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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Minister as Prompter

No matter how I reflect
  • and draft
  • and reject 
  • and revise
  • and labour over
the writing that frames worship services, the result always feels like someone else has said it all before and better. Which, of course, they have. The material I draw from is certainly worthy--the result of someone's genuine accomplishment, with depth and weight.

But since Unitarians have no set liturgy and no canonical text to repeat and re-appraise and re-consider over and over, like the Bible, or the Koran, or the teachings of Buddha, or the Analects of Confucius, I have a sense that a certain degree of variety and of novelty is required by congregations.

Novelty and variety--the handmaidens of lateral thinking. And valuable material can indeed come from a variety of sources. But I suspect that increasing lateral access to materials must necessarily result is a sacrifice of depth.

So you see the problem: I don't want to limit scope, since no one source has a monopoly on truth; likewise, I don't want to focus repetitively on a clutch of "core" material, since that would suggest orthodoxy or textual fanaticism, albeit a broader one than most conventional faiths.

A third path between these equally unsatisfactory routes might be to testify strictly from my own experience. What that gains in authenticity, it may lose when you consider that "my own experience" has been shaped by what the sources I know have said or written. As the communication scholar Gunther Kress said: "Every sentence I write  draws on what I've heard or read before." Or something like that. Inevitably I end up standing on the shoulders of giants.

Maybe it's just a case of my trying to "say it better" in the context of a worship experience, meaning focussing on how I say it. This of course is where performativity creeps in, and worship isn't a show (notwithstanding those ministers, preachers, etc., who are able to move people by their performance of a single text).

Or maybe the presumption of the value of originality needs looking at.

Rev. Jo Lane said once that being a minister is like being a theatrical prompter, reminding the actors (the congregation) of the "missing lines" they've forgotten. This notion certainly accords with a somewhat  view of idealistic view of education--the belief that the truth is in them already, they just need to have it "educed"--or drawn from them.

Prompters don't pretend to be the playwrights, (though sometimes actors and directors do!). So that role, at least, affords a proper humility toward the material one draws on for services.

I suppose then, managing expectations is part of ministry. Why should anyone expect another human, no matter how well read or trained, to be a fountain of original wisdom?

If that's what a congregation really wants, what they really want is God.

And that job's taken.


  1. Rob,

    DR Belz sent me this link. We had a fascinating dissuasion on religion and faith over poker a few weeks back. As the soul Unitarian at the table (all puns intended) I held forth on our lack of dogma and creeds with enthusiasm on my part and mystification on the part of my fellows.

    As to your blog - I would argue that your best shot at connecting to the congregation is in the telling of you own story as it relates to your topic. In the first place, it is the only unique story you can tell. Secondly, if done well, it will, in the mind of the listener, evolve beyond a story about you and into a connection to their own life story. Your success as a preacher will be measured by what they think or feel about the choices they made, or wish they had made, in their own lives.

    Ben Garber

  2. Hi Ben, nice to meet you!

    And heartened to hear that Dave is still hosting poker games; I've been at that table, some 28 years ago. In fact I think he still owes me 5 bucks...

    The scenario you describe is indeed my default one. I guess I'm sensitive to charges of being self-indulgent at the pulpit, charges which I've heard congregants level at others.

    Still, if moral authority is the only real authority, and if that is predicated on anything, it must be predicated on authenticity--being straight with what's been true for you. My acting background stands me in good stead too, providing the confidence to stand in your truth and BE it.

    Today's address, for example, testifies to the benefits of meditation I've discovered. However, I also fold in a Buddhist story, a poem from Whitman, and some prose from Joseph Campbell to deepen and anchor my own experience.

    I'm just about to go deliver it. Wish me luck.

    Thanks for your interest, and do stay in touch.


  3. To paraphrase a book I read recently (because i too have trouble with originality ^_^). "life is not our conditions or our perspective but life is lived in the in between".

    If you can connect the content to the lives of those present it has a bigger impact. Your connection to the community gives your own context significance here. Often what determines your best services from the merely good is how well we relate to them and how well they cohere to our own narratives. You will almost always lose people sometimes but if you integrate your content to a greater narrative the win can be more epically optimized.

    The service went well btw. The congregation seemed to resonate with it (albeit, in our own ways at times).