On Liberating the Preacher

February 15, 2010

Preaching may have been my chief cause of anxiety. I come from a tradition where the pulpit and pulpiteer hold a central place both architecturally and vocationally. People come expecting a lively, relevant Word of the Lord. I never shook the audacity of preaching. And I never found a deaf ear to the responses to “how I did.” Often, too often, it seemed to be about me.

So, I see liberation in the idea from family systems’ theorist Murray Bowen, filtered through friend of preachers, Walter Breuggemann (“The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” Theology Today 47 (1990). 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. You know all too well the experience: two persons in conflict “triangling” you in as problem solver or the “problem” or the one left to worry about their problem. If it works, you hold the anxiety, they walk away feeling lighter. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But here is a positive use of “triangling.” Often preaching is seen as what happens between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It sure looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. A two-way conversation, A-B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our pet ideas. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It is the sense of God’s Word through words, scripture and ours, that matters.

I find this perspective liberating. As I confessed above, I can become overly preoccupied with my voice, feeling the pressure of crafting a correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. Yes, quite a burden to carry.

But can you feel the burden lifting when you turn up the volume, both the voice of the text and the voice of the people? Your voice becomes more prompter than expert. You are free to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—out loud—hoping that your words will provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with God. When it works, or better, when the Spirit works, your interaction, “A” with “C (text)” stimulates the congregant’s interaction with “C” (text). We say in effect: “Folks, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. What do you see, feel and hear?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes about God, not you.

I see in this idea an addendum. It occurs to me that “triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Note situations of potential win-lose debate between “A” and “B”—e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on health care reform, homosexuality, illegal migrants or any controversial topic. Can you feel the difference, when in such a situation, you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. church mission, God’s love, mind of Christ, covenants, etc.) and ask, “How does our faithfulness to our mutual commitments speak to this problem? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like?” Recognizing that beyond differences is the common desire to love as God loves, your ask, “What shape would this Love take in this situation?”

Maybe we do our best work when we “triangle” in the “texts” of our mutual calling in a variety of conversations, including preaching. What do you think?


Playing with Ministry

February 1, 2010

Let’s consider playfulness in pastoral leadership. It may be a form of spirituality.

I catch myself looking for playfulness in leaders. Not sharp barbs as zingers. Not clever putdowns that summon laughter at another’s expense. Not jokes that distract, drawing attention away from the sticky issue at hand. Rather, playful responses, that, at their best, convey perspective (“This is not primarily about me”), that reveal humility (“I don’t have a clue about next steps”), that exudes curiosity ( “My, what will we learn here?”), and invites creativity (“Let’s offer what we have and see what happens”).

Karl Barth was the super-serious, post-World War II theologian of my seminary days. And with Tom Torrance, his primary English translator, as one of my professors, I poured over his thick books of systematic theology. As far as I can tell, only one truth stuck (and it was enough), namely, the overwhelming mystery, majesty, wonder of God.

So with all that assumed seriousness, Barth’s self caricature caught me off guard. He pictured himself coming to final judgment with God saying, “ Oh, no !!! . . . Here comes Karl Barth pushing a wheelbarrow full of his Dogmatics.” Even Karl Barth didn’t take himself too seriously. I love the playful perspective, humility, and yes, the bold offering of his work that is conveyed in that self-portrait.

As leaders, we long for that place of nirvana, when in the midst of stress, we respond creatively and not react automatically. Brain studies remind us that our first brain to develop, the one that we share with other animals, is the reptilian brain. Like reptiles, when anxious and threatened we instinctively react with either fight or flight. These two survival options are anxiety driven, fierce and obstinate. Leadership demands a third option.

Being a “non-anxious presence” is a mantra I hear frequently in conversations about leadership. It is a filtered down truism from systems thinking. But standing by itself, it is a poor motivator. For instance, we know the folly of talking ourselves out of anger, “I must not feel this frustration. Go away anger!” Of course, that only re-enforces our anger, like hands sticking to the proverbial “tar baby.” The same with “being non-anxious.” Telling ourselves to be non-anxious only fortifies the anxiety.

What if the best defense is a good offense? I am thinking we can learn to crowd out anxiety with playfulness. And playfulness has to do with being curious about the ways of the Spirit. And curious discernment has to do with nonattachment to outcomes. And nonattachment has to do with security. And security has to do with our well-being as gift (grace), not achievement.

Or, to work this sequence backwards, the more our identity is secure in a Love from which no-thing in life or death can separate us, the less our worth is tied to external outcomes, and the more inner freedom to play creatively with people and possibilities.

If this is true, then our inner work is practice. Like with any musician, we practice playing the notes and chords until we feel the harmonies of grace. We rehearse with others until our identity as God’s beloved becomes the center we live in and out of. Over time, I trust, we can develop the capacity to respond playfully and gratefully, less and less reacting instinctively from anxiety.

The musician “plays” the Music and “plays around” with the Music as improviser. And the more surrendered to the Music, the freer we can be from self-preoccupation and performance anxiety.

At my graduation from seminary, a favorite professor gave me a strange blessing. I was telling him about my call to a church in Northern Virginia. His response, not understood at the time, was, “Mahan, you will have some real fun there.” I was too serious, too eager to prove myself to hear his blessing. Now, I am beginning to get it.