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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Pastor as Jukebox

I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas for your services?” 

I’m often also asked “Say, Rob, can you do a service on X (X being whatever the interlocutor’s favourite topic is)”?
It may look like a stained-galss window, but that's where the similarity ends.

I can answer both of these questions together.  A Pastor/Minister/Preacher that respects his/her role and congregation does not belabour them with his/her favourite theological hobby-horses, pet obsessions, or the latest book he/she's been reading.  To do so is to play hit-and-miss with the unexpressed needs people bring to worship.  What members need may be very different to what they want.

To discern true need, and therefore plan a preaching program of topics, requires a pastoral relationship with the congregation, a relationship based upon a careful balance of openness and differentiation.  A minister needs to have open ears, open mind, and open heart, in order to catch the subtexts, nuances, and deeper longings at work in the collective. However, a minister must also differentiate him/her self in order that they don't get caught up in the collective's 'stuff'’, and thereby provide the 'outsider' perspective that brings an enlarged view and the prospect of healing through consolation or inspiration or both  Thus explained, that balancing act between connectedness and differentiation sounds easy.  But friends, easy is the last thing it is.

Because we all want to be 'part of the gang', it is easy for a minister to want to please, and give the public whatever it wants.  If, however, we all knew what was in our best interests all the time, we would not need spiritual leadership.  I too have a spiritual director that helps keep my feet on the path and my eyes on the prize, and his work has been more crucial to mine (and therefore to my congregation) than you'd think.  Likewise, a differentiated minister can easily become cut off and isolated, and mistake his/her own needs for those of the collective.

So to answer the first question, I get my ideas from being in a pastoral relationship with the congregation, in which I listen to them and try to discern those unexpressed needs.  It's not a science, more an art, and certainly requires both reason and intuition. And no minister is a blank slate.  Each is on his own spiritual journey too, one that can, at best, run in tandem with the spiritual journey of the congregation.  But they can never be identical, nor can one dominate the other.  It is more covenant than contract.
Yes, you want it. But do you NEED it?

So to answer the second question, the pastoral relationship does not mean the minister is a juke box or a vending machine that churns writing out 'to spec'.  'Offering services' is what we do, but so do plumbers, and so in a world of consumer relations, it is easy to regard the minister as a skilled worker in a service industry.  A consumer relationship is characterised by expectation, demand, and complaint, which is simply not what beloved community is about.  Nor is it a way to keep a pastoral relationship between minister and congregation mutually nourishing, and it needs to be. 
This is why ministers don't do service 'requests', and why we shouldn't.  If we did, it would underpin a spiritual materialism that would impoverish us all.  In a world of supply-and-demand exchanges, the very idea of a church is counter-cultural. 

That's one of the reasons why it can be mind-blowing, soul-expanding, and ever-renewing.