Make Disciples (not liturgical ministers?)

I suspect many of us have been excited to be able to attend conferences again (or even that in-person conferences are happening again). I unfortunately had to switch from being at a conference in person last week to zooming in; missing the conversations, meals, liturgies, and general collegiality of the gathering. Instead, I dutifully zoomed in on the plenary addresses in isolation and disconnection to receive information, rather than the breadth of formation that was happening in situ.

One of the talks was short and not necessarily new material but was so helpful to me at the time of hearing that it makes its way to PrayTellBlog! Bp Craig Loya (Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota), speaking to a group of priests, talked about making disciples rather than building a church. You know, cultivating holiness rather than supporting institutions. He was not so naïve as to assume that we could all simply ignore the institution and structures of the church, but rather that, especially on the diocesan level, we could all do a lot better in nurturing disciples through our own modelling of a life of prayer and by teaching spiritual disciplines and practices. Diocesan gatherings have a tendency to focus on maintaining the institution, talking a lot about finances and numbers of people and protecting the boundaries of this core component of church structure. His list of suggestions for drawing near to the roots of the vine – knowing God, rather than the leaves – the perch from where we often talk about God from a distance – had much in common with layers of church structure as well as life in the parish.

I know many readers and writers associated with this blog community live in both the academic world and the parish world, and I suspect the cyclical call to return to the immediacy of being followers, disciples of Christ, resonates as a necessary reminder. A couple years ago, in response to an academic dean’s question about what class MDiv students wanted to take (and what was missing from the curriculum), the response was ‘prayer.’ Several students mentioned they were arriving at the end of their seminary careers but really did not know how to pray. Like the dichotomy between knowing about God and knowing God, this could mean a lot of different things, but as the faculty member tasked with teaching the class, it became both a historical survey of how Christians in the early, medieval, enlightenment, and contemporary times defined prayer, suggested people be shaped in prayer, and an applied practicum – let’s practice praying. Throughout the term we tried different ways of praying – some worked better than others – but each of us found new spiritual practices and renewed spiritual disciplines that we still maintain. It seemed a step closer to Richard of Chichester’s wonderful summary of discipleship:

“To Know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.”

What does this have to do with liturgists and liturgical musicians? When I look back at a lot of parish ministry (as a parish musician, lay liturgical leader, and priest) I reflected on the experience of the class that was really an extended workshop on learning how to pray and on the bishop’s talk last week and remembered so little of my work as a music and liturgy director was about formation. It was mostly about recruiting people for particular liturgical tasks, sharing information on what it meant and how to do it, keeping schedules, and reminding individuals of ‘best-practices’ in their ministries. I see such a different approach in the music director with whom I now work, who is one of the finest pastoral ministers I know (in addition to being a superb music director). He knows who is in the hospital, he seems to be the first to know if someone has a sick or dying relative, he is a team player in praying together and forming all of us as disciples, as followers of Christ who have been grafted onto that life-giving vine.

Part of this dynamism is recognizing that a vocation to a particular liturgical ministry is a way of exercising one’s discipleship – being a liturgical minister and being a disciple are not oppositional. But another piece of parish ministry, of the cure of souls, is prioritizing the core work of leading the baptized to discipleship by teaching spiritual disciplines and leading spiritual practices and recognizing that there are far fewer boundaries between members of the laity and various ordained members than the institution often champions; charism has a funny way of finding its natural resting place in spite of ecclesial structures. A very notable and faithful lay person died a few weeks ago, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In a tribute to her, The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams described her as “someone who had a clear sense of the church’s role in changing times, [but] did not confuse firmness of faith with loudness of utterance or hostility to strangers.” This allowed her to be a disciple in a particular way: “as British society grew both more religiously plural and more secular, she responded not by watering down what she had to say in her annual Christmas broadcasts but by gently increasing the references to her faith and to the role of religious faith in general.” In a sense – the farther her frame of reference was from the larger society, the more she “simply reiterated her own commitment, her acknowledgment of God’s grace, and her insistence on the need to remember what the Christmas festival was actually about.” (The Living Church, October 2, 2022)

Coming out of the severest restrictions of the pandemic seems a good time to reassess and reorder our priorities, in the parish as well as in other parts of our lives. Being a faithful servant, practicing and abiding in spiritual disciplines and practices, helping to shape others in those through any number of ministerial paths – it seems a good time to recommit ourselves to all of this, and it seems – when we look around – what people are longing for. Show us how to pray, give us the tools to do this, give us the ‘architecture’ of prayer!




4 responses to “Make Disciples (not liturgical ministers?)”

  1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    This resonates with me. In my new parish, I’m fielding practical vectors from various liturgy people: we should call assigned ministers the week before their assignment to remind them; we need to pitch for more volunteers at Mass, we need refresher courses on procedures more than we need a retreat.

    At Liturgy Committee I did suggest the notion that the role of greeter is optimally extended to the entire assembly, and asked why we “greet” anyone who is not a guest or visitor.

    It’s a good parish, but there’s a lot of momentum to overcome in considering the practical, organized side of liturgical life versus (alas) the formation needed.

    One last observation: I’ve worked for more than one parish where I was given a budget to attend conferences, but when I asked to apply that line item for a retreat instead, I was told that expense was my own. We have a way to go, yet.

    1. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      I was really struck by your comment about financial support for retreats – yes, how amazingly important are these for all of us!!

  2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    A perhaps unseen dimension to this task-defined individualistic conception of lay ministers is the boundary that many Catholics have established individually and culturally to resist unwelcome active intrusion into their personal faith lives.

    Those boundaries may come down when a pastor or bishop is perceived as sympathetic (or just less actively hostile) to a lay person’s journey, but when leadership changes there can be a whiplash and Catholics who’ve lived long enough keep their boundaries higher because of the understanding of the likelihood of this reality.

    And this experience is not limited to one end of the “spectrum” as it were.

    The reality of unilateral prelatial and clerical power underwrites the perpetuation of this dynamic.

    Formation for the sheep is vexed when shepherds can become wolves.

  3. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
    Lizette Larson-Miller

    I can affirm this personally – a change of pastor meant a change of status for all of us at one point in my personal history. Looking back, I was surprised to wake up the next morning still baptized!

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