Best First Book announced Reply

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Change of Heart coverChange of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop has been named winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s 2014-2015 Best First Book Award.

The award–with a $500 cash prize funded by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation–is given at each General Assembly to the best first book by a Presbyterian writer during the previous two years. Bishop will receive her award at the Writers Guild’s General Assembly Luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.

Bishop’s story begins on the night before Palm Sunday in 1990 when, after returning home from dinner with family, her sister, Nancy, and husband, Richard, and their unborn child were all brutally murdered by an intruder. The book then takes the reader through a gut-wrenching but ultimately heart-warming journey as Jeanne Bishop’s life is transformed from revenge seeking to restorative justice.

The Best First Book Award judges noted: “Many of us see a violent news story and if it doesn¹t impact us personally, we move on, not considering the long-term impact that violence has on the community and the family. The author is honest about the awful actions of the man who murdered her family members, her own struggles, and the ways in which her faith pushed her beyond the usual platitudes and commitments into advocating for a new way to see and seek justice, personally as well as legally. Transformation is hard, and this story disturbs and challenges every reader’s belief systems and commitments as a Christian.”

Bishop, who still lives in Winnetka, Illinois, in suburban Chicago, where her sister and family were murdered, is a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

year without a purchaseThe Writers Guild’s Best First Book Award committee also awarded an Honorable Mention to Scott Dannemiller, a former PC(USA) missionary in Guatemala who now lives with his family in Franklin, Tennessee, for his first book, The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting.

 While acknowledging that money is important, Dannemiller writes that “preoccupation with money is a symptom of something larger lurking just beneath the surface.” Through often hilarious anecdotes, he chronicles his family’s exploration of what’s wrong with a life overly influenced by consumerism.

One judge noted: “This book is fun, funny, and faithful–sharing both the moral quandaries of consumerism in the U.S. and practical stumbling blocks for those of us seeking to live differently. I found myself laughing at the stories, finding great meaning in the insightful observations made by the author’s children, and thinking of ways I could get out of the frantic cycle of buying stuff.”



Writing contest concludes Reply

Winning entries to be published in a book

The winners of the final phase of the Presbyterian Writers Guild three-phase writing contest have been selected.

In the first phase of the contest–inspired by Jesus’ practice of teaching with parables–authors were invited to submit an opening hook for a story. In the second phase, they were asked to compose a flash fiction piece of about 1,000 words. The third phase called for a short story of under 4,000 words.

For the short story phase, the winners are:

  • First Place–Melissa Bane Sevier (Versailles, Kentucky), “Awareness”
  • Second Place–Lori Herter (Santa Ana, California), “The Outsider”
  • Third Place–Henry Brinton (Fairfax, Virginia), “Resolution”
  • Fourth Place–Lara MacGregor (Old Mill Creek, Illinois), “The River”

“These modern-day parables addressed a variety of concerns and, like the parables of Jesus, force the reader to think more deeply about the issues,” says PWG board member, Stephen McCutchan, who coordinated the contest on behalf of the Guild. “Issues like spouse abuse, hunger, hospitality to strangers, vampires, and the wisdom of children are fleshed out in these stories.”

Book CoverThe top eight opening hooks, four flash fiction stories, and eight short stories, plus a children’s story and a poem, are being published by the Guild in the book An Experiment in Modern Parables, which will be available for sale at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, and on Amazon. The Guild will celebrate the winners at its GA luncheon on June 23.

“We celebrate the creativity within the Presbyterian community,” McCutchan says.


Lifetime Achievement Awards announced Reply

By Cathy Chisholm

Two veteran church communicators have been named recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG). Houston Hodges and Jerry Van Marter will be recognized for “distinguished service to the church through writing/communication” at the Guild’s General Assembly luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.


Jerry Van Marter

Van Marter, who currently serves as stated clerk of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery and alumni relations advisor for San Francisco Theological Seminary, retired in 2014 from the Presbyterian News Service (PNS) after more than 26 years of reporting and editing. His byline has appeared on stories covering the work of the various councils, committees, and task forces of the church and its ecumenical partners, including 39 General Assemblies. Van Marter says that during his career, he traveled to almost every state and all over the world to “see first-hand the life-changing mission and ministry being done in the name of our beloved denomination.”

Ordained by Olympia Presbytery in 1971, Van Marter served as pastor of several congregations in California prior to his ministry with PNS.

Van Marter credits Hodges with giving him his start as a church journalist in San Francisco Presbytery. “Without his encouragement, I never would have even considered a career in church journalism.”


Houston Hodges

Hodges also cited his friendship with Van Marter in his response to news of the award. “The communicator is short on words,” said Hodges. “Oh, my. The thing that just keeps flooding over me is that I get to share it with Van Marter, and we’ve done so much of it together.”

