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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

In Praise of Improvisation
February 1, 2018

Last week I explored some of the differences in the musical thinking patterns of classical and jazz musicians, comparing them to differing approaches churches take in conducting their mission. I noted that Presbyterians typically tilt toward the text-based, regulative, process-oriented world of classicists. I ended with this: “We need also to be creative, to adjust our forms of witness to a mission field that is constantly changing. How are we doing with that?” One of our pastors turned the question back to me, asking in essence, “How are presbytery’s committees and machinery doing with that?” Great question!

Presbyteries bear a deep, natural inclination to go by the book and resist change. Yet some entities in our presbytery machinery are exploring significant changes in order better to accomplish their mission. For example, this year our Commission on Ministry is launching a full re-design of its committee structure to accomplish its mission more effectively. The re-design grew from within COM itself, rather than being imposed or proposed (you pick your preferred word) by presbytery staff. One step unprecedented in Pittsburgh Presbytery’s COM history is that they have opened up the path for people with a passion for congregational or pastoral vitality to join COM’s sub-committees even if they are not serving on COM.

This is, of course, hardly “in the moment” improvisation. A committee met for months just to prepare the basic framework of the new plan. Yes, I know, a committee on committees…how Presbyterian! But the change is real. And real change is no small step for Presbyterians. Of course, the test will be whether COM’s support for congregations and pastors really does strengthen, or this is just a mechanical rearrangement. We’ll never know until we try.

“Improvising” is a wonderful and necessary skill for jazz musicians, but the word often carries negative baggage outside the music world, contributing to Presbyterian aversion to it. People “improvise” when they have not appropriately prepared themselves for a task. Such improvisation should certainly be avoided. We need to do our homework before we launch into anything as important as how we “do church.” Jesus reminds us of the importance of counting the cost before we commit ourselves to following him in mission. (Luke 14:25-33)

Somewhat less negative is the idea that we must “improvise” when we lack the right materials or tools for the job. But it is still considered second-best. And we take pride in settling for only the best. I invite us to reframe this sort of improvisation by defining it as the readiness to take on an important task even when we feel short on materials or tools or know-how. It involves a leap of faith. This is where many churches get stuck. Unsure of whether they have sufficient capacity to reach out to new people, they stick with the tried and true that has led them to where they are now, even if they know their effectiveness in reaching a changing world is diminishing.

Improvising gets us doing things we’ve never done before. Yet good jazz improvisation requires immense preparation. Chord progressions and voicing need to be ready for deployment at split-second notice. A jazz pianist can improvise well only to the extent he or she has mastered the building blocks of music, so they can be arranged and rearranged instantly in a limitless array of possible combinations. Similarly, churches that are nimble with how they deliver the gospel message must first be deeply anchored in its core story.

This week’s lectionary passage from the epistles includes Paul’s well-known claim, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) He always adjusts his approach to ministry to the people he is trying to reach. Flexibility. Adaptability. Imagination. These are the core competencies of effective improvisation in proclaiming the gospel in a changing world, just as they are in jazz.

Our surrounding world is changing. Rapidly. How ready are we, even on a trial basis, to depart from our cherished, established script to engage our neighbors better with the gospel? It will take a willingness to improvise, to go down pathways unfamiliar to us. All for the love of Christ and his message of healing and reconciliation for a world torn by injury and animosity.

Yours in readiness to do whatever it takes,



The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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