Playing with Ministry

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.

3 Responses to Playing with Ministry

  1. Steve Scoggin says:

    I think the word “curiosity” you use better describes the spirit of this posture and stance in leadership. Theologically, what you describe in the article reminds me of the way of wisdom. Wisdom is curious, not attached to outcomes, and leaves room for spirit to dance and reveal its truth.


  2. Stan Dotson says:

    Interesting to bring Barth back into conversation, Mahan. I, too, poured through Dogmatics in college and seminary, not really having much of a clue. But I recently started reading a book by the old WFU religion prof, Ralph Wood, now at Baylor. It’s called the Gospel as Comedy, I think, and it compares the dispositions of Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth, saying that Niebuhr saw the gospel as tragedy and Barth saw it as comedy. One of the way he illustrates this is through Barth’s relationship with music. And then he looks at the fiction of writers like Flannery O’Conner, who support his stance of gospel as comedy. Another thing your post made me think about was the role of clown in communities, the way clowns alter the perspective of what’s going on, in playful but powerful ways.


  3. Mahan Siler says:

    Thanks, Steve and Stan for your responses.

    Steve, I am drawn to “curiosity” for reasons you state. It conveys an open, non-willful posture. This may be its danger: being curious could mean lack of commitment, lack of engagement, fostering a armchair distance. But for me it is a fresh corrective to my tendency to over-investment in unhealthy ways.

    And Stan, I want to get Wood’s book. The distinction between gospel as tragedy and comedy is intriguing. Seems like Buechner in one of his books, maybe Lyman Beecher lectures, plays with this theme.



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