Hodges’ first experience in journalism was helping his parents publish a semi-weekly newspaper in West Texas. Ordained in 1954, he has served in campus ministry and as a pastor in Texas and California, as well as in Winnipeg with the United Church of Canada. Prior to retirement in 1995, he served as executive presbyter of North Alabama Presbytery.

His writing career has included serving as a volunteer in the General Assembly newsroom, editor of Monday Morning magazine, and author of Circle of Years: a Caretaker’s Journal, the story of his mother’s battle against dementia. With Matt Cooney, he co-authored Faith Alive, describing the development of a congregation’s interactive and intergenerational worship.

A pioneer in the use of computers and the internet for church communications, Hodges recognized early the potential to “be in touch anytime, anywhere.” For the last decade, he has been heard on WLRH Huntsville Public Radio as a contributor to The Sundial Writers’ Corner.

Previous Lifetime Achievement Award winners include the renowned poets Ann Weems and J. Barrie Shepherd.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana named recipient of Distinguished Writer Award Reply

By Emily Enders Odom

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a writer, pastor, conference leader, and highly sought-after speaker, has been named the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award byMaryAnn McKibben Dana the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

Dana—author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, a Chalice Press bestseller for two years running—has a robust presence on social media, and has been commenting on life, ministry, theology, and culture on her blog, The Blue Room, for more than 12 years. She will receive the prestigious award at the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s General Assembly luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.

Named for the late David Steele—Presbyterian poet and essayist best known for his “Tuesday Morning” column in The Presbyterian Outlook—the distinguished writer award is given biennially to a Presbyterian writer who has blessed the church with his or her writing over the course of a career.

“[MaryAnn] is a voice that speaks to our modern situation and does so with grace and dignity, a love for the church and its people, and a prophetic word for those with ears to hear,” wrote Rebecca Page Lesley, pastor of Green Acres Presbyterian Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, in nominating her for the honor.

Dana, who most recently served as pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Virginia, was featured on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly for her work on Sabbath. Her writing has appeared in, The Washington Post, Religion Dispatches, Journal for Preachers, and The Christian Century, and for three years in a monthly column for Presbyterians Today. Her next book, tentatively titled Improvising with God, is under contract with Eerdmans and will be published in 2017.

“We are especially thrilled to honor MaryAnn with this award named for the late David Steele, who also delighted in experimenting with new forms of writing and modes of communication,” said William Lancaster, who, with Emily Enders Odom, co-chaired the selection committee.

Dana, who lives with her family in Reston, Virginia, also served as co-chair of NEXT Church for two years, a movement within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that “seeks to call forth vital ministry for our changing cultural context.” She is a mother of three, a “haphazard knitter,” and an occasional marathoner.

“For once, the writer is at a loss for words,” said Dana upon being informed of the honor. “I couldn’t be more honored and humbled to be in the company of other Distinguished Writer Award recipients—people whose work I’ve read and admired for much of my adult life. I am especially touched that my colleague and fellow Columbia Seminary alum, Becca Page Lesley, took time out of her busy life and ministry to nominate me for this honor. I’m surprised, touched and grateful.”

Previous winners include Kathy Bostrom, Katherine Paterson, Fredrick Buechner, Ann Weems, Eugene H. Peterson, Gustav Niebuhr, Marj Carpenter, Gayraud Wilmore, Eva Stimson, Kathleen Norris, Bill Tammeus, John Buchanan, Doris Betts, and the late Vic Jameson.


Nominees sought for best Presbyterian writer 1

By Emily Enders Odom

The Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG) is accepting nominations for its 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. Deadline for nominations is February 1, 2016.

The award is given biennially in even-numbered years to recognize the cumulative work and influence—regardless of genre or subject matter—of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) writer. The award will be presented at the PWG luncheon at this summer’s 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon.

Previous winners include The Message author Eugene H. Peterson, The Christian Century editor/publisher John M. Buchanan, former Presbyterian News Service director Marj Carpenter, former Presbyterians Today editor Eva Stimson, children’s author Kathleen Bostrom, novelists Doris Betts and Katherine Paterson, poet Ann Weems, Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus, African-American religious historian Gayraud Wilmore, essayists Kathleen Norris and Frederick Buechner, and journalists Gustav Niebuhr and the late Vic Jameson.

The award is named for R. David Steele, a Presbyterian pastor best known for his whimsical books of poetry and thought-provoking column, “Tuesday Morning,” in The Presbyterian Outlook.

Nominations for the award should include the writer’s PC(USA) affiliation, list of published work, and a 100-word essay describing why the nominee is deserving of the award. Contact information for both the nominator and the nominee must be included with each submission.

Send nominations by February 1 to Bill Lancaster, co-chair of the selection committee, by email or by mail to 105 Rapid River Trail, Greenville, SC 29615.



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: