In pastoral ministry I have to be sensitive to the anxiety and discomfort that comes with change; not only for myself but also for the congregation that I leave and the one that I am being sent to.
And because of our particular personality and style we inevitably do things differently than our predecessor(s). What we aren’t really good at is explaining why – telling people our theological and/or personal rationale for why we do things the way “we” do them.
I am sure there are several things that people would like to ask me about but there are two that I have been asked to address: pulpit and dress.
I was visiting with a charter member who shared with me her photo albums and memorabilia from the early days of St. John’s. One of the items she has is a handwritten note from Dr. John Guice (the first pastor of St. John’s) to his successor, Dr. Phil Needles. In it he talked about the iconography of St. John’s mentioning the pulpit among many other pieces. Dr. Guice spoke of the elevated pulpit as the symbol of the primacy of preaching in worship. It still has that same symbolism today. The proclamation of the words of God are the center piece of protestant worship and the Methodist tradition. But that does not mean that the only place the word can be espoused is from the pulpit. The chancel (the space between the communion rail and the altar) is the area where God’s word is read and proclaimed. Whether behind the lectern, sitting on a stool with kids around you, standing in the pulpit or standing behind a music stand is more a matter of the speaker’s preference. Where the preacher stands in the chancel isn’t the main focus for Sunday – it should be the words God intends to communicate through the messenger that we focus on. I would encourage anyone attending worship to have an open heart and mind to the words and let other things go. Simply stated, not all of our preferences are going to be the same – but the Word of God is eternal and never-changing. The answer I’m trying to get at is that I am most natural and comfortable standing in the middle front, close to the congregation for the purpose of connecting with you as we converse about the words of God.
The second change that I wanted to take a moment and share with you is about dress. I grew up in a church where everyone dressed up on Sunday morning – actually jeans were not accepted, and women wore dresses – no slacks or pants allowed. The men wore suits but very few of us boys and young men had the money to dress as the men did. The only issue that it presented was that it became a human legalism – if you weren’t dressed appropriately for worship then you weren’t Christian and you weren’t welcome. Now that I’m a few years older and have had the opportunity to worship in and serve different communities of faith I have come to believe that a dress code is a matter of preference that has no scriptural basis to make it church law. I’ve completely read through the gospels and pastoral letters a couple of times (I’m sure that many of you have as well). One of many things that I’ve looked for was comments on or directions about dress code. I was hoping to find a story where Jesus commanded or gave a parable about dress but nothing. The Apostle Paul was really good at telling people how to behave in Christian community but he doesn’t say anything about dress codes. Which leaves the matter up to us to decide.
There is a scripture that influences my thought on this – it is Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees – he calls them whitewashed tombs and cups that are clean on the outside but dirty on the inside. Dress is not an indication of our spirituality. It speaks only about our fashion sense.
A colleague of mine invited a friend of his to church week after week, year after year. He was a farm guy who wore flannel shirts, overalls, and boots. That was his wardrobe. My pastor friend attempted again to encourage him to come and he finally responded with these words: “I would not be welcomed in your church.” My friend tried to assure the guy that he would be but his friend kept refuting him. He finally asked my friend this question “What does your pastor wear on Sunday mornings?” My friend replied “He wears a suit and tie.” His farmer friend replied “That is your dress code for church; I don’t dress like that and thus I would not be welcomed.” This became a lengthy conversation for the pastoral staff and it created an opportunity for them to be more welcoming by simply toning it down a bit. Now I could certainly wear a nice suit and tie every week – I own several of them and that would make some very happy. I could even wear a robe and stole each week which would make others happy. Or I could go the opposite direction and dress with the current trends that are hipper and younger which would make another crowd of folks happy as well. So since I can’t please all the people all the time I thought I would travel the medium road between. Business casual – slacks, dress shirt, and a sports coat which is a little dressy for some but not too dressy. The reason is that I want guests to feel welcomed to come – that a set attire isn’t the step to acceptance in church; it is a heart that is open to God and God’s community.
As I wrap this up I realize that I will not be able to please everyone. Rather I hope to set an example that leads us to be more conscious about our hearts, our love for God, and our love for our neighbor than we are of peripheral preferences that have little bearing on our spiritual journey.
I hope that we can come to agreement that our task as a church community is to be inviting and welcoming of all people no matter where we stand or what we wear. As long as God’s Word is lifted up and the community is encouraged to draw closer to God then I believe we have led and participated in worship that is pleasing to God.
So in conclusion, thanks for your time and attention! I appreciate your wading through this rather long entry – I hope it has provided a glimpse into my thought and reasoning behind some of the things that I do and the way I am.
Blessings for the journey.