Thursday, November 06, 2008

Wisdom from the Daily Quote

When the pulpit becomes an echo of the pew, it loses, I think, almost all of its reasons for existence.

-Gardner Taylor

I don't know who Gardner Taylor is. But this PC(USA) Daily Quote got my attention this morning.

We at St. Sociable are in the midst of soliciting feedback from our members and friends. How are things going, we're asking them? What do you love about St. Sociable? What keeps you coming back? And despite what things do you keep coming back? And what are your dreams for our church? How can we best serve Jesus Christ together?

I knew when we embarked on this campaign that I would have to develop some of that armadillo skin my friend Jan mentions here. I believe the proper word is "armor". I was aware that not every response would be the equivalent of my most enthusiastic references when I applied for the job. But still... it hurts just the tiniest little smidge to hear that someone really liked the sermons of the previous pastor, whereas mine are "OK."

You know, I'm a little touchy about my sermons. Probably because I know what it feels like to pick up the hymnal in the full flush of having "nailed it." (Awful expression. But you know what I mean.) That feeling of having been in the zone, of having really felt the power and presence of the Spirit... that happens to me sometimes. (Not all the time. I believe Tom Long projected for his preaching students that it might happen one in four times, at best. And two in four sermons would be acceptable. And one in four would be a stinker. This is what he told the young pastors he was molding to expect.)

So OK. I don't feel that Spirit-thing one in four times. Maybe one in six or eight. But I feel it. I am particularly prone to feeling it when I have walked into the pulpit unsure of the sermon, and something in the air has made it better than it is on the page... probably some unanticipated need that it answers, by God's grace, not by my design.

The quote this morning suggests to me that if I am not challenging folks sometimes, if I am not giving them something that requires effort on their part, but am only concerned with giving them exactly what they want (such as: no politics; no allusions to conflict; nothing about homosexuality; nothing about the election; nothing about money), then I have failed in my role as their pastor. I am supposed to lead, and leading implies a change of location.

Years ago I had lunch with a colleague who told me that, if I wanted to work for social change, I'd best not be ordained, because I would be less free as an ordained person to be an activist. The role of a pastor is a constant game of balance between the pastoral and the prophetic... the pastoral being care-giving, and the prophetic being making the hair stand up on their heads for the horror of what I have just said. Otherwise, if I'm just going to reflect back their wishes and desires, why have a pastor? Why not just a mirror, and a recording device?


Sarah S-D said...

tricky stuff... ministry. sigh.

yes, a balance between the pastoral and prophetic is what we seek, esp in preaching. and i think you do a damn fine job of this miss mags... and i think that means (some) people will be be dissatisfied with your preaching... maybe even many... because some people want the pastoral ALL THE TIME and some people want the prophetic ALL THE TIME... striking the balance is deeply faithful, but hard for some to swallow.

hang in there through this feedback season. it can be painful, i know.

Gracebythesea said...

Mags, This is a tough racket-St Cass and I always laugh about the fact that the sermons we feel are the best prepped and preached NEVER seem to grab the attention of the pew sitters.

Another colleague notices that the sermons that Word assesses as written at the 5th grade level get the best response.

Keep doing what you're doing and let God not the comments guide you.

Jane R said...

The Rev. Gardner Taylor is one of the great African American ministers and preachers of the senior generation. Known as the "Harvard Whooper" because he preaches in the "whooping" Black tradition but got his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, he has been a progressive religious leader and mentor to many younger folks including a lot of the younger African American HDS alums. (I'm an alumna of HDS and know him in that setting.)

As for your thoughts, yes, and I find there is a real challenge when one has committed oneself to ordained ministry or any institutional church ministry and at the same time wishes to be prophetic, attentive to the urgings of the Holy Spirit. A great challenge. I always fear I'm going to sell out.

Jane R said...

And P.S. you are one fine preacher, and I think you manage that combination of the pastoral, priestly, and prophetic awfully well.