Jonas McAnn is a weary pastor without a congregation, trapped in a dead-end insurance job. Granby Presbyterian is a weary congregation without a pastor, overwhelmed by the prospect of finding someone who actually wants to be a pastor—not a manager, coach, or CEO. When Granby's pastoral search committee and Jonas connect through handwritten letters passed back and forth, something sparks between them—something so real and refreshing that even after Jonas and his family move to Granby, he continues the regular practice of writing letters to his congregation. Spanning seven years of his ministry at Granby Presbyterian, Jonas's letters ruminate on everything from fly-fishing to the Nicene Creed. They reveal the earthy spirituality woven into the joys and sorrows of the people of Granby, the community of the church, and Jonas's own unfolding story. Readers will discover what it means for a pastor and a church to do the slow work of ministry in community—anchored by a common place and buoyed by a life of faith that is meaningful, rooted, and true.
Winn has written for periodicals such as Washington Post, Christian Century, Soul Journey, Christianity Today, In Touch, Campus Life, Leadership Journal, Radiant, Preaching Today and Clear & Seven. For six years, Winn was the Deeper Walk editor for Relevant Magazine. His first solo book, Restless Faith: Hanging on to a God Just out of Reach is a candid exploration into the perplexing, riveting and mysterious nature of God - and the humility we discover in the encounter. His second book Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon enters conversation with a 17th century French spiritual guide. Winn's most recent book, Holy Curiosity: Encountering Jesus' Provocative Questions, explores the strange reality that Jesus often held out a question rather than an answer. Winn's first fiction was the epistolary novel Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church which narrates the story of Jonas McAnn and the community of Granby Presbyterian via letters Jonas writes to his friends (i.e. "congregation). Winn's most recent book is A Burning in My Bones, the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson.
A pastor for 25 years and the founding pastor of All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia, Winn and his family now live in Holland, Michigan, where he teaches at Western Theological Seminary and directs the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination. Winn earned a PhD in religion and literature from the University of Virginia.
This collection of fictional letters from a pastor to his fictional small-town congregation is a lovely read, full of reminders of what real community looks like on the ground. It reminded me strikingly of Jan Karon's series of novels set in small-town Mitford, with the wisdom and love of real people in a real place and the love of a pastor for his flock. This celebration of ordinary life lived in community--in both Karon's Mitford and Collier's Granby--is wholly attractive.
So why only 3 stars? In the end, I felt that Pastor Jonas held out a too-small view of God and the church, perhaps thanks to a too-small idea of God and the church he is building. Are we so immured in our doubt and weakness that we cannot aspire to more than slogging along together in kindness? Where is the fuel for a big love and a well-lived life, if not in the great promises of Scripture, which offer us a bold and audacious life that spills beyond us and inspires us to great prayers, the kind of prayers the Apostle Paul prayed for the churches he wrote to?
For me a 3-star rating means this is a good book and worthy of reading and pondering, and there truly is much wisdom in its pages. But for me, in the end, it felt insubstantial. When in the last letter the pastor quotes a Wendell Berry poem and says that will be his prayer for his congregation, I could only think, I'd surely prefer my pastors prayed the prayers of Scripture for me, even though I love Berry's fiction and poetry. This kind of reliance on other authors and voices to the near exclusion of Scripture weakened the book for me and was a large part of the loss of the fourth star.
Winn was our pastor back in our college days and this book made me miss him and that little church all over again. Lately, my struggles with faith and church leave me feeling lonely, but Winn’s words helped me feel less so. I loved this line: “What if we thought of ourselves in simpler terms: friends together in the Kingdom of God.”
I wasn't at all hesitant about this book because I love Collier's wisdom and words. . . and I'm a small-town church-goer myself. But when I saw it was letters, I did pause . . . so glad that didn't stop me. The book is honest and real because it's about a pastor and the people in his church . . . and the hard, beautiful parts of their lives together.
In every way, this book was a balm, a respite, a hand to help me up. I cannot recommend it enough.
If it weren't for the high praise offered by John Blase, author of The Jubilee, one of my favorite collections of poetry, I am not sure I would have happened upon this remarkable book. Love Big Be Well (2017) by Winn Collier is such a warm and welcome gift. About two-thirds of the way through it, I wrote inside the front cover, "this whole book is a benediction."
