Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ministry Maxim, 1

I spent 17 years in fulltime congregational ministry. There are no laws for ministry. It is an interpretative art. Wisdom does, however, develop over time around certain themes. These themes, in turn, produce maxims. Maxims admit to perspective and allow for exceptions, but they still provide a certain amount of orienting guidance. I developed a few through the years. Thought I'd share them over the next few weeks.

Maxim #1. The one way to make sure you don't get what you want in ministry is to preach a series on it.

Most ministers work contrary to this all the time. They think the pulpit is the most effective tool for change they have. And it can be, over time, in a fairly indirect way. But its a lousy way to marshall congregational support around an immediate congregational issue, especially if it is a controversial one. There are reasons for this, I think.

For starters, ministers have to understand the symbolic role they play in the congregation, which is another way of saying that they represent a certain power relationship in relation to the congregation. Congregations resist the power of the one over against the many. And they should. They don't do this consciously, mind you, but one expression of power tends to create a counter expression.

I think this resistance is connected to a natural resistance to being "fixed" by the preacher. A congregation refuses to behave. It is not simply the extension of a preacher's fantasies of glory no matter how spiritual or theologically apropriate those fantasies might be. It took me a long time to stop thinking of the congregation as an object to be acted upon, or even manipulated.

I think the congregation should resist a preacher who thinks of the sermon as the primary way to advance the goals of the institution. There should be an independence of the Word from the institution, a very difficult thing to do when the one doing the preaching is also constantly securing his position in relation to insitutional health. I am convinced, however, that instutional health is best served by a non-anxious presence, and that the pulpit best feeds a congregation through a disciplined use of texts over time.

This does not mean that the sermon should never broach the issues facing a congregation. Of course it should, and because the Word of God is relevant, it will. I am simply saying that the starting place of the sermon should nearly always be from a place indepedent of their immediate circumstance. The sermon here is part of creating an ecology of the Word rather than an informational strategy for programmatic change.

We have noted before, new information is typically inadequate in producing change. People don't change much just because they have received new information. Neither do they change much by an appeal to the will, e.g. "try harder, do better." Preaching can help to effect change, but only so far as it helps a congregation tell a new story about itself. And this kind of narrative therapy takes time and care. A sermon, or even a series, can be a powerful moment where momentum around change collects. But this is different than deciding a congregation needs a different style of music and preaching toward that end.


Lisa Wheeler Milton said...

I'm looking forward to these maxims, Mark. Thanks.

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

So am I. I have been on the receiving end of this maxim, and you are absolutely on target with it. I know that I resist the "power" being preached from the pulpit. So do others . . . and are still doing so . . . not a good scenario.


Redlefty said...

Yes, very interested here as well. Never heard that maxim put quite that way before.

Kwiyani Files said...

What a good start, when are you bringing out the rest? Cant wait.

Mark Love said...

Thanks for the encouragement friends.

And look at my bud Harvey showing up.


Cheryl Russell said...

Good post Mark! I totally agree. I have heard some funny direction pronouncements from the pulpit, but have never seen any of them come to fruition.