Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Art of Ministry

The New York Post recently ran a fascinating report about the New York Public Library's phone-a-librarian service. Apparently, there are librarians on call twenty-four hours a day to field all manner of questions from all manner of people. As an associate pastor whose on-call day is Thursday, I am given hope for humanity knowing that just as one may call upon a pastor or a physician in case of an emergency, one may call upon a librarian at three in the morning in case of a dispute about the rules of croquet.

One librarian interviewed in the report spoke about an instance in which the producers of the television series Mad Men called to ask about whether a taxi in 1964 would have had a lit "Off Duty" sign on its roof. The show is set in the 1960’s, and its producers are famously fanatical about staying true to period details. They call the librarians a lot.

Mad Men, of course, is a critically acclaimed, lucrative program, and as such, the producers could have gotten by with whatever old-looking taxi the prop department had on hand. The studio could have saved a little money instead of creating an entirely new prop, and only one or two people out of the millions who watch that show would have noticed. Maybe nobody would notice: I have seen the episode in question and the particulars of Don Draper’s taxi certainly had no bearing on the plot of the show. But because they take their work seriously, the producers of Mad Men go to great lengths to ensure that the taxi cabs on the show are just as they were in 1964. They go to these lengths because they see their show as art.

Ministry is an art, too, or at least it is supposed to be. We pastors like to talk about the “art of ministry” as if it were a craft to be set beside painting and composing, as if the sanctuary were a museum built to house genuine (if transitory) works of art.

The problem is not so much that we do not view ministry as art. The problem, it seems to me, is that as ministers, we do not take the art of ministry as seriously as the producers of Mad Men take the art of television.

I am in my second year of pastoral ministry. As I look out over the years of ministry ahead of me, I find myself spending a lot of time asking “what if” questions. This is a time of great change for the Church, after all-- Phyllis Tickle calls this time a great “rummage sale”--and I am finding that the Church I expected to enter is not the one to which I have been given. Much is in flux, and while uncertainty can be scary, it is the ability to freely ask the “what if” questions that I find most liberating about my first year in ministry.

What if we served the church in such a way that we truly saw ministry as art: as messy, difficult, life-wrenching art? How could we ever even dream of ripping off a sermon, or of getting bogged down in minutiae, or of stretching some warmed-over church growth strategy to fit a situation completely unlike the megachurch from whence it came?

What if we took the art of ministry seriously, remembering that the composition is not a self-portrait but a representation of that most Ultimate subject?

Comparing the ministry to a television show is, of course, unfair. When there is a problem off set, the cameraman can simply shut off the camera, while the minister must put down her sermon and speed to the hospital, doing her best to avoid red lights, small animals, and the police. But the distractions are not so much an excuse to turn in sloppy work as they are yet another opportunity to practice the art of ministry, to bear witness, to create in the hope that God is pleased.

Ministry is art, after all, and not just for the professional minister. One is in ministry because one wants to honor God, and within that honoring lies the artist's hope: that every breath in the making of art is art itself, that striving for excellence is not about furthering one's career or looking like a martyr, but about being an artist, about living art, about doing as much justice to the love of God as can be done by human hands. As a painter paints a scene, knowing that there are within that painting differences between the actual scene and its representation on canvas, so too the minister goes about her business, practicing that which we appropriately call the art of ministry, knowing that she can neither do full justice to the love of God nor replicate it exactly. What she can do, however, is use what she has. She can strive to live and practice ministry in such a way that the God to whom she bears witness can be seen in the art of her life. She can live in such a way that the Imago Dei that infests her being spills out onto those she loves and cares for and serves.

Perhaps it is this spilling that is the aim of all art. Perhaps art aims to make us all spill out, and to examine the resulting puddles for signs of that which makes us human and, I would add, signs of that Who makes us human.

I stand at the beginning of my ministry, working within an institution already left for dead by so many for so long, yet I cannot help but be hopeful, for I know that the God who created humanity in God’s own image is creating still. I may have no skill at painting, nor composing, nor sculpting, but I am in ministry, and I know that this same God expects me create anyway, to be an artist in a world—and in a Church--in desperate need of art.

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