“Best Practices” Highlights

An overview of Rev. Peter W. Marty's keynote address at CMI's 2019 "Best Practices" seminar.

Adding Frequencies to the Pastoral Heart: Beyond the Responsibility to Lead

Going Off the Map as a Musician: Delighting in the Congregation as Part of One's Call

Beginning with Scripture

Rev. Marty began a conversation with about 50 pastors, musicians, and lay leaders by reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). He asked attendees to think about the nature of the relationship between Philip and the eunuch as akin to the relationship between musician and pastor. Each is important to the other and each plays a role that is beneficial to the other. As the eunuch read a passage from Isaiah, Philip asked if the eunuch understood what he was reading. The eunuch’s response was, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

Rev. Peter W. Marty

Note the substantive difference between the word “guide” and words similar to it like “teach,” “instruct,” “show,” or “tell.” As Marty says, “Anyone who guides another person is one who pulls for them by journeying with them. There’s nothing top heavy or lopsided about the relationship. The eunuch invited Philip to climb into the chariot and sit beside him.” After their conversation, it was the eunuch who took charge and asked for the chariot to stop so that a baptism could take place. That’s when they both went into the water together; not just the eunuch (newly initiated into the faith), but both of them. We see a unity of spirit between two very different people. We might extrapolate and say that the eunuch or Philip could be either a musician or a pastor in a modern church setting. The story serves as an analogy for understanding how clergy and musicians must work supportively and with a common spirit.

In I Corinthians 12-14, Paul addresses troubles within the Corinthian congregation as the people there gather for worship. A profusion of gifts appears to be their central problem, causing a competitive spirit to emerge that eats away at the fabric of their fellowship. An abundance of gifts has created a degree of anarchy among the worshipers to the point of crisis; something not unusual in churches in our day where there is often a profusion of gifts or a competitive spirit at play. Paul steps into the conflict and issues his now famous words of chapter 13 – “Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or rude...”

Using Imagination
Marty believes one way to resolve some of the crises in worship settings where a competitive spirit overtakes collegial thoughtfulness is for all to acquire a new kind of imagination that may not always be our first language. He speaks of imagination as the human capacity to “imagine what is not.” It’s a kind of imagination once described by J.K. Rowling as that which enables human beings to empathize with other people whose condition is not their own. “We can actually think ourselves into other people’s places,” said Marty. He underscored the important of considering this from both a pastor’s and a musician’s standpoint: What does it mean to think about everything the other person may be experiencing, imagining exactly what it must be like to walk in their shoes?

Marty quoted the late Harvard University preacher Peter Gomes about not expecting to be rewarded for what we have been trained to do. The greater test for all of us occurs when we’re called upon to do things we don’t exactly know how to do. That test can provide a wonderful opportunity for us to imagine how we might do things in congregational ministry that are “out of our wheelhouse,” or well beyond our training.

Internal Security
Rev. Marty spoke of what it means to be secure in our own skin. He lamented how insecure we can all behave from time to time. In many multi-staff congregations, the pastors struggle to talk with one another in any reflective, self-critical way about their preaching. Musical staff, too, can feel threatened or less secure than they deserve to be when someone else’s talent suddenly rises up.

Marty believes we all need to relax more confidently into God’s grace. Just as one must relax in order to float in water, so the buoyancy of God’s grace is sufficient to bear us up through our uncertainties. “If we can’t relax into some kind of deep inner security, if we aren’t okay with acknowledging our gifts and deficits as professionals, we are always going to be struggling, scrambling, and anxious.”

John 13:3 is as good as any biblical reminder of our need to understand our servant role in church work. This verse highlights the moment when Jesus, expressing profound awareness of his origin and destiny, got onto the floor to wash dirty feet. Our own spiritual confidence in recognizing our personal origin and destiny – that it’s God who made us and God who receives us – can allow us to do all kinds of things we may have thought were beneath us. Similarly, it is to our benefit that we continue to pursue the significance of Philippians 2 for our different ministries: “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself.” Marty proposed that the way to embody this idea at the local congregational level is to lead by example. Ensure that every retreat and meeting opens and closes with honest prayer, and that humility is the cornerstone of individual commitment from all staff working together.

