As we learn the music well, we will learn that even when we are going “off the page” in regard to ministry challenges, we are never truly soloing. We are always playing in harmony with both the Spirit of God who leads us and with the Community of Faith into which God has placed us.

“One, two, three, four”, the drummer said sharply as he clicked his sticks together. Then the music began. The rest of the musicians knew the key, the song title, and started to play. There had been no rehearsal. The band was pieced together at the last minute to play this “gig.” They had been given the venue, the time, and pay. And for those who could participate, little more needed to be said. The performance went without a hitch, complete with radio quality solos on well-known songs from each of the players, netting them all an unexpected and generous payday. And all of this with little rehearsal and a lot of improvisation.

A casual observer listening to this band would think they traveled together year around, and that they rehearsed daily or at least weekly. This was not the case, however. Nor was it the case that they simply got together and played whatever they chose to play hoping it would somehow blend together. The fact is that these musicians were skilled in the art of improvisation only because they knew the songs, had experience playing in these kinds of settings, and were all highly skilled in the “basics” of their instruments.

To the observer and even to the novice musician, their performance would have looked something like a miracle, or at best an almost unreachable plateau of rare skill. But if these observers were to make that claim within earshot of these musicians, they would have heard a different reason as to why these musicians could come together on short notice and play even the improvised solos with studio level skill in such a venue. In fact, these musicians would be the first to point out that those best at improvisation – world renown musicians such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis – are not reckless or untrained who just “play what they want.” Instead, musicians who are the best at improvisation are those who prepare the most in regard to the notes on the page before they become skilled at playing what is not explicitly on the page.

This is also the case in Christian ministry. Like the casual observer or novice musician in the illustration above, young ministers and observant parishioners may watch experienced ministers who deal with the many surprises of ministry and marvel at how they seem to “make it look easy.” And indeed there are aspects of day to day minster that become easier for ministers as time goes by. But no minister, regardless of experience, is immune to circumstances in which he or she is forced to improvise. Simply put, given the diverse nature of the human beings to which we are called to minister, no amount of training can adequately prepare a minister for every situation that arises. These times of improvisation, however, are not times in which we “fly by the seat of our pants” and recklessly wing it. Great jazz musicians like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis are intricately acquainted with the basics of music – chord structure, key signatures, music theory, and the limits of their own instrument – before they dare to launch into a section of improvisation. For the Christian minister, the same principle applies.

No wonder ethicist and Anglican priest Samuel Wells titles his introduction to Christian ethics, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. In this work, Wells reminds us that it is the consistent practices of the church that “shape and empower Christians” to become a “community of trust in order that it may faithfully encounter the unknown future without fear.” Or, as Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson write, like well-trained actors in an unfinished Shakespeare play, we “immerse ourselves” in the acts that we do have available so that we can adequately “improvise the parts that are missing” (The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call).

So, how do ministers learn to improvise?

Learning the Music

First, we immerse ourselves in the “basics” of the Christian life. We become people of consistent prayer, consistent reading of Scripture, consistent loving interaction and accountability. Secondly, we remind ourselves daily that we are people who are called to trust in the leadership of the Spirit of God, and that this trusting relationship often calls for us to go “off the page” in regard to our responses, while keeping in mind what “key” we are in as we explore new depths of our calling to minister to others in unique situations. We learn what “key” we are in by taking seriously the theological and ethical authorities God places in our lives: Scriptural and theological boundaries, the historic and current voice of the Church in which we serve, creedal and other governing statements concerning our office as ministers. All of these allow us to speak into the confusion of new ministry challenges with the words of the Apostle Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1).

As we learn the music well, we will learn that even when we are going “off the page” in regard to ministry challenges, we are never truly soloing. We are always playing in harmony with both the Spirit of God who leads us and with the Community of Faith into which God has placed us. We are indeed called to improvise at times, but thankfully this does not mean that we “make it up as we go.”

Four Areas to Take Seriously

Just as learning the scales, chords, key signatures, and basics of the instrument are vital for improvisation in music, there are four key areas of evaluation in order to become competent in the myriad of opportunities for improvisation in Christian ministry. These four areas are like four quadrants of measurement – a kind of theological and ethical grid with which we become more strongly acquainted as we grow in our gifts and calling in ministry.

Quadrant 1: Theology – Our first priority involves asking questions regarding theology: Is our approach to this particular situation distinctly Christian, or does it follow some non-theological pattern or norm? Is this decision in harmony with our understanding of the mission of the Christ and the Church? We may certainly adapt methods from other disciplines, but we as Christian ministers, we are called to filter every method through the lens of the ways of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Quadrant 2: Priorities – We recognize that in ethical decision-making, values often “compete.” In other words, there is often more than one valid solution to a particular dilemma. This means that we must ask questions regarding proper priorities: Does this decision reveal our desire to maintain sound theological priorities in our congregation? Will this decision point individuals and families toward Christ, or will it blur the lines of Christ-centered priorities? As Christians, we are not only guided by what is good, but we are called to what is best: that which best points to the ways of Jesus Christ.

Quadrant 3: Character – We do not simply represent an entity or corporation. We represent a person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This means that we take seriously the question of character. More specifically, we ask things like: If (when) this decision is made public, will either the decision-making process or the ramifications of the decision itself cast a shadow on the character and reputation of Christ and His Church? Just as a good musician asks if her performance is in-keeping with the spirit and style of the music, so too a Christian minister should ask if the process and result of the decision reflects and flows from the character of Christ.

Quadrant 4: Relationships – Ours is not a pieced together theology isolated from the broader concerns of community. Therefore, we must become accustomed to asking relational questions regarding the ramifications of our decisions in ministry. Is our approach to this decision fostering a healthy environment for strong, Christ-honoring relationships? Does this decision take seriously Christ’s desire for everyone – even the traditionally marginalized voices of our community – to have a voice? These kinds of questions take seriously the heart of ethical decision-making in the Christian tradition: namely, that we are called to community and the relationships within that community are means of grace.

This entry is loosely based upon Chapter One of Charles W. Christian, Ethics in Christian Ministry: A Guide for Mentors and Pastors (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2017).

Charles W. Christian is Affiliate Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and Adjunct Professor of Theology at MidAmerica Nazarene University. He also serves as Senior Pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Cameron, Missouri.