Love Big Be Well offers a unique premise. A disenchanted man, Jonas McAnn, responds to a handwritten letter from a pastoral search committee from Granby Presbyterian Church, ultimately becoming this small town church's pastor. The book is a collection of pastoral letters, which routinely conclude with "Love Big. Be Well. Jonas."
In these letters, Jonas addresses several aspects of the Christian life, identifying what he sees as marks of true faith and those that seem to be counterfeits of what Jesus actually said with a raw honesty. One of the advantages of using a fictional story like this is the ability to describe one's convictions without seeming self-important.
Collier also accomplished what I think was an impressive rhetorical feat: I came to care deeply about the members of the church, and especially Don, through the pastor's descriptions in his letters. Fictional letters about fictional characters, and yet I was moved.
Several times, I found myself longing to read more about Port William, Kentucky, Wendell Berry's fictional small town because in many ways, Collier's book was reminiscent of Berry.
I certainly see why John Blase endorsed this book. And Eugene Peterson. I am happy to add my unknown name to that list. I will be reading this book again, and likely purchasing copies for others, because I won't want to share mine.
Here's what I hope: I hope that Winn Collier will bring us back to this church, by writing us a novel set right here, with the people who received these letters. The letters hold big and important ideas - but I'd love to see the stories all fleshed out. I want to know more about this "small town church." 😊 Collier has the skill to do it!
Summary: Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words "love big, be well."
It is still early in the year, but I think this book is going to end up on my "best of 2018" list. Perhaps it is because I resonate with so much here, and because it is written so well.
A disillusioned pastor making his living selling insurance receives a letter written by Amy Quitman and signed by rest of the search committee at Granby Presbyterian Church. In it, she writes:
"Here are our questions. We'd like to know if you are going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church's wrongs, the ones you've been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience?...Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you've had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you'd settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God's crazy about us?
In other words, the question we want answered is very simple. Do you actually want to be our pastor?"
Jonas writes a long and frank response about why he'd packed it in as a pastor, and why he started looking to serve a church again. He confesses, "The truth is, my give-a-shit's broke." But he concludes,
"This letter is too long, just like my sermons. I'm working on it. But all this is to say that if our conversation leads anywhere and I were to join your motley band, being your pastor is the only thing I'd know how to do. I'm at an utter loss on anything else."
And then he adds,
" If I were your pastor, I'd want to continue this letter-writing thing. We're on to something.
Love big. Be well.
The church agrees and this is the first of many letters from 2008 to 2014, when he takes a sabbatical. The letters sparkle with the warmth of his growing friendships with the people of this church, notably big Don Brady, a hulk of a man who came to faith later in life, and who later experiences a recurrence of a cancer that had been in remission. He reflects on the nature of this thing they call church and the high-blown language and cant that obscures the reality of friends on a journey together in a place. He honestly confesses to the mystery in much of which he preaches, and his own struggles to believe the things he proclaims from the scriptures--how often he preaches, prays, and lives into things when the feeling of confidence is absent.
The letters continue when the honeymoon is over and they wrestle with the hard realities of this relationship between church and pastor. Toward the end, he includes a letter from Luther, chair of their elder board, the lone black, and what it is like to "represent" his people when he is just Luther, and yet how he does in feeling the pain and the disjuncts of racial history, even in their own congregation.
One of the letters that summed up the ordinary and yet compelling vision of church being worked out in this book is titled "The People Who Bury You." It concludes,
"As the church, we're the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you into this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love's depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God's kindness over you.
This is who we are. This is who I hope we will continue to be."
This was one of a number of passages that caught my breath with the beauty, or the blunt acknowledgement of things for which I did not have nearly the words. I've been in a church for twenty-eight years that has been doing all these things, groping, imperfectly to be sure, to live out the realities of what it means to live in Christ both through the seasons of the church year, and all the seasons of life. We've been through vision and church growth processes, the products of which mostly reside in a file drawer somewhere. We're not a large bunch but we are blessed with a pastor who reminds me of Jonas McAnn. We celebrate births, seek to teach our children well, revel in marriages and housewarmings and summer barbecues. We've marveled as we've walked alongside saints like Betty, whose life seemed to burn brighter and brighter as cancer consumed her body. And we've sat with families in times of loss.
