Because parish ministers are always on call for pastoral emergencies, such as death or serious accident, we carry our ministry shoes at all times, to slip on as needed.During my “just on call” times I like contra dancing, a New England folk dance rooted in English country dancing. I grew up with contra dance’s Western cousin, square dance. The big difference is that square dances are done in squares while contra dances are in long lines that face (or counter) one another. Both are really fun, both have moves like allemandes and promenades. and both will feature largely in this weekend’s New England Folk Festival in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Some of my parishioners know about my dance life. One recently called me “our dancing minister.” True, I am still a minister while dancing, and I have learned things from dancing that inform my ministry. For instance, in contra dancing you perform a move called a “balance” to make sure everyone is stable before you perform another move, like a swing. In dancing as in ministry, if you find your balance (of power and responsibility) first, you can go on to do more complicated and interesting things.
As a dancer “giving weight” helps during certain moves. When you swing, for instance, it helps if you and your partner establish a good connection (by holding each other in a sort of a waltz position), and then lean back a little into the swing. Both the connection and the weight establish a center of gravity between you that makes the swing safer and more fun. Giving weight also helps during moves like a “roll away with a half sashay,” which is just as fun as it sounds.
At most contra dances the musicians take a break about midway, and right before the break they play a waltz. Waltzing works best if one person leads and the other follows. I am not good at letting other people lead while waltzing, and apologize for that often. I joke that leading all the time is an occupational hazard of ministry, but as a minister, sometimes you have to let another person lead. As in waltzing, of course you watch out to make sure there are no obstacles the other person cannot see, but sometimes you have to let another lead and you have to follow. That is ministry, too.
In order for leader and follower to communicate well while waltzing, there has to have some tension between them. We tend to think of tension as a bad thing but in waltzing, it is necessary. You need to push a bit against each other to create a frame that allows the leader to communicate his or her intentions clearly. You dance much more gracefully together if there is a little tension between you, in waltzing and in ministry.
Earlier I wrote that thinking of ministry as shoes you carry around with you reminded me of dancing. When you contra dance, in order to preserve the delicate wooden floors, you need to switch into special soft-soled dance shoes that you only wear for dancing. At dances, you see people taking off their street shoes and putting on dance shoes at the start, and reversing the process at the end.
If ministry is like a dance in this way, ministers must remember to change into those shoes whenever performing ministry, and to change out of them whenever they are done. We need to know how to put on and take off that role in order to preserve the floor or foundation as well as our feet. I have gone through a few pairs of dance shoes these past few years. The good ones fit you better the longer you wear them. Perhaps that is the same with ministry. Perhaps, with time, that role that can seem too big and too small increasingly feels just right.