Worship & the Pastor’s Personality

Surely the pastor/preacher cannot divorce themselves from their personality or ego, and surely they should not seek to do so.  But as I mentioned in a previous post (Wearin’ My Madonna Microphone), the worship leader must be careful when using her gifts of charisma or personality in leading worship.  It is too easy to cultivate a setting in which the tasks of liturgy and preaching become clouded by the pastor’s idiosyncratic self-expression, particularly if the congregation responds well to their pastor’s personality.

This is not to say that the preacher or worship leader needs to be personality-free.  Not at all.  We could build robots or play videos to simply and stiffly recite prayers and liturgical formulas.  No.  Worship demands our humanity, but worship should not be overly infused with the quirks or personality of the one who is up front.  As some point such a worship becomes more about the pastor’s show than about the timeless Word and Liturgy.

I like Gordon Lathop’s discussion of worship leadership in his new book, The Pastor: A Spirituality.  Some quotes:

Leaders, of course, have power.  Leaders invested with religious-symbolic meaning have, as we have seen, extraordinary power. In Christianity, leaders must be constantly turning that power to the purposes of the assembly, to the honoring and loving and serving of each of the people, especially of the little and least ones.  pg. 69

Christianity is a meal.  Its leaders are table servers.  Let beggars come. . . . A pastor serves tables.  pg. 73

Lathrop quotes Aiden Kavanaugh who recommends

"a certain self-discipline with regard to personal idiosyncracies. . . . The minister at the liturgy, like a Zen-master, should be as "uninteresting" as a glass of cold, clear, nourishing water." pg. 29 

For Lathrop, this rubric covers not only liturgical leadership, but also preaching. 

"Pastors must learn the sermon’s deep structures and its ritual purpose, its openness to the assembly and its fidelity to the assembly’s purpose, its care and love for each one who has gathered and its openness to those outside this circle, its honesty and its lack of idiosyncratic affection, its reception of the readings and its leading to the intercessions and to the table, its articulation of the whole flow of the ordo, its use of law and gospel. . . . The very idea that preaching is part of the liturgy, subject to its principles and purposes, may be a new proposal to many of us . . ." pg. 28.

I don’t know that we can ever achieve Lathrop’s vision for worship leaders – I’m pretty sure that I can’t.  But I think his questions are important and needed, for the temptation to imbue worship and preaching with unique and individual idiosyncrasies is too great.  The pastor has a lot of power, and the more that he makes it about himself rather than about his office, the slipperier the slope gets.  Not only are there good theological and pastoral reasons for this proposal, but there’s also a very practical reason: pastors come and go, but congregations remain.  The more that a ministry is shaped around a particular person, the more difficult it will be when that person leaves the ministry.

On the other hand, worship and church leadership demands our particular humanity.  As a hospital chaplain I see that many people want or need a personal connection, a relationship, and that relationship itself facilitates prayer and spirituality.  Disembodied faith, if such a thing is even possible, is not enough.  The personality, experiences, honesty, and faith of the religious-symbolic leader are part of the tools that God gives her for ministry.  The community benefits from her honest expression of faith, her enthusiastic embrace of the community with her arms stretched out, her bold proclamation of the words of the apostolic greeting.  Our humanity can flesh out, so to speak, the words and formulas of the liturgy, and it should.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe in theory that so-called contemporary worship (or, embodied, contextual, authentic, whatever worship) is possible, but is rarely done well.  Too often leaders fall down that slippery slope of idiosyncratic mayhem, shaping worship around a few gifted leaders rather than the needs and expressions of the gathered people of God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

3 thoughts on “Worship & the Pastor’s Personality

  1. LZ — those are some interesting quotes from Lathrop, but to be more specific –could we be more specific about the idiosyncracies he or you may be referring to.
    I wonder … are we talking about mannerisms — like the worship leader from Hope College who moved around the worship platform (can’t call it the chancel) with quite a bit of enthusiasm. Wondering if this also applies to high church liturgical settings where the pastor quite dramatically uses lavabo to wash any trace of “body of Christ” off of fingers, rinses the chalice with water twice and drinks it both times, and finally wipes it clean with the linen napkin(funny, I can’t remember the proper name of that). This dramatic production seems to be as much about the pastor’s idiosyncratic mixture of Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic theology and practice.
    Maybe you have some other idiosyncracies in mind —
    I wonder what of my presiding might be so peculiar that it detracts — there is probably something — I should ask my wife, she would give me the real facts.

  2. Well, even as I was writing this post I was thinking to myself, “Gosh, I’m not sure I believe all this. After all, Lathrop himself has all kinds of idiosyncrasies – even if it is simply his tenderness and lack of idiosyncrasy!” (I attended LTSP while Lathrop still taught there, and he presided at my wedding). Lathrop’s quote of Kavanaugh is still attention-grabbing and unique – he doesn’t write that the presider is to be as uninteresting as a glass of water, but as uninteresting as a glass of “cold, clear, nourishing water” – gosh, the water he describes is notable, is interesting, is memorable. Could we say that such water is idiosyncratic, or simply noteworthy?
    What’s the balance? I know that when I’m up front, leading worship, people say to me, “Chris, I love the way you lead worship – such passion, such energy, such enthusiasm.” I love leading worship, though is there something about how I do it that turns the focus ever so slightly to me rather than to the Word? I’m not sure. It’s a question that I must always ask myself, however . . . (And on the other hand, I’ve seen Lathrop devotees lead worship in such a dreadful demeanor that would make the followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus look cheerful. That is not what he wants, either, I suppose.)
    And as for gestures, etc., that’s another tough question. My piety calls me to bow at the elevation of both the bread and wine during the words of institution, and I will likely reverence the bread/wine in some way when I’m ordained. Is that an interfering idiosyncrasy, an act of personal piety, a reverent liturgical gesture intended to draw focus to the sacrament, or a “hey, look at me and my holiness” attention grabber? It’s a self-reflective question I must always ask myself.
    So, I guess I’m saying that I’m not sure there is an answer, but the question must remain, for the cult of personality is perhaps the most popular religion in this country – and is one that is practiced in many of our Lutheran churches!

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