Winn Collier describes a reality both of pastoral ministry and church life that seems from another time, what with all our language of "missional communities," all our strategies, and what not. In a society of virtual relationships, of celebrity pastors, and transience, I wonder how many find places like Granby Presbyterian? And I wonder how many simply want to be pastors of such places?
Perhaps some will read this book, and it will feel like waking from a dream, and wondering if the good stuff here really can be so. My hunch is that there are places like Granby Presbyterian in neighborhoods and small towns that you have driven past many times. Maybe it is our church building you've driven past, oblivious to the beautiful and good that is happening among our people. The only thing that I'd ask if you decide to stop in is that things will work a lot better if you leave your grandiose dreams and "flaming visions" at the door.
“It’s essential to find good people whose love for their little nook of the world leaves you wanting to love your own little nook better.”
“I trust God gives us wisdom, but sometimes this wisdom comes as a slow drip, not a sudden knowing. Sometimes we only get one meager taste at a time, and we have to sit and wait for more. I’m learning to be more comfortable in the waiting.”
“Are we willing to be together, to stay together and love one another, even when we don’t know what to say—or when whatever one of us does say lands at odds with our own judgments? Can we accept that our greatest gift to one another is how we keep showing up?”
“And the truth is, sometimes the world is in crisis, and sometimes the only right thing to do is to roll up our sleeves and join the struggle. But not all the time. The tricky part is to know when to step into the fray and when to let the stampede pass us by.”
“It’s good to read alongside people different from you. If I only encounter my own opinion or prejudice, I miss out on all kinds of truth and beauty. And without disruptive input from others, I’ll stay more dense than I have to be.”
A nice little book on the everyday-ness of being a pastor where everyone knows everybody. What I liked most about the book was the realism and down-to-earth stories conveyed by the author. It is written as fiction but could just as easily be true. What I didn’t like was the format: each chapter was a “letter” written from the pastor to the congregants. Sometimes that format works but I felt like it could have been written differently and still told the same story.
Wonderful read! Winn is captivating & honest. This book was a quick read and left me underlining and highlighting so many quotes I am eager to take with me. Definitely recommend to anyone who may be struggling with the concept of church. He addresses the church’s values and what the people should be doing to love people well. I’m encouraged and charged after finishing this book.
When a pastoral search goes well, everyone wins. Last year when a soft-spoken lobsterman rose to his feet and challenged us at Spruce Head Community to seek a shepherd who would lead us and love us, we began praying and seeking to that end. The seeking and the finding has united us, and we are blessed to have welcomed a godly man and woman who are living small-town life alongside us, all the while holding forth the Word of Truth.
Winn Collier is also a small-town pastor, but with Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, he’s wearing his fiction-writer’s hat. Nonetheless, his heart for ministry comes shining through along with a clear-eyed affection for Christ’s body, communicated through the character of Pastor Jonas McAnn.
The pastoral search committee of Granby Presbyterian Church had grown tired of searching, weary of interviews, and fed up with the pretense when Amy Quitman, resident of Rural Route 28, took matters into her own capable handwriting and penned a letter that wrapped itself around one question:
“Do you actually want to be our pastor?” Formalized by four signatures, the letter went forth to all future candidates.
In a half-hearted search of his own, Jonas McAnn saw in the letter a reason to reply with his own epistle, and finally, to leave behind his safe and predictable life in an insurance company cubicle, and to risk following his heart back into the trenches of pastoral ministry.
What follows is a bundle of letters from Pastor Jonas to his flock, randomly spaced and warmly personal. They have landed on my doorstep as well with their revelation of one side of a “spacious” conversation between a man who knows he was not called into the pastorate to fix anything or anybody and a group of people who have committed themselves to contributing “disruptive input” to each other’s lives.
With engaging characters and a page-turning narrative arc, Love Big, Be Well is a satisfying read for the story alone. Shades of John Ames of Gilead and Tim Kavanagh of Mitford made me hope for a sequel to follow Jonas’s return from sabbatical and future ministry at Granby Pres. However, at the risk of being banished to Wendell Berry’s desert island of exile for finding a subtext where none was intended, I will share that I came away with valuable insights — not in the form of a treatise on ministry, but rather more like thoughts overheard from a corner table at Stu’s Mud.
