Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Pastor as Liturgical Theologian

When I was serving as pastor, I sometimes liked to bill myself as “the resident liturgical theologian.” Not that I was looking for a highfalutin title; I was just aiming for accuracy. As “Minister of Word and Sacrament” (which is the official title), liturgical responsibilities are high priority, so the “liturgical theologian” designation seemed on target.

What I realized very quickly is that this “liturgical” function is intertwined with what is called the “pastoral” role of the clergy. In many ways they are exactly the same: the pastor who shepherds and cares for the people is the presider who leads them as a gathered community in worship.

And the liturgy itself takes on a pastoral tone.

The people arrive from different places to be gathered into one community. Aloneness is met with a common worship of one God. Unison song rings out to celebrate the gathering by the grace of God.

Some will come with regret and remorse if not outright guilt, and need the opportunity for confession and repentance, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness.

Undoubtedly there will be some, perhaps many who are confused, bewildered about moral issues, needing direction for their lives. Words of Scripture give wisdom of the ages; the proclamation from the pastor brings it all home to that gathering.

The Word proclaimed is comforting, to be sure, but always challenging as well. The old saw that “good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable” has much truth in it.

Others will bring a viable faith with them to worship, but even they will welcome the opportunity to reaffirm, to hear their own voices say and sing out loud, “I believe….”

Certainly there are prayers of and from and for all the people. Mostly intercessions are offered: for loved ones and even enemies; for the powerful and the powerless; for those near at hand and those far away; for folks we know and ones only God remembers; for brother and sister Christians and for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, even unbelievers; and so forth.

There are thanksgivings, too, and commitments that accompany them: for the earth that gives us life, that we will protect the life of the earth; for the country and community in which we live and our responsibilities as citizens; for the blessings of the church, and our opportunities to serve God in and through it; and so forth.

Of course, there are petitions too: for wisdom and strength and courage to follow where Christ leads, to care with his caring, to speak out for his justice, to serve with his humility, and so forth.

Then there is that exquisite moment of communion, when all our senses combine to receive Christ himself, as his body is broken again for us and his cup is lifted once more in celebration of his covenant with us. And our union with him, while mystical, is so real to the point that we become, all of us together with all others at his table, the Body of Christ ready to go into the world.

So we go, blessed and sent out to be Christ’s presence in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgy each Sunday is a pastoral journey. At what points does your Sunday liturgy touch pastoral concerns?


  1. oh gosh, if only it were always that way. I have been in worship like this before, and it always leaves me feeling loved, refreshed, and renewed. Unfortunately I have found it difficult to find a worship experience that is so thoughtfully planned as to provide this pastoral care. Thank you for so clearly outlining how the service can provide for us.

  2. I like the concept, and yet, I am struck by the idea of pastor as theologian of the work of the people (the defin. of liturgy). In that case, I think the pastor has to remember that he or she is also one of the people- a side by side approach, not top down. Maybe we need to keep reminding ourselves that a stole is a towel. (It's easy to forget that when they're made of silk and cost $250!)

    I appreciate your inclusion of pastoral care in worship. I am mindful that there is mystery in the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, a worshipper says "that was just what I needed," and we may not have been aware.

  3. Thanks, Donna for your comment, with which I agree. Of course the pastor is one of the people, and it is hoped that the pastor worships also. My comment was not about status or standing, high or low, but about function. By definition and by virtue of ordination, Presbyterian ministers are "of Word and Sacrament," and it is in that role that the pastor functions on Sunday morning. No one else (except in some cases other clergy) has that particular role and responsibility. I worry that pastors don't take that seriously enough, don't do their homework, don't spend time, energy and thought on preparing the liturgy, selecting hymns, writing prayers, practicing the readings and the sermon, and so forth (all in addition to the study involved in sermon preparation). In that role the pastor is not the same as those in the pew. Their roles are very different, even so the presider is not worthy of more honor or deference than anyone else.

  4. I read Will Willimon's book "Worship as Pastoral Care" in seminary and the idea he presented has stayed with me - that people are coming to worship hoping to meet God in that worship experience. I keep that in mind as I offer the invocation and pastoral prayer, speaking conversationally rather than formally with God about the needs of the people gathered, and their hopes that God will be palpably present to them in that hour of worship or will speak the word their hearts need to hear.

    I, too, love the sacrament of communion and often remind the congregation that Jesus of Nazareth ate most often at other people's tables, but that the table at the center of our worship is His table where everyone is welcome to come.

    I hope to offering my congregation the experience of sharing our worship space and time WITH the Lord through the way that I pray and the words that I use.


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