In Luke’s Gospel, the story of the ten lepers can be highly suggestive of the church in our day. Only one of the ten men healed bothered to return to Jesus for the purpose of falling on his knees in gratitude. Might that one leper represent the church? Mathematically or culturally speaking, it would seem so. A large percentage of people in American culture – as high as 90 percent – do not find regular church worship worthy of their time. Of the ten lepers healed in identical fashion, only one was moved to express thanks. Marty went on to say that in his judgment, “really grateful people, as in those with bone-deep gratitude, are also truly generous people. And truly generous people happen to be very happy people.” If we’re going to preach and theologically affirm gratitude in our congregations, then we have to figure out what it means to live and work with gratitude as well. Gratitude is something that we can and must more actively cultivate in our personal and professional lives.

Crisis of Secularity and Worship in Community as an Antidote
Marty pointed participants to a recent book, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by David Zahl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019). Zahl writes about how thoroughly saturated with religion our American culture is, arguing that Americans are hardly done with religion at all. We’ve merely turned to more secular activities to derive ultimate meaning. In other words, we have traded in some of our deepest pieties (e.g. baptismal identity) for replacement religions that span all kinds of fields from scheduling to technology, and parenting to romance. In them, we often locate hope and purpose.

Church worship is a precious endeavor in these times. Marty spoke of the “customization of life” that’s increasingly apparent as we sit at home or at a desk ordering life to suit our customized satisfaction. This can all happen by using apps and Google searches on our smartphone. Why would people bother with God or the church when they can “arrange, create, order, and make so much happen through their own technological devices? It doesn’t take long before we start to expect the world to conform to our desires. Contrary to what social media may prompt us to display in a regular way, we are not the center of the universe.

“I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons we push ourselves to make worship central to our lives is because, in so doing, we throw ourselves into Christian community,” said Marty. We expose ourselves to the very real possibility of being fashioned more wholesomely into the image of God. The more we stay away from worship, the easier it becomes to make God into our image. In short order, we unwittingly turn God into someone who thinks, acts, votes, and buys exactly as we do.”

Soul Cultivation
Marty believes that most of us serving in ministry of one kind or another spend far too little time cultivating our own souls and deepening our own faith lives. Deep people, he said, have quiet, clear minds that are dependable. They make commitments to causes, purposes and projects that extend beyond their lifetimes. They care about and take interest in other people’s lives. They practice unconditional love. Marty referenced a George Herbert writing while speaking on the subject of holiness. The quality of a sermon or the excellence of music in the church is directly related to the centering truth or holiness evident in practitioners’ lives. People today are not looking for experts to share expertise, since so much is available through the internet. What they want as much as anything else is people who know authentically who they are, and who do not live overblown lives.

Humility, Gravity, Gravitas
Marty quoted John Dingell, a U.S. congressman from Michigan, who said late in his 57-year career, “I have an important job to carry out, but I am not an important person.” Marty used this line to illustrate how we often conflate the importance of our work in ministry with self-importance. This conflation creates all kinds of trouble. It doesn’t help in our day and age that we are infatuated with the notion of growing our “platform.” Building a bigger social media platform is supposed to equal more impact, more followers, more book sales, etc. But, in the scriptures, Jesus shows us what it means to come in close. He “draws near” to others. This drawing near ought to inform the shape of our ministries.

Marty spoke to the importance of having spiritual gravity – a centering depth to our lives – especially one that gets formed by the power of worship. How blessed life can be when gripped by music of the church.

Marty asked attendees to contemplate how effective hymnody can be in shaping people. What would it mean if we took to heart the verse from All Praise to Thee, my God, This Night: “Teach me to dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die so I may rise glorious at the awesome day”? Imagine living as if we believed this?

He spoke of being moved by hearing the whole theology of the church encapsulated in two lines of a single hymn: For All the Saints. “O blest communion, fellowship divine. We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one within thy great design. Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Then too, there is the clothing imagery of Colossians 3, captured theologically in a stanza from Come Down, O Love Divine (Down Ampney): “Let holy charity my outward vesture be, and lowliness become my inner clothing. True lowliness of heart which takes the humbler part, and for its own shortcomings weeps with bitter loathing.”

What Matters Requires the Embrace of Two Hands
Marty said that when we engage our lives in things of significance that really matter, we tend to use both of our hands. When more casual and less significant things are required of us, we often get by with using only one hand (e.g. eating a sandwich while doing something else, pushing a grocery cart while holding a child’s hand, etc.)

Sam Wells, priest at St. Martin in the Fields, London, has noted how Augustine in the fourth century said there are essentially two things in life: things we enjoy and things we use. Those we enjoy are worth having for their own sake, and their joy never runs out. Those we use, on the other hand, are a means to an end. They do run out because they serve a limited purpose.

