Confronting Constraints

Q

I love RW, but I attend a congregation with minimal resources, minimal talent, and minimal openness to creativity. It is my congregation and I don’t want to leave. But my frustration is growing. How can I manage the gap between my ideals and reality? Is there anything I can do to help expand our vision?

Q

I am a pastor who is really excited about worship renewal, but I am not a musician. I am serving a congregation that lacks good musicians, but also resists recruiting them. What do I do? So much of worship renewal seems to depend on music.

Q

I am a trained musician who is very willing to volunteer in my congregation, but my pastor has little patience to engage with me in worship preparation, and while he cares passionately about several aspects of ministry, worship is not one of them. Where do I go?

A

As I write this column, I am struck by the number of questions like these I have heard recently—questions about the significant constraints and deep-seated frustrations that can so easily deplete our energy and restrict ministry. Each question expresses honest lament but also potentially holy discontent. The questioners have a genuine hope for ministry that is more collaborative and generative.

As the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship collaborates with congregations engaged in a process of worship renewal, we often see this pattern of lament and holy discontent. Nearly every grant proposal we receive arises out of a deep need and some frustration as well as a sense of opportunity. Sometimes the lament simply repeats like an endless vamp of frustration. Sometimes God provides wonderful breakthroughs of discovery and seasons of growth and renewal.

Here are a few common themes we notice.

Healthy lament is candid, but also quarantined. It is crucial that we not minimize the problem and also crucial that we not exaggerate it. One reason that a process like “appreciative inquiry” is so important is that it helps people discover and name good things that God is doing through a congregation. These considerations can easily be swept aside when we are feeling frustrated. Before we begin to petition God about what we would like to see happen, it is healthy to begin our prayers with both honest lament and honest thanksgiving to God about what we see around us.

It is crucial that we not minimize the problem and also crucial that we not exaggerate it.

Unrealistic and unholy ideals can be our worst enemy. This column regularly features ideals to aspire to in worship. But if our ideals are unrealistic or if they unwittingly undermine the upside-down values of God’s kingdom, they need to be tempered or transformed. One crucial discipline for each of us to practice is that of envisioning realistic next steps. For example, if we hope for a new form of collaborative worship planning, it is more realistic to envision trying that when planning one Pentecost service rather than a whole year of Sunday morning worship.

Change cannot be coerced. Though we may pray for a new spirit of openness to pervade a congregation or a new member with musical gifts to join us or a change of perspective on the part of a pastor or musician or team member, forcing change with a controlling spirit backfires. We can pray for change. We can testify about the value of another way of doing things. We can invite people to learn about other approaches. But deep-down change is not something we can coerce.

God’s Spirit works in situations of need and frustration. Those situations are often the very place in which God’s Spirit is engaged in transforming work—even though sometimes the kind of transformation is not what we had in mind. To open our imaginations to discerning the Spirit, the word “perhaps” can be an indispensable tool. n Perhaps God will answer your prayer for a more open spirit in worship through the gifts of children’s contributions to worship, which can sometimes help adults to embrace childlike openness.

  • Perhaps God will create ministry opportunities in another area of church life that over time will cause a new spirit of openness to pervade worship. Perhaps God is using your sense of discontent to lead you to a new place of service. Perhaps the congregation is more open than you can see, and your own longing for change is really an unhealthy desire for endless innovation.
  • If your congregation lacks musical leadership, perhaps God will answer your prayer by sending you a gifted musician. Or perhaps God will answer your prayer by helping you discover that you don’t need a talented musician in order to experience inspiring worship. Thoughtfully led Scripture reading and public prayer can both provide poignant and beautiful moments in worship, and both can be done beautifully without a musician.
  • Perhaps God will help your disengaged pastor discover renewed interest in worship. Perhaps God will lead your pastor to a position that better fits his or her areas of passion and giftedness. Perhaps your pastor’s reluctance to work with you is fueled by problems in your own communication style and after you address these, things may change.

There are so many possible ways in which good things can emerge out of situations that frustrate us. One of my favorite exercises in a seminary classroom a few years ago was working with students on very difficult ministry case studies. Each student was challenged to picture the situation they were working on as the first five-minute scene of a two-hour film that unfolded as an honest but gripping redemption story. The students were asked to imagine three or more different redemptive endings to their case study—an exercise in “perhaps” ways of thinking. The redemptive endings they imagined were profoundly moving.

For example, faced with an uncollaborative co-leader, a student imagined one redemptive ending that involved the leader leaving but then returning a few years later as a changed person, one that focused on how the student began to empathize with aspects of that leader’s story, and one that involved a crescendo of conflict and outside mediation before a truly transformative change came about.

Some of the narratives resolved in a year, some in five years, some in twenty. Some of the good outcomes seemed to make up for the bad things that happened. Some of the good couldn’t make up for the bad, but it was genuinely good nevertheless. The sheer multiplicity of possible redemptive resolutions helped awaken in us a sense of wonder at the array of ways that God may well be at work in any given situation.

Each of the problems described in the questions above is quite different, to be sure. But in every case, encouraging honest lament and thanksgiving, envisioning realistic goals to pursue without coercion, and practicing imaginative openness to the many ways God may be at work can help us maintain balance and poise.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.