Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Gossip Column: A Minister's Mind on Sunday Morning

Two stories I've been told are true about two different ministers:

The first minister served a large and vibrant church that had to offer 3 services on Sunday morning (8:30, 10:00, and 11:30) to accomodate all who wanted to worship. In order to preserve her sanity, here is what she did: following the benediction, she asked the congregation to be seated for the postlude. During the postlude, she exited the sanctuary through a side door, walked an unfrequently traveled hallway to a private office, and locked herself inside until the beginning of the next service when she would enter during the prelude. It was possible to go an entire Sunday morning without speaking to a single member of her congregation.

The second minister served a congregation that had only a single service on Sunday morning. But this minister dreaded coffee hour. He exited after announcing the final hymn. According to legend, if the pianist left a pregnant pause between the end of the second verse and the beginning of the third verse (as it became the custom to do), worshippers could hear the minister starting his car and driving away.

I empathize with these ministers even if I don't duplicate their actions. Leading worship is physically and mentally exhausting and there is a lot on my mind.

Before the first service, here are some of the things that are on my mind: Is my water glass full? Are my papers in the right order? Are all my right props in their rightful places? Who asked me to make announcements and for whom am I supposed to light a candle? Has the lay reader or guest musician arrived? Are the microphones working and are they set to the correct volume? Is my tie on straight? Oh, and is my sermon any good... especially that seventh paragraph where I have some lingering sense that I could be communicating that idea better and maybe I should just skip that part and say something else instead.

After the first service, even more is racing through my mind. I have 25 minutes before I need to be ready for the next service. I need to eat a cookie and drink a little juice or coffee so I don't pass out. I need to refill my water glass and make a quick stop in the men's room. Papers need to be re-sorted, props re-set, and equipment re-checked. And, yes, that seventh paragraph was pretty bad, and what did I say at the first service again? Not to mention that the prayer could have been better, I need to remember not to announce the wrong hymn or skip the offering, and I need to nix that joke that didn't go ever well... even though it was a good joke, really it was.

Following the second service, I am just ready for a nap. Many Sunday afternoons are spent passed out on my couch.

Leading worship is not "performing" but it does require physical and mental stamina similar to someone playing a part in a play, delivering a speech, or giving a recital.

With that in mind, I try my best to have conversations with members and visitors on Sunday morning. But to be completely honest, it is tough and I know I fail to be my most attentive self at times.

(There is a tradition in African-American churches where several deacons surround the minister after the service and allow no more than ten seconds of interaction with any one person. I'll admit to being a bit envious of that tradition!)

If the service caused you to have an epiphany or reminded you of a story from your personal life, I would love to hear about it. If you write me an email, I promise to respond. Similarly, if you want to argue or discuss a point that came up in the service, I would love to engage with you. Write me an email and I promise to respond. This way I can promise to give you my fullest attention, which you deserve.

This is the paradox: the time of the week where I am most accessible to the congregation is also the time when, like the performer about to go on stage, I am most in need of "space" to prepare making me less accessible. I love to visit in the barn chapel and greet people in the foyer, but be forewarned: if you approach me with an idea that is complex or an issue that is complicated my brain is as likely to shut off as it is to engage to the fullest extent that your idea or issue deserves.

This holds true for pastoral issues that you hope to call to my attention. It is very helpful for me if you would write me a note and stick it in my pocket. Otherwise I might visit the wrong person at the wrong hospital on the wrong day.

Rest assured, I am not going to hide out backstage until the curtain rises. I'm not going to peel out of the parking lot while the worship service is still taking place. This mini-essay is just to say a few of the things that I might have on my mind on Sunday morning. And remember, I want to hear from you not just on Sunday morning but throughout the week!

You can find other Gossip Column entries here.