“Do you read the sermons ahead of time?” was one of the first questions that was asked. It was a surprising, unexpected question. It was asked almost tentatively, cautiously, but directly at me.
I was sitting at the front of a classroom, with one Old South parishioner on my left and two at my right. We were leading a panel on lay leadership of worship during the workshop section of the Maine Conference United Church of Christ Annual Meeting in October.
The questioner was sincere and serious in her asking, wondering if I—as the clergy person at Old South—made an effort to review and approve sermons given by the lay people of my congregation when I’m away.
The questioner, it turned out, was not alone. There were others who listened in almost awestruck silence to our tales not only of lay leadership of worship, but increased lay participation, in the worship life of Old South. Several people chimed in after that first questioner, wondering how we did it, and even more shockingly, how the lay people managed to get their pastor—me—to back off from trying to control everything.
I was a bit taken aback by the tone that erupted from some of these questions, from lay people who seemed eager to participate more in worship, but felt held back by the control issues of their own pastor. I should freely admit that I’ve had my own control and authority issues in the past, and still struggle with them from time to time. But, I have learned that through giving up some of that control and inviting more participation, I have/we have gained in important and significant ways.
Clergy, get over yourselves!
As we witness and live out the changes in our churches and in our culture, it is certainly time to learn how to share, and to learn to let go. By maintaining control, clergy risk strangling new life and crushing the movement of the Holy Spirit.
At the end of our workshop, a long-time Maine pastor came up to me to voice her concerns. She was especially troubled that Old South has an open sign up for serving communion. “Don’t you teach them anything before you allow them to serve communion?” she asked bluntly. “Don’t you think they need to know what they are doing?” she continued, shocked and disturbed by our unorthodox approach.
No, I told her. While I always provide context and story at the start of every communion service for everyone in the sanctuary, I no longer endeavor to control what people “know” or should know. People learn by participating, sharing, taking part. Communion is a sacrament. I’ve learned to let it be so.
I’m sure there are people who help in the serving communion who have very different ideas about what’s going on. I’m sure there are lay sermons I would not like. But, the church is not about me. As “pastor and teacher,” I have a vital role in guiding and leading, but I also recognize the significance and integrity of each person’s journey, as well as the journey we take as a congregation. I may be the “captain,” but that doesn’t mean I can, or should, be a sort of spiritual dictator.
We are church in a time of dramatic change. Clergy must learn to lead in new ways, and to encourage shared ministry. As we have learned at Old South, more participation brings more vitality. Vitality is not measured solely in the numbers of “butts in pews,” but in the sense of connection and commitment to faithfulness of the Gospel. At Old South, we are smaller in number, but larger in spirit.
The clergy role is to support, to encourage, to guide, to teach and to share—and actively and faithfully invite the Spirit.