Thoughts on Calling
Jonas came to life in Granby with the settled conviction that he was committing himself to a web of relationships:
“So I committed my life to walking alongside people who I hoped to call friends. I committed to learning how to help people pray. I determined it would be my job to simply recount, over and again, that one beautiful story of how Love refused to tally the costs but came for us, came to be with us, came to heal us. . . “ Thoughts on the Role of a Pastor
Jonas McAnn came from a long line of pastors and proudly owned his heritage as one who fulfilled a unique and valuable role in the community:
to “live with people” (42); to pray with them; to ponder Scripture with them; to “speak in good faith to other people who are trying very hard to listen in good faith” (47); to receive the wisdom of God as “a slow drip, not a sudden knowing,” (60) and then to keep showing up where it will do the most good; to “not take a position” when that is the most honest response; to take cues from the farmer who “tend farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.” Thoughts on the Role of the Church
Amy ruefully described Granby Presbyterian to a friend and managed to capture every other church in the process:
“Unfortunately, if you’re looking for people to disappoint you, we will provide the material. In spades.” Even so, under Jonas’s leadership, the church was called away from a shiny and boisterous presence into a resourceful availability to clean up messes — with the humble admission that the church is called to go first in admitting to our own messiness. “This is why we need the church all the more . . . [for] the only thing worse than our failing to inhabit mercy and holiness would be our making no attempt at all.”
On a practical note, the pastoral/congregational relationship gets off to a good start when the body is there en masse to greet and unload the moving van. From that point forward, the liturgy of even the most non-liturgical band of worshipers is one of “showing up, doing the work, being together.”
Thoughts on Love
Pastor McAnn’s eponymous “Big Love” comes down to “simply circling and staying near.” It was God’s big love that called Granby Pres. member Don Brady into the kingdom and that carried him through the rigors of cancer treatment as he wisely concluded:
“Love’s the main deal.” Thoughts on Prayer
When elderly Miss Nelson prayed over Don’s cancer treatment, she reminded me that even when we do not know the will of God on a matter, there’s nothing wrong with reminding Him of how much we love and need someone in our community.
Given my own uneasy relationship with prayer, I collect wisdom to keep me in the game. Jonas related a homely parable on prayer from a fruitless fly fishing adventure with Luther that left him flat on fishing, but tutored him in the practice of prayer:
“‘Why would anyone torture themselves with this galling pastime?’
‘I like how you’re just in it. You’re in the water, in the woods. Everything’s happening around you.’
I’ve concluded that my problem (aside from how I have no idea what I’m doing on the river) is my focus on casting properly, on actually catching fish. Luther, however, comes to the river in a much different way. ‘I like being in the water,’ he explained, ‘with the breeze and the scent and the solitude. Even when I don’t catch anything, I come back different than when I left.‘” Jonas McAnn wrote letters to his congregation from a desire to pay attention and to help his people do likewise. He wanted to remind his readers that life together is good and it consists of shared stories — shared experiences that call us toward the Light. For anyone who is committed to this calling over the long haul, Love Big, Be Well is a benediction, a reminder that ministry is “shot through with blessing,” and a celebration of the dignity of the slow work of ministry in community.
This book was provided by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
This small book contains a big hope: that in a compromised church—authenticity, humility, and love can still triumph. The book is a series of letters from a pastor and his congregation. Quaint idea, right? Who writes letters anymore? But letters are the perfect medium for this book’s message. Putting pen to paper calls for attentiveness, patience, simplicity, and a focused love that is missing in current church culture. Jonas, the pastor, gives his congregation all these things and his congregation responds in kind. The result is a wonder. In a time of hopelessness, cynicism, and distrust toward the church, Collier’s book helps us imagine all that could be if we live into these gospel ways of life.
