A few weeks ago I found myself in the church sanctuary all alone. Now, that isn’t completely abnormal. I’m regularly running
into the worship space for one thing or another. Maybe I left my Book of Common Worship on the communion tableSunday, or more likely my son left his iPod under the chair. But this particularly afternoon I had wandered in for some completely different reason that is lost to me now, and instead of wandering right back out I sat down for a little while, in the middle of the sanctuary in the middle of a row in the middle of the day when I am not leading worship. I got stuck there — in a good way — for a while.
Breathing in deeply, slowly, I realized that this is something missing from my life. Quiet is part of it, yes. I can definitely use more quiet, more silence, more listening. It feels like my friend, Dan Wolpert, was speaking directly to me when he wrote “The work of silence is the work of gently saying no to the endless stream of thoughts and feelings that make up our world in order to listen for and say yes to the thoughts and feelings that are the voice of God” (Creating a Life with God, The Upper Room: 2003, p. 30). Do I ever have an endless stream of thoughts and feelings…. Constantly. Running through my brain and my life at all times. Learning to say no to that stream will be an important lesson for me.
However, the other piece that I realized I’m missing is the experience of sitting in those seats, the ones in the middle of the sanctuary in the middle of a row. The ones where you sit if you aren’t a person (paid or volunteer) worrying about whether or not the sound system is working right, the organ stop got fixed, the worship bulletin has typos, the sermon ends the right way, or the bread will run out during communion. I miss the experience of being led in worship.
As a solo pastor I lead worship all but six Sundays a year at the church I get to serve, and I truly love what I am blessed to be able to do. Really, I do. Crafting worship — digging into scripture, reading the needs of the congregation and the situation of the world, and preparing words and song and experiences through which our gathered community offers praise to God — is one of my greatest delights in ministry. And yet, at the same time, I am finding that I miss being able to worship without worrying about details. It feels like something is missing in my own life of faith because I don’t have that experience of worshiping without the anxiety that comes with the responsibility of leadership often enough.
This was driven home for me even more last week when I attended the NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago, and especially during the worship service on Tuesday morning when they broke out the organ for hymns, the preaching by Brian Eliison of the Covenant Network was amazing, and I was surrounded by friends. I was there in my church, not the one I serve on a daily basis, but the one that is scatter around the country and made up of the people I get to lean on when I am weary, laugh with when I’m feeling silly, wonder about what God is doing with all of us. And I got to worship. Standing there singing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” something washed over me; I need to do this more often.
I know a friend and colleague of mine, Marci Glass, also a solo pastor, has come to an agreement with her congregation, Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, that for a certain number of Sundays per year she worships with them, but doesn’t lead them in worship. She is led in worship along with them by another pastor. It sounds so wonderful, and not, as some will think, because it’s an extra “day off,” but because it’s a day on. It’s a day that recognizes her own spiritual need to give honor and glory to God, to hear someone else proclaim the good news to her along with the congregation, to be fed at the table of grace as another child of God, another pilgrim on a journey, another disciple following Jesus.
What do other worship leaders, paid and unpaid, do to nurture your own worship life? Do you feel like you get to worship fully when you are in leadership positions? I used to think I did, but something has shifted for me. Do you get your time to be led in worship at conferences, presbytery, or other judicatory gatherings? I miss the sense of getting lost in wonder, love, and praise, and would love to hear how others have found their seats in the middle of the sanctuary.