Questions of purpose and meaning are my Achilles heel. They always have been. Those deep questions of ‘why?’ and ‘what for?’ that make getting on with it far too complicated. I can’t operate in an existential fog, nor any fog for that matter. I need clarity and a sense of purpose. I need vision.
It’s partly why I’m drawn to ministry. The Christian faith provides a ‘big story’ in which to locate my own, a vision of life and a sense of meaning that transcends and enfolds everything. I love it. Still, it doesn’t stop me getting routinely shipwrecked in a puddle of vocational angst.
The catalyst for my current puddle was a conversation a few weeks back. I was visiting a family who’ve begun attending our services. They are the most delightful people, but expressed concern about the church’s ‘empty seats’. We meet in a grand old building at Collins Street, one built to seat hundreds, but hundreds don’t come. ‘Whose job is it to get more people?’ the woman asked directly, leaning in expectantly for the answer. ‘Um,’ I said, weary and without thought, ‘that would be me, I suppose.’
I have pondered that question since, and even more my response to it. In typical form, I make it more complex than it needs to be. Simply put, the numerical growth of Collins Street is God’s business, not mine. But the question touches on all manner of things: So what is my job? What responsibility do I bear? What shapes the core of my contribution to Collins Street’s life and future?
As I’ve been pondering these questions, I’ve been reading two books, the first Andy Root’s The Relational Pastor and the second Mark Pierson’s The Art of Curating Worship. I know … I need to get out more! But I’ve found them helpful in a related way.
Both books talk about the role of the pastor as curator.
Andy’s book is really quite biting. He identifies the instrumentality of much that happens in the name of pastoral ministry. Driven by the need to grow our churches, get more ‘bums on seats’ and increase program participation, we so easily render the person before us as ‘someone to win loyalty and resources from rather than another to encounter, a person to see and be with and for.’ Our primary task becomes manipulating interests so they dovetail as closely as possible with our own. Ouch!
Andy reminds me that the essence of ministry is relational and that the church is a community of persons not a gathering of uniform interests. I do not care in order to nurture brand loyalty. The church is a community of encounter in which, through community, we all discover something of God and grace.
Mark’s book is a completely different read but equally challenging. One of the early voices in the alt. worship and emerging church conversation, Mark writes about his passion for the church’s worship and especially the role of those who shape it. He’s an advocate for expressions of worship that lead people into genuinely sustaining encounters with God. It’s not about orchestrating experiences or manipulating feelings. It’s not even about particular styles of music or liturgy. It’s about enabling encounter.
There is so much in these books that I can’t do justice to here and these brief paragraphs undersell their worth, but it’s the image of the pastor as curator in both that resonates most helpfully for me. Mark’s focus is on curating worship; Andy’s on curating spaces where we can meet each another in our need. Both are about encounter.
The curator facilitates an encounter. As I understand it, the art curator gathers and arranges artworks in a particular way—as intelligently and sensitively as possible—and then stands aside, allowing the encounters between art and audience to happen. In language more familiar to me, it’s a bit like a maître d’ who oversees the elements of a fine dining experience and then steps discretely aside for the meal to unfold as it will. The pastor/curator creates the space, sets the table and makes encounter possible.
Neither Andy nor Mark let me off the hook when it comes to my responsibility. In fact, each in their own way, they lift the bar not lower it. But in doing so they remind me that Collins Street is God’s church not mine. I cannot fill it … God knows, I try. And I can no more determine the community’s encounters with God and each other than I can leap tall buildings. But I can set the table, create opportunity and facilitate encounters of openness, honesty and interdependence.
Perhaps that’s purpose enough for now.