I don’t remember much about the ordination paper I wrote some twenty years ago, but I do remember comparing the role and work of the pastor to the conductor of an orchestra. At that time, on the threshold of ministry, the comparison resonated with me. The conductor: singular, authoritative, directing the work of the orchestra in a spirit of collective dedication to a common text to which all attend carefully and skillfully. Yes, the conductor conducts, but not without the performers, each with a distinct skill and part of her own. Conductor, members of the orchestra, the score. The stage is set for a compelling performance. Notes on a page brought to sonic life. In theory, the analogy seemed to fit wonderfully.
After two decades in the ministry the analogy strikes no responding chord in me. Over those years rarely have I experienced the unambiguous authorization of the conductor or the rapt attention of the orchestra, nor the coherence and order that comes from everyone being on the same page, let alone the same bar. The world of pastoral ministry is far from the ordered universe of the orchestra pit. Having said that, I continue to believe the realm of music has much to teach pastors about their work. I’ve just come to recognize the greater fittingness of another analogy. But let me explain.
At one point in my ministry I served as the associate pastor of the American Church in Paris. One day a request came to the church office for a pastor to officiate at a funeral to be held in our sanctuary. On this occasion, the lot fell to me. It turned out that the deceased was a man named Jimmy Davis. I soon learned that Jimmy Davis was an African-American ex-patriot who had been living in Paris since the 1940’s. He was best known for his composition “Lover Man,” which became one of Billie Holiday’s greatest hits, and entered the cannon of jazz standards.
A day or so before the funeral, his family, along with several friends from Paris’s jazz community, visited with me regarding their hopes for the service. In the course of our conversation they asked if a particular French priest—an unofficial chaplain to the jazz community—could assist me in the leadership of the service. I readily consented.
The day of the funeral came and around 100 people gathered in the sanctuary. After the casket was carried down the center aisle to a Billie Holiday recording of “Lover Man,” I shared a few words of Scripture and consolation and then invited my co-officiant to share a few words. He took his position—not at the lectern, but at the foot of the chancel stairs, at the head of the simple, unfinished pine coffin. Placing his hands gently on the head of the coffin, he began speaking his remembrances of his friend. In English, then in French—back and forth. The mourners were clearly with him. Then he did something I will never forget. In the midst of his eulogy, he broke into scat. He resumed talking and then jumped off again into scat. Back and forth for the next fifteen minutes he riffed. It was a riveting improvisational performance of a life recalled, of grief, and of hope.
I think it was in that moment I began to wonder about this thing called improvisation and its relevance to the work of pastors. In my years of formal training, I never remember learning to think of pastoral work as improvisational. The images I learned of pastoral life and identity corresponded much more with the image of the classical conductor than of the improvisational jazz musician. Draw your own conclusions about seminary education.
Jeremy Begbie’s extended discussion of improvisation in his book, Theology, Music and Time, has sharpened my understanding of the improvisational musician and the improvisational pastor. Begbie points out four characteristics critical to the practice of musical improvisation. For me they are also characteristics of pastoral life and practice.
Improvisation and the Appreciation of Contingency. In jazz improvisation, contingency is not a thing to be minimized, feared, controlled, resisted, or eliminated. Jazz musicians play with it, on it, and off it. They embrace it. Unpredictability brings a heightened anticipative tension to every performance—among and between the players and between the players and the audience. No one is quite sure where things are going to go. The unknown is embraced and entered into.
Contingency is the terrain of pastoral life. Pastors don’t get to work in highly controlled, stable environments, or a tightly ordered arena of relationships. We work everywhere and with everyone. We work in the highly contingent world of humans being human, following where the Spirit flows. We have our authoritative scores, to be sure, and we have rehearsed them well. But, in the performance of our work what is required is the capacity to improvise on these timeless themes. To deny, fear, or resist the dynamic of contingency is to considerably diminish the performance.
Improvisation and the Appreciation of Constraints. To identify improvisation with pure freedom is a misconception—the absence of form, structure, tradition, or limits. If contingency names the “open-endedness” so critical to improvisation, constraint names the limits within which that open-endedness plays out. Without constraints, there is no tension, and improvisation collapses into chaos and randomness. As theologian Jeremy Begbie puts it, “Improvisation invites us to enjoy the liberating engagement of contingency and constraint.” Freedom flourishes in the lively, playful, creative interplay between contingency and constraint. Constraint comes in many forms: tradition (various idioms, practices, structures), time, place, people, and instrument. And that is to name only a few.
This lively way of living with the constraint can provide pastors with a frame of reference that can sharpen their appreciation and apprehension of tradition, of congregational life, of cultural realities, of personal limitations within which pastoral work is done. Pastors constantly work to find the grace in and amidst the givens of life. Remember Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. The champions of the notation thought they had him boxed in by the Law and the Teachers of the Law. He didn’t throw off the constraints, nor did he bow before them. Rather he used the tension they provided to bring a release that was nothing less than brilliant. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
Improvisation and the Exploration of Occasion. Improvisation has a particular appreciation of the immediate context: of the time, the place, of the people (players and audience). If you are going to be in the music, you have to be in the moment. Timing is not just a notation on a page to be followed, it is something existential that inhabits a musician. A social process that unfolds in the moment between players marks jazz improvisation. A generous, open, playful interplay between performers makes the music—it is guided, but not dictated by whatever notated music is before them. The interplay is both in and beyond the music.
Tracy was a key lay person in the small, semi-rural congregation I was serving in central Maine. In his mid-40’s, he was greatly beloved in church and community. I had been there for almost a year when he was killed suddenly in a snowmobile accident. This loss was devastating in all the ways you can imagine. After some discussion, we chose to diverge from our usual practice of hosting a wake in a funeral home, followed by a service at the church. Instead, we threw open the church doors and welcomed the community to come and honor Tracy and visit with his family. Big divider doors at the back of the sanctuary that had been shut for years were opened to make room for the throngs who came—waiting in line for hours to greet Tracy’s wife and family and to simply sit and visit in the pews. Then we kept a vigil with the casket through the night. Members came and went throughout the night. The next day the sanctuary was filled well beyond capacity. The divider doors were never closed again. A full-scale renovation of the sanctuary took place a year later.
Pastors are deep explorers of occasion. They attend to the graceful relational dynamics they seek to foster in worship and in pastoral care, the assumption that there is a manifold giftedness in the community of believers, the careful attention to each moment they are in, to the places they inhabit. All contribute to the creation of “occasion” where there is room for the spirit of life to flow.
Improvisation and the Incorporation of Mistakes. Improvisers take a relatively relaxed attitude toward errors. Where possible mistakes are taken up into the creative movement of improvisation. They usually don’t kill the performance. A performer can’t embrace contingency without anticipating that mistakes will be made. In improvisational music, mistakes can open up new avenues to explore. Fear of failure is a block to improvisation.
Pastors continually work in the world of imperfection and gross error—in their own lives, in the lives of their parishioners, in the lives of their congregations. Trying to bring new life out of human fallibility is what we do for a living. Every pastor knows that mistakes are inevitable: every pastor hopes that mistakes are redeemed.
One of the great possibilities in exploring the connection between the practice of improvisation and the practice of the pastoral life is how it helps us appreciate the peculiar dimensions of the pastoral life that differ from more fixed ideas of “professionalism,” and frees us to both embrace those peculiarities, and discover in them the potential for creative engagement with others for the sake of the gospel.
Image: Mora,Priscilla. Jazz. Available from: Flickr Commons.