetime Achievement Award allows us to honor singular writers who have shown greatness over a lifetime of work.

The PPC First Book Award allows us to lift up emerging authors and showcase their first book.

The Writer supplies guidance for effective writing and gives members a place to share news about their latest publications and accomplishments.

Through your $25 annual dues, you belong to this group of distinguished Presbyterian writers, receive support for the art and craft of writing, and CONTRIBUTE to the awards the Guild is able to give.

Your dues allow the Guild to support writers as they seek to express beauty, truth, and faith through writing.

You will receive an email soon with a way to pay your 2015 dues electronically through PayPal.

If you prefer to pay by check, please send $25, payable to the Presbyterian Writers Guild, to Emily Enders Odom, Vice President, 308 N. Chapman St., Greensboro, NC 27403. And while you are at it, share with other members news of your writing by including a note with your check, and do send us any new email or other address changes.

Thank you for your continuing support of the Guild!

Bill Lancaster is treasurer of the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

New board members elected Reply

The Presbyterian Writers Guild board met by conference call October 24 and elected two new board members and a corporate agent.

New board member Anita Coleman is a writer and former university professor living in Southern California. She maintains several blogs, including Eyes on Christ, and is the author of numerous books and devotional materials. She also has written articles for The Writer about social media and the church.

Todd Jenkins, another new board member, is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Tennessee. His book Tuesday’s Muse was a runner up for this year’s Best First Book award, presented by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

The new corporate agent for PWG is Ann Rehfeldt, who has been doing writing and communications full-time for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for 15 years. She replaces Kathy Bostrom, who will be unable to continue in the post because she is moving to California. The corporate agent is required to be a resident of Illinois. Bostrom will continue as a member of the PWG board.