Things we enjoy or ought to enjoy require two hands. Organists and pianists, for example, need two hands – and two feet(!) – to play. Through use of scripture, Marty challenged participants to contemplate the many ways that we are to enjoy God and enjoy each other, all the while remembering that God enjoys us and does not use us.

Marty proposed a two-handed approach to ministry, whether it be music ministry or ordained ministry. Everything precious and in our care is to be enjoyed. Not used, but enjoyed. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “The chief end of [human beings] is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

How do each of us feed our soul?

Because he does many things in his life, of which only one is to serve as pastor, Peter Marty derives great energy from other people. He tries to view every situation or encounter as an opportunity to grow and learn new things. He offered examples to participants of how to avoid ruts in the workplace and how to receive inspiration from others who can feed our souls. Do pastors and musicians talk enough about these sorts of things, either together or with themselves? Doubtfully.

Marty believes there is no substitute for the significance of being physically in worship whenever possible. He made clear to conference attendees that actually being present in worship is not to be confused with watching worship on a personal screen from the confines of one’s home. Communal worship is what allows us to become more than we would be if left to our own devices. It’s the community that prevents us from having to devise an ad-hoc spirituality for ourselves, or a life where we’re led to believe that faith is a private matter. To be surrounded by other people in worship, none of whom we chose to form a distinct community, by the way, is to grow one’s life in Christ.

Ideas for Going Deeper

  • Find a conversation partner with whom we can be honest and who will be honest with us. This could be a spouse, partner, spiritual director, or close colleague. Someone to whom we ought to be able to ask: “What do I need to do here? What am I missing about myself?”
  • Incorporate prayer into advance preparation for the arrival of worshipers. Remind ourselves through that prayer and through related meetings that set up such prayer: How are we going to be available to everybody who walks in the door? How are we going to treat every person as a guest? How will we remind ourselves that Christ may be entering as that very person we just saw walk in the door? If pastors and church musicians have been entrusted with this extraordinary treasure of leading a congregation, how can they rise to the moment and be worthy of it?
  • Look for as many fresh entry points into our churches as possible that will engage or re- engage people who are distant from, or less comfortable with, church.

With respect to trying to love our neighbor, it was C.S. Lewis who said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry if you love your neighbor. Just act as if you do and, perhaps in time, you will actually come to love that neighbor.” With respect to the challenge of getting out of the way of ourselves in order to let others flourish, it was Flannery O’Connor who said in one of her early prayers: “God, please help me to push myself aside.” That is a fine request that every church professional could afford to ask on a regular basis: Am I getting in the way of my own sermon? Is the prelude I just played what’s needed, or did it get in the way of something greater because of my ego or personal tastes?

Marty talked about why Christian worship doesn’t make the news. It’s not exactly easy to report on, for one thing, despite important transactions that happen during worship. And filming Christian worship rarely makes for spectacular footage. Yet the mystery of worship is like other mysteries that are full of goodness in life. Why do you kiss someone you love? Why give a gift to someone who will not repay you? Why smile at a tiny newborn nestled in the bassinet of a maternity unit nursery? These are hardly useless things; yet they defy simple explanation and baffle plenty of observers.

The great choral conductor Robert Shaw once said that the minimum conditions for worship were two: a sense of mystery and an admission of pain. People who are largely incapable of either one, or dismissive of both, often stay away. Plenty of people do not know how to experience a deep sense of mystery or what to do with pain in their lives. Marty says, “Unless we are willing to lose ourselves in the unfathomable mystery of God, in the unsearchable pain that goes with being human, worship may always prove to be too much to bear. In that event, we may never feel the Gospel of Christ coursing through our veins.” This is why so many people end up staying away from worship and privatizing faith.

Marty urges musicians not to leave the care and nurture of the community to the pastor or to hospitality teams alone. Given all the tasks of making music with communities of musicians, it is still part of the musician’s job to build community. The pastor and musician ought to be in regular conversation about how they can help each other foster hospitality in a community. If it’s true that our only hope for knowing Christ is through Christian community – not simply learning about Jesus of Nazareth, but actually knowing Christ – then the importance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim is worth remembering: There is no way to know Christ Jesus apart from community.

However, pastors and church musicians understand their spiritual lives, utilize their talents, and navigate their professional roles, one thing is certain: They will be working together in some fashion for the rest of time. What they do to deepen their own lives and broaden their own affection for the worshiping community they serve will be as important as any excellence of skill they ever acquired.

Peter W. Marty serves as senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, a 3500-member congregation in Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century, a journal devoted to shaping America’s conversation about religion and faith in public life. He writes a bi-weekly column for the Century.