This is, hands down, my favorite book about church, people, love, living life well and true, community, belonging . . . you name it. I read a lot of non-fiction, good books, finely written books, some of them written by friends of mine. Not one of them comes as whisker close to truth as does this fictional compilation of letters. Maybe it’s because our church was going through its own search for a new pastor at the time I received this slender tome. Whatever the reason(s), this one struck a nerve. Better, it struck THE nerve, that one that goes to the core of who we are and begins to resonate when we find true north.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply cannot. It is tender, true, sensitive, heart-warming, and yet challenging, in the very best of ways. Is this the kind of pastor I have been? And want to continue to be, in the limited ways that remain available to me? Is this the kind of congregation my community is, or wants to be? Are we wrestling through the hard questions well? Are we welcoming others — all kinds of others? Are we listening to the Spirit, together? Built around the seasons of the church year, these 165 pages consist entirely of letters, most of them written by pastor-to-be, then new-pastor, then seasoned-pastor-approaching-his-first-sabbatical-leave Jonas McAnn. It is what is known in the trade as an epistolary novel and it is a hum-dinger. Herewith a sample — then get yourself to your favorite bookstore and order up a copy . . . or two or three. This would make a perfect gift for every single member of a search committee or a church leadership board.
Maybe these words from the opening letter, written by a crusty woman member of the search committee to all potential candidates will give you a glimpse of the power and beauty I’m talking about. This one was signed by the entire committee (all 4 of them) after several frustrating months. The one candidate who answered honestly is the one they called:
“We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but I’m going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed. 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 Wendell Berry 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 — we’ll put up with a lot, but that one’s a deal-killer.
“Here are our questions: We’d like to know if you’re going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience. . . Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church thing straight? Or might we hope that our church might be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?
“In other words, the question we want answered is very simple: do you actually want to be our pastor?
“I’m trying to be as straight as I know how: Will you love us? And will you teach us how to love one another? Will you give us God — and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart?
“Will you tell us again and again about the ‘love that wilt not let us go,” not ever? Will you believe with us and for us that the Kingdom is truer than we know — and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth — that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100 percent BS?”
See what I mean? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Winn Collier for telling it true. And beautifully.
Reading Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier made my heart happy, and I highly recommend it to readers who are hungry for a break from big church clichés and over-promising certainties.
The book’s premise is that a pastor returns to the ministry after some time away working a secular job and accepts a position with a small town congregation, the fictional Granby Presbyterian Church. The book is a series of occasional letters from Pastor Jonas to his flock over the course of six years as he gets to know them, grows to love them deeply, and walks through life with them. He shares his thoughts about God, his experiences with God, and how his beloved faith community can rest in God’s love.
Never preachy, Collier gives Jonas a tender tone, portraying him as a humble, very human man of God who conveys wisdom and truth even while he confesses his own struggles, doubts, and failures. He never sets himself above his parishioners and is never paternalistic or patronizing. He is refreshingly honest while underplaying his own dogged faith and servant leadership example. I was captivated and found sentences and paragraphs in nearly every letter to highlight, notate, ponder, apply to myself, and remember.
I was extra excited to read this book, because I recently moved to a small town myself. I have been struggling to adjust my perspective away from my university-town consumeristic “find a church that meets my needs” mentality. This book wasn’t really written to solve that problem for me, but it was well worth reading for so many other reasons. I think the people who might most benefit from reading it are weary pastors, from any size church. There is so much peace and rest offered within its pages.
At numerous points throughout this book, I thought, “I would love to have a pastor like that.” There is a point at which Collier has Jonas say, “I write because I want to pay attention to the life happening around me.” This, and many other statements, convince me that this Jonas character is very much a manifestation of the author’s own thinking and personality. Actually, I did have a pastor like that before I moved away from Virginia. I was blessed to be a member of All Souls Charlottesville, where Collier shepherds his flock with the same tender wisdom. I miss him and that church terribly.
Here are just a few of the gems I highlighted as I read:
“Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date. I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.”
“God’s making something beautiful out of you; don’t short-circuit that by trying to mimic someone else’s beauty.”
“Relax. Prayer is not something we accomplish; it’s something we enter. It’s pretty darn hard to do prayer wrong.”
“Some of us hide who we truly are, afraid that we’ll be shunned or that someone will try to ‘fix’ us (or worse, instruct us).”
There is so much more I could share, but I’ll leave the rest for readers to discover at their own pace when they are ready for it. That’s another practice I learned from this good author.
***Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book by publisher in exchanged for an honest review.***
“We may reject or neglect her, but the church stands witness to something larger than us, something tethered to our primitive memory, something that calls to us in times of distress, at the thresholds of life and death”.
Normally, I start a review with a quote that has effected a response deep within me. However, within this small book, I’ve been so affected by, I’ve been compelled to find memes of quotes from the theologians that Collier sprinkles throughout this book, and have shared these gems before I quit for the night. This book has made me smile, and made me shed a tear or two. It has been an honor to be included in our church wide Lenten read even if I have trouble negotiating access to the building these days.
This book is a series of letters started by a tired, burnt out Pastoral Search committee member who in response to the same old Profile, sat down and wrote a letter in longhand, talking to candidates as people, not pawns. It was enough to call a man who had left the ministry a number of years before. It was her outstretched hand he clasped and the church’s open heart that welcomed he and his family. Over letters stretched out 6 years, we see a church struggling to live and love in a society that may not choose to enter into faith, but accepting of how the institution is part of this particular community called to “Love Big [and] be Well”.
And Winn Collier plays with names: Jonas[Jonah], Luther, Amy[friend] Quitman, Thomas. Each name has historical and Biblical baggage. Jonah ran away...but came back...(Martin) Luther, a man who changed History. (Doubting) Thomas, who questioned....so much of this is my own background in transitional ministry and church history....
All in all, this is a book that does not have to be read in a church setting. I highly recommend any church struggling with having a 50s identity in a 21st century world to read and discuss how it affects each reader and maybe not extrapolate it to the community they serve. I recommend it to every interim seeking to be credentialed ( along with an old business burnout book I recommend they track down from out of print sources). And, finally, I am so glad to own this, because I made notes in it that will prompt me to “re—member” how it felt to be on all sides. Highly recommended 5/5
When 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.
Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church 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.
I'm sure I enjoyed this book so much because I can insert myself right in with the mix of characters. Especially since our small town church in right in the middle of calling a pastor. I noted and highlighted throughout the book but here are a few that stand out to me
When writing the initial letter the congregation asks "Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you'd settle in with us and love alongside us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us and remind us how much God's crazy about us?"
I'm not a pastors wife, I would make a horrible pastors wife but I snorted out loud when I read the pastors description of his wife. I would love to be best friends with her. "I notice you didn't ask about my family. In a way, that's nice. A previous church thought my wife and I came as a package deal. They were in for a shocker. Alli doesn't play piano. Truthfully she'd need a bucket to carry a tune. She doesn't do children's ministry, either. And she's never been to a women's ministry craft night or a Christians women's conference. If your heart's broken or you need someone to drop an expletive and pray with you against the evil, Alli's your gal."
This quote is on our chalkboard in the kitchen right now "While it's important to locate good coffee, it's essential to find good people whose love for their little nook of the world leaves you wanting to love your own little nook better."
There is more depth in this book than the quotes I shared but you will fall in love with the characters of this book. If you struggle to understand why the church focuses on numbers this would be a good book to pick up. If you don't understand why anyone would step foot in a church this would be a good book to pick up. If you don't understand why people don't want to step food into a church this would be a good book to pick up. But it's not filled with statistics or strategies it's a fictional narrative that conveys understanding the church way better than numbers or charts could ever convey.
Winn Collier’s Love Big Be Well is one of those rare novels that comforts the reader with hope. It opens with a former pastor responding to a letter from a church search committee that simply asks, “Will you love us? And will you teach us to love one another? Will you give us God—and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with all the hope and wonder in your heart? Will you tell us, again and again, about ‘the love that will not let us go?’”
Jonas McAnn writes a heartfelt, honest reply. About the creed he says, “I can’t honestly say I always believe all the words but I pray them anyway.”
Granby Presbyterian is a church you want to join. Jonas is a pastor you didn’t know you longed for so hard until you read this book. Love Big Be Well is as easy to settle into as Jan Karon’s Mitford books and wise as Wendell Berry. Each chapter is a letter from Jonas to his church describing their lives together and offering gentle wisdom. This novel could be read by families who want a special reading for Advent or Lent and should be read by search committees, pastors and church members.
Collier uses the church year to structure the book, starting with Lent/March 2008 and continuing until Ordinary Time (Epiphany)/March 2014 which allows the relationship between pastor and church to mellow and develop like fine wine. These are old fashioned, typed letters with a water ring from a cold drink set on the paper. Collier portrays a pastor that knows the realities of people with differences. McAnn writes, “I am responsible for meeting you at the Eucharistic table, whether I like you or not. And you are responsible for meeting me.”
This novel gently tells us how we should be with our pastors and with each other in that strange community called the church. In fact it teaches us how to be in community, any community. I hope you invite Winn Collier's wise words into your library. Love Big Be Well is a great read, sure to be a classic.
Just what the doctor ordered . . . . . . if, that is, “the doctor” were diagnosing the state of the American Christian church experience. Only better. Better than a diagnosis. Better than a prescription. In Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-town Church, Winn Collier draws us personally into the kind of church experience that perhaps few of us have known yet one for which most of us are longing. By the time I finished this book, my soul was so thoroughly overwhelmed by its beauty, its truth, its hope that I simply had to sit in silence to try to hold onto the blessing. Since other readers have already supplied thorough reviews of this book, I will join my own simple thoughts to theirs to provide additional notes in the paean of praise for Love Big, Be Well. This most recent gift from Collier’s pen is an epistolary novel. Using the vehicle of physical letters - not emails, not texts, not even Facebook messages but letters - written by Pastor Jonas McAnn to his new congregation at Granby Presbyterian Church, Collier gradually introduces us to various members of the church, their stories and struggles in the faith. Collier skillfully discusses what it is to belong to Christ – and to each other – as McAnn writes about some essentials of church experience: - how liturgy carries us into God’s story while assuring us that we are part of a family, a large family spanning millennia; - the multi-dimensional nature of prayer, “a communal act more than an individual one”; - how praying the creeds moves us beyond our individualistic faith to join “the faith of the church”; - the scary nature of baptism as it relates to the mystery of death; - that friendship lies at the heart of church life! But, make no mistake; this is not a preachy novel listing dos and don’ts for church members. Quite the opposite. It is about entering deeply into love – as a receiver, as a giver. God’s love. Human love. And trusting that love to hold us and to hold us together.
Spoiler Alert: This collection of letters from an ordinary pastor in an ordinary small town Presbyterian church is a work of fiction. I didn’t get the memo and found myself a bit miffed to discover that the pastor and members of the congregation – whom I quite gotten to like over the course of the book – existed only in the Winn Collier’s imagination, however much they may have been abetted by the real people in Collier’s life.
This is quite a spare book. The letters are occasional – 30 letters spread out over the course of 6 years. The topics seem randomly chosen, the way a good pastor would write letters on particular issues to a particular congregation – what churches should look for in a pastor, what pastors should look for in a church, how people join communities, how they live together, disagree, love one another, deal with one another and difficult circumstances and how to apologize when we blow it. Baptism shows up as do clergy conventions, reciting the Creeds, and hot topics (how to avoid). Collier writes a wonderful letter about blessing (giving and receiving and what it means for a pastor to bless a congregation). In another he muses about whether “being friends together” might not be a good way to think about what churches should strive for. One of the two letters in the book not written by the pastor comes from the Session President, the only black man in the congregation. I'll say no more than that this letter may be worth the price of the book. Highly recommended for young pastors serving ordinary congregations. Even more highly recommended for members of ordinary congregations. Your small group would find these letters short, thoughtful, wide-ranging and very easy to discuss.
I paid $12.99 for an ebook of this book because it offered something that is rare, a book about ministry in a small church during ordinary life. It came with impressive endorsements and seemed to have good things to say. I understood from the beginning that this was not Christian fiction in the normal sense, playing out a story scene by scene. Instead it is fiction in the style of Screwtape Letters, with a fictional character talking about life from his point of view. Collier makes some good points using a compelling writing style. Mainly this book talks about the church as a place to belong, to like each other, bear with one another's foibles, and go through the contradictions of life together. He emphasizes the importance of being friends in ministry rather than showmanship from the pulpit.
One flaw in the book constantly distracted me from the message and made me sorely tempted to lower my rating by a star. He speaks of a pastor or Christians using expletives with a sort of fondness, like it makes them more human and thus more likable. Three times he uses the word "expletive" in this way, once using expletives over injustice as a blessing. He uses coarse language twice, God's name in vain once, and a "to hell with everything else" besides. I fail to see how this language can be a virtue to any pastor or Christian. Why would a pastor or serious Christian use this kind of language, ever? Why would a Christian writer use language like this to endear you to a fictional pastor and the ministry? I am stumped.
In an era of self-help religious books, Winn Collier's writing is always refreshing. LOVE BIG. BE WELL. is a novel in the vein of C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters: letters written from a fictional character to another (in this case from a pastor to his congregation) that address various spiritual topics. If you're looking for a book with a gripping plot, this is probably not the book for you. However, the book intelligently explores issues applicable to churches, both to pastors and lay people. Through the letters, Collier paints a realistic picture of the foibles and strengths of Pastor Jonas and his congregation. The characters feel refreshingly real and down-to-earth. Jonas isn't trying to grow his congregation into a megachurch or become a renowned spiritual leader; he's simply trying to do the best he can for his small flock. In contrast to the standard seven-step formula to an improved spiritual life, Collier presents the idea that although sound theology is important, it's okay if there are issues even seminary graduates don't understand, and that maybe the first goal of a church should be to love each other selflessly. Each letter is a beautiful reminder that we need to be more honest with ourselves and each other, that we need to revel in the mystery of God and life--that we need to love big. The book is filled with humility, honesty, and depth and is well worth reading several times. It's the kind of book that will provide different insights each time you read it.
Love Big, Be Well is like an Impressionistic word-painting of life in a small town and the distinct role a church plays within that culture. Since I’m married to a small-town pastor, the idea of this book intrigued me. Winn Collier has a gentle prose style that teeters on the brink of poetry. He does a fantastic job capturing the ethos of ministry in a small-town church as only one can who has been there, done that, and he does it using a unique form of letter narrative.
Through a progression of fictional letters Pastor Jonas writes to the Granby Presbyterian congregation, readers follow the joys and sorrows, faith and doubts, harmony and tension that come along with doing life together. Jonas reminds his flock, “I received the title pastor after a vote, but I will only actually become your pastor after years of laying sturdy stone upon sturdy stone. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is work worthy of a life.” (To which I shout, “Amen!”) Jonas closes each letter with a benediction that makes up the title: “Love big. Be well.”
I read the book in just a couple afternoons. Didn’t want put it down, actually. But I know I’ll go back and savor these letters and even a few specific lines again and again. I hope you will too.
Fiction often bears truth. As I was reading this, I could think of several congregations that would write a letter similar to what Granby Presbyterian Church would write to pastoral candidates. They are a community of friends who want a pastor to help them grow in depth. In their rural area, growing in size probably isn't really going to happen.
And, I know several pastors who would respond favorably to such a letter. They want to pastor a congregation, not be a CEO or advertising agent or whatever the latest fad is. They just want to preach the gospel and be present with and walk alongside the people of God entrusted to him from cradle to grave.
We learn about Pastor Jonas and the Granby church through a series of letters written by Pastor Jonas. We learn about issues in the community, Pastor Jonas' relationship with his denomination, the personalities that shine forth in the first five years of Pr. Jonas' pastorate.
If I could, I would buy copies of this book and send it to lots of people. There is wisdom and humor and real life found in these pages.
(Thank you Netgalley and the publisher for allowing me to read this book for an honest review. )
Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small Town Church by author Winn Collier Jonas McAnn is looking for a change for himself and his family. He has the heart and calling to pastor a church. There is a church congregation, Granby Presbyterian, who needs a pastor. A match of pastor and church is brought about through a series of letters between Jonas and the Granby Presbyterian Committee in charge of finding the right pastor for their people. After Pastor Jonas goes to Granby Presbyterian church to become pastor, he continues to write letters to this congregation, in addition to his pastoral duties. It is a journaling of emotion and sometimes very personal bonding to this congregation. As a former pastors wife, I could understand so much of the feelings and trust between Pastor Jonas and the people of the church. I loved reading this book of Letters!