Sharpening the edges

June 22nd, 2016

Eugene Peterson, in one of his earliest books entitled Working the Angles (Eerdmans’s, 1989), noted that pastoral integrity and influence is meted out through consistent practices. Though long observed in pastoral circles and by writers like Peterson, these ideas are consistent with both ancient and modern disciplines that require certain observations, skills and knowledge. But these healthy pastoral practices also require ingenuity, art and sometimes intuition that is based on experience and “feel”.

Perhaps a few illustrations might help.

During my childhood we were an ice skating family. My father frequently gave me the task of sharpening the skate blades. He showed me how to hone the edges with a file, how to run my fingers across the blade to test the sharpness.  “Remember . . . a dull blade is more dangerous than a sharp one,” my father told me often. And it was true. Dull blades would not penetrate the ice, but would slide off the surface. A sharp edge was what enabled the skater to cut a figure eight. It was important to be able to feel the edge.

Likewise, ice skaters know that dull edges on the skates are prelude to disaster. Hockey players spend much time sharpening their blades so that they can “feel” the ice and can spin quickly on the angles. And any carpenter will make sure his blades and chisels, and especially hatchets and axes, are sharp to the touch, otherwise they are of little use and could actually cause bodily harm. Sharper is better when it comes to edges.

Using the edge as a metaphor for pastoral ministry, one can see how vital it is to stay sharp, to feel one’s way through situations and circumstances, and even, at times, skate on the edges of extreme angles, holding fast to the confidence that the edges will hold. And over time, there have been certain consistent edges that pastors need to sharpen in order to maximize their effectiveness and adaptability.

When we pastor on dull edges, we drag into boredom or ineffectiveness. Dull edges can be anything from a lack of study to lackluster routine to hopelessness. Living on dull edges reduces us to toiling in limited spaces (like a goalie, constantly on the defensive) or offers us a limited repertoire of possibilities instead of allowing us to see from the periphery inward. When we become dull our reflexes also slow and we relinquish our “feel” in ministry, perhaps, even, the spiritual awareness of our surroundings and our relationships. Dull edges rarely produce stellar results.

We need to sharpen the edges. And as such, here are three edges that can make the difference.

Sharpen the Mind

Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend who served on the staff parish committee in his congregation. My friend was lamenting his pastor’s limitations in preaching, conversation and insights. “I don’t think he’s read a book since he graduated from seminary,” my friend said. “And that was twenty years ago. He seems to recycle illustrations and conversation pieces from years gone by, and never seems to have time for new learning.”

Indeed, I have known pastors who simply preach a three-year cycle of messages built around the lectionary and a few others who seem to get most of their “news” via the internet. But then, it is easy for pastors to become myopic or secluded or sheltered, too. While we live in the world and among people, any of us can lose our edge if we allow ourselves to read the same books, or converse with people who hold with our own opinions, or if we abandon broader learning for narrowness of mind. Here the old adage may apply: The unexamined life is not worth living.

The human mind — just like the human body — only grows and strengthens as we sharpen the edges. Just as the body is only strengthened through stress and recovery, the mind (knowledge, understanding, insight) can only grow through the practices and disciplines of learning. Reading, writing, working puzzles, travel, discussion, presentation, preparation, debating, listening, outlining, speaking — all of these disciplines (and more) if pressed to the edges will strengthen the mind.

But for pastoral work, more than knowledge if required. The mind needs to be a honed tool, always sharpened by discourse and by being aware of the links that combine past and present information; sharpened by listening as well as speaking; sharpened by reading about, and learning about, disciplines and interests that range far beyond religion, but may involve science, or business, or history, or politics. As John Wesley insisted that his circuit riding preachers always have a book in hand, so too should our modern edges of learning involve books, computers, and lively social interactions both inside, and out of, the classroom.

Pastors are at their best when their minds are honed; the openness to learning is paramount (even critical) to success in parish work.

Skate on the Questions

Some years ago I attended a leadership conference led by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church. In his presentation, Hybels noted that honesty is vital to the health of any organization — especially the church. He noted that when congregations and pastors stop asking questions, but prefer to skate around, or skirt, the problems they are facing . . . atrophy and disillusionment soon follow. Naming our problems (as well as our gifts) is vital to the church.

I have another friend who is a missionary in the Congo. I have heard him say time and again that the primary reason for the growth of the church in the Congo is listening. People have learned how to listen to each other — and in the listening come the questions. Asking questions, in fact, is far more impactful than providing answers.

If our edges have grown dull, perhaps we have forgotten how to ask good questions, or how to probe deeply, or even how to listen for the right questions. When we are quick to offer answers or solutions, we may be skating around questions rather than answering them.

Questions are most important. A few great questions to ask might be:

What is at the heart of our church (as evidenced by our actions rather than our belief statements)?

What are some problems we must own up to?

What are our best gifts? Are we using them to our advantage to serve others?

What could we do if we skated on a new edge and risked more?

Press the Edges

As any skater can attest, one cannot become a world-class artist without pressing the edges: trusting gravity and momentum, trusting one’s partner, practicing time and again those disciplines that one has been taught by mentors and coaches. A skater can feel the ice, even the tiniest imperfections. And in time, a skater learns that the edges will hold if one takes the risk.

Many years ago, when I was doing my Certified Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) in a large North Carolina hospital, a world-class surgeon told our group of young seminarians: “Many people will tell you that medicine is nothing more than strict science and attention to book-learned facts and details . . . but there is more to it. Medicine is also an art, and the best doctors are those who can form relationships with their patients, who can determine medical solutions from ‘feel’ as well as ‘fact’.”

I have never forgotten this conversation and have discovered that much of pastoral ministry is also “feel” or “art”. Pastors can be (or maybe should be) those persons in the church who are first and foremost aware of where the creative possibilities and solutions are within their communities. While many might fall back to the dull edges of traditionalism (“we’ve always done it that way”) or be content to skate the edges of a lackluster routine (“this is who we are”), pastors can be those artists who coach or mentor the best in others, or who press others to trust their own gifts and graces as they attempt new ministries or press the boundaries of church.

As society continues to morph and change month-by-month — and at a pace never before seen in human history — it is vital that pastors be willing to build trusting relationships, teach new routines and disciplines, and allow people and ministries to test the edges to see if they will hold. If not, well . . . one can get back on the ice and try again, find a new edge and skate it. Great results never come from sitting on the sideline, but from practice and learning how to “feel” the movement.

Perhaps, as pastors, we have been too fearful of failure. But if we take a lesson from the ice, and from any edge, we would know that we only sharpen ourselves through failure. Dull edges will not hold. But sharp ones — razor sharp — will produce some spectacular results.

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