Ministry as Jazz

For 20 years of my life, being an insurance professional was my working identity. When I began down the path to become a Minister of Word and Sacrament, the insurance persona did not evaporate and disappear. I still carry it in me. Insurance is the science of applying statistics and actuarial tables to predict probable outcomes. In life insurance, for example, by knowing enough demographic information about a group of people, insurance can predict with pretty good accuracy how many will live within a range of years. Of course, it isn’t exact because environments change, and levels of individual risk change. But in the end, the predictions are pretty accurate.

As much as I try to apply insurance concepts to ministry, they do not work. In my 10 years as a presbytery executive, I have learned that the dissolution of a congregation cannot be predicted like the lifespan of a human. Believe me, I have tried! I have used denominational statistics, mainline church trends and analyses, and organizational theories and bell curves. The lifespan of a congregation cannot be measured by the number of members, size of budgets, average age of members, location or size of buildings, or traditional or contemporary worship services. These may help a congregation to be vibrant and alive, and perhaps a combination may even help discern the lifespan of a congregation. But I have yet to discover the secret formula for predicting the dissolution of a congregation.

The straight-line and clear boxes and tables of insurance thinking doesn’t work well in ministry. Instead, I have come to realize that ministry is more like jazz music, where leadership plays and responds to the notes and direction of other leaders and members. This is why conversations begin with the Book of Order and not end with it. This is why it is important to know the person and character of the pastor and not only rely on a two-dimensional PIF (now PDP- Personal Discernment Profile). Being a leader and choosing a leader is not only about lining up numbers but asking how well this person lines up with the current session, volunteers, and mission of the congregation. 

Perhaps we should use our policies and best practices as a foundation to choosing leaders. In the end, it’s more about tempo and harmony, which will create the vibrant beat and nurture the lifespan of a congregation.


Rev. Craig Howard