The Dance of Ministry

July 5th, 2012

A hundred pounds and two kids ago I was a dancer. In fact, I was a dance caller for the local contra dance group that meets every Friday night in Nashville. For those who don’t know contra dancing, think of dancing akin to square dancing, but without the frilly skirts and the bolo ties. Contra dancing draws on the genteel dances of the 17th century English countryside, and combines them with French, Irish, and Appalachian influences to create a form of dance that is energetic, relational, and great fun . . . and contra dancing was a regular part of my life for many years until the demands of ministry and parenting got in the way.

Recently, as the kids have become more self-sufficient, I have found myself making the trek south to the local Presbyterian church where the Nashville Country Dancers meet each week. As I’ve been working to regain my grace and energy, I’ve found myself observing those in charge of “calling” the evening’s dance—the leaders who set the stage for the evening, walk folks through each dance, and make sure that the dance stays on track. In watching these gifted leaders, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to our common life in the church, thinking about the “dance” that makes up our ministry together, and how the skills of dance calling translate to church leadership. In both cases (dancing and ministry) the leaders are working to motivate, energize, and train people to actively engage in a particular task. Good dance callers inspire people to leave their homes, travel long distances, and spend an evening doing something that is physically demanding in the knowledge that something special is going to happen when all is working right. Could it be possible that they have something to teach us about leadership in the church?

Dance callers must have a sense of time.

I first became a dance caller because of some dance callers that weren’t very good. They were nice and sweet people who had been dancing for many years, but were challenged when it came to understanding “time” in the music. After many months of dance calls being off the beat, I finally jumped in and started calling myself because I knew that I could count to 8 and feel the beat. 

The most basic task of the contra dance caller is to cue the dancers to perform various figures in time with the music. When that is happening correctly, contra dancing is a joyous activity in which one seems to flow from figure to figure. When it’s not – well let’s just say it’s not very pretty, and the dancers are walking around in confusion. For a dance caller, the secret to successful calling is to have an ingrained sense of the rhythm of the music, and the ability to anticipate the next move so that in your prompting, the dancers arrive where they need to be at the start of the beat.

Church leaders must also have a sense of time as they carry out the task of leading the church. This includes the sacred sense of time, such as the parameters of the church year in your church, but also what I would call “functional time,” that is, the way life happens in the surrounding community. An effective leader will look at these factors in evaluating changes and/or new opportunities in determining how these changes fit with the rhythm of the congregation. Similarly, church leaders have to be attuned to the overall flow of congregational life, and how the congregation is experiencing life and the presence of God in a particular moment. To fail to be “in time” with the congregation can lead to confusion, chaos, and conflict.

Just as a dance caller needs to anticipate the next movement, pastoral leaders also need to gain a sense of the next big thing in the life of the church. Too many times (and I am especially guilty of this) we try to force things upon our congregations that are out of sync with where the congregation finds themselves at the current moment. Often times we do this out of fear, feeling somehow that if something new isn’t happening we must be going backwards. And yet, the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us again and again that there is an appointed time for every action under heaven, and our attempts to circumvent the rhythm of the congregation are usually doomed to fail. We have to know our people well, and know the appropriate time to move to the next thing.

Dance callers position themselves to see the big picture, but adapt when things go wrong.

Early in my ministry a pastor that I served with suggested that her vision of ministry was to stand on a catwalk looking down at the congregation, ready at a moment’s notice to swoop down and address and issue, and then returning to the catwalk to keep an eye out for the next crisis. I confess that I was appalled at the time by that image, for it flew in the face of my calling to ministry – a calling to “walk with” rather than “standing above.” I had my own experiences of pastors on pedestals and they rarely were positive. So I couldn’t fathom what my colleague was suggesting.

And yet, as I looked at my dance caller friends, I began to get an inkling of what she was talking about. More often than not, the dance caller is located at the head of the dance hall on a raised platform or stage with the band. This vantage point allows the dance caller to watch the entire group of dancers, making sure that all is right with the dance. She or he watches to make sure that all is in order and that each couple is progressing up and down the set appropriately. It’s certainly possible to call a dance from down on the floor among the dancers, but it’s hard to maintain a sense of what’s going on, and much harder to discern what’s needed to set things right. The difference, I think, between my friend’s approach to ministry and that of a dance caller is that the caller doesn’t have to swoop down to fix things on their own, but is able to prompt folks back into the correct position, or trust experienced dancers down on the floor to straighten things out. That doesn’t mean a dance caller won’t run down and fix a problem if needed, but rather they have a variety of options for addressing a floundering dance—including stopping the entire thing and starting all over again. Most often they trust that folks will figure out what’s wrong on their own, or that their friends dancing around them will straighten things out. They don’t have to be the fix-it people upon whom the followers become dependent to solve all problems. It’s a lesson that many of us need to learn.

Dance callers teach, prompt, and then shut-up.

During the course of an evening, the dance caller will lead the dancers in anywhere from 7 to 10 difference dances, trying to develop a program that both addresses the nervousness of beginning dancers as well as offering challenges for more the more advanced in the group. At the beginning of each dance, the caller will ask the dancers to find a partner (all dances involve pairs . . . but that’s for another article), assume a particular formation, and then teach the dance to the dancers by having them walk through the various figures without the music. Good callers have to gauge the crowd to determine how many walk-throughs are needed, experienced dancers probably only need one or two, while newbies might need three or four. Then, the caller sets the tempo and tells the band to begin. After a four to eight count intro, the caller prompts the first move in time with the music and the dance starts. The first several times through the dance the caller will prompt each move, often changing their pitch, or patter just a bit each time to provide some variety, but once the caller recognizes that the dancers know the dance, her voice drops out and the dancers simply dance. Of course, if things start to fall apart the caller will prompt the figures again until she senses that everything is flowing naturally, and then she shuts up and lets it happen, knowing that the joy of the dance is not found in her calling but rather the actual dance itself.

Likewise, church leaders should be following a similar pattern. Certainly there is a place for teaching people about the life of discipleship, and the call of Christ on our lives is such that we may never fully get it. There is likewise a time for regular prompting to encourage the body of Christ to carry out the tasks of discipleship. But what we often fail to recognize is that there are times when we simply need to get out of the way and let people dance.

That’s a hard thing to do for many of us, for as leaders we think we’re supposed to lead, which means that we should have our fingers in everything. And yet, I find that the most successful ministries in my church are things that I’ve not offered comment and support on, but in which I've gotten out of the way and let people do their thing. For those of us called to pastor, that’s our job – to empower others to carry out the ministry of the church, not to do it for them.

Again this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, for I know that in my own ministry there are far too many times when I carry the weight of the ministry out of expediency, or because (in all honesty) I want to make sure that things are done the way that I want them done. And yet, when I am doing my job well, I understand that my job is to teach, prompt, and then shut up and revel in the joy of the dance before me. 

In the end, the task of the contra dance caller is to set the stage so that the dancers have a great experience dancing.

While good dance calling is fun and rewarding at many levels, the one down side is that the dance caller rarely (if ever) gets to dance themselves. The reward is found in watching 75 to 100 people spinning and laughing and having a joyous time, and knowing that you are a part of that celebration.

Isn’t that what ministry is all about too?

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