Welcome to Greatheart’s Table, a place meant to encourage the ordinary pastor in the long grind of pastoral ministry.
And encouragement is what we often need.
Most of us here will never have a broad platform or a particularly large church. And most of us quite often question our calling and wonder about our relevance. And being serious sorts, we often let these things drag us down. With this unusually long post1, I’d like us to find a counter-weight to this heaviness with a spirit of playfulness. Let’s talk about something that sounds odd to say and which for some may sound even wrong. I’d like to encourage you to be a “Playful Pastor.”
Mushrooms on a Saturday Night
Walking into our pastor’s study for our premarital counseling appointment, my fiancée and I found Pastor Mike2 spending his free moments on this Saturday evening reading. He was not reading a puritan classic nor the latest release on growing the church.
“It’s a book about mushrooms,” he chuckled.
He muttered something about mining for sermon illustrations, but I think that was a decoy. He was reading a book about mushrooms because he enjoyed reading about mushrooms.
Pastor Mike’s church could not have been an easy one. I’m sure there was heaviness and leadership difficulties. And yet what I remember about Pastor Mike was his playfulness. His frequent chuckling revealed not just a joy in Christ but a deeply playful spirit. Playfulness just might be one of the great, unspoken, yet necessary attributes for a pastor.
Against the inherited background that pastoral life, in fact the obedient Christian life, is always to be purposeful and goal directed, unstructured leisure, daydreaming, or reading about mushrooms without some greater purpose, raise suspicions. I drunk early of the Kool-Aid that labels unstructured activities like these as unsuited to the seriousness of pastoral life. I need to be reminded of models such as Pastor Mike to lure me away from such thoughts.
Early in my ministry I stumbled across Calvin Seerveld’s insightful reflections on what he calls “aesthetic obedience.” In his book Rainbows for the Fallen World Seerveld argues for playfulness as a necessary contra-practice for our deeply embedded protestant work ethic. He challenges us who rightly take sin and work seriously to consider that also
God wants playful, imagining and comic incidents to take place in his world. The Lord made room for a sense of humour, for fantasies of winged horses, for the fun of making-believe as when children “play house.” And God saw that it was good.3
Reading Seerveld in 1985 encouraged me occasionally to stop in the middle of my sermon making just to stare out the window and let my mind follow the paths that it needed to travel. Studies thirty-five years later show that such playful, non-directed daydreaming serves creativity.4 But to justify daydreaming or other types of play by saying it serves productivity is to risk corrupting it. God invites us to enjoy this spectacular world. But, Seerveld observes, we don’t go on bike rides just for the delight of the thing itself. We do so because we are training for a race or building our cardio-vascular health. We have forgotten how to play.
Born to Laugh
Play is full of a lighthearted curiosity. It is curious about the good things of God’s creation. A playful spirit is the lack of restraint that characterizes a child; it is a refusal to let the darkness of sin and the world’s brokenness strip away the goodness yet existent in the world. Though my son is forty, he still cannot fry a simple pancake. He will arrange the blueberries or chocolate chips as a letter or a smile because he’s playful that way. A three year old at church a few weeks ago twirled her dress and then was spotted with her hands barely above the congas accompanying the musicians as they rehearsed. We are often so purpose driven that we will only twirl our dresses and play the congas if there is a justifiable reason. And that is our loss.
A playful spirit serves joy, allowing us to freely explore life as more than just business and responsibility. Playfulness is not having a racketball date in your calendar, which becomes just another duty and goal. Playfulness is attempting to play with your non-dominant hand and to laugh at the results. My wife and I are being told to lighten up in our always so serious, grown up marriage. We should put soap suds on each other’s noses because laughter is something God given and pleasing to him, as well as enriching to our lives together.
Pastor Mike could be serious. His rich, deep, and faithful reformed preaching was something so new to me, and so transforming, that it left a legacy I’ll never live up to. But his putting on music and dancing happily with his teen-aged daughters is also part of his legacy. His playfulness took nothing away from his pastoral influence. It probably deepened it.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about an adult acting like a child in order to win children. I’m not talking about adults acting in foolish, sinful, or offensive ways. Somehow a grown man belly-dancing leaves the arena of playful and enters the obscene. Maybe when I have burping contests with my grandsons, I have done the same. I hope not. Adults need to know that they are adults. They need to know when behaviors are appropriate and when they are not. But never to do things that make us giggle is soul destroying.
I understand how difficult playfulness can be when we’re struggling with church conflict or watching a ministry teeter on the edge of oblivion. Perhaps we need playfulness then more than ever. In the Over the Rhine song “Born” we are reminded that though
I was born to laugh.
I learned to laugh though my tears.5
To Live in Grace
To learn to laugh at all, and especially through our tears, takes a reacquaintance with grace. Playfulness arises from feeling secure. Children dance and twirl and chase ducks because they feel safe. To know the security that is ours as children of a heavenly Father is the absolute prerequisite for pastoral playfulness. Author Marilyn McEntyre suggests that
To play is to claim our freedom as beloved children of God . . . . Children who feel completely safe and loved are playful. To play is to live in grace.6
The spirit of playfulness is a reflection of how secure the gospel has made us feel. It is to live in grace.
We need, once again, to be freed to learn to play.
So go for a walk, but not to count steps. Buy a tree and marvel at its growth. Go to the beach and collect seashells. That is not always a tragedy. Learn to tap dance. Put whipped cream on your spouse’s ear. Put whipped cream on your own ear. Write a line in your sermon that no one will ever see just because it makes you laugh. Write a letter longhand and end it with a goofy hand drawn picture of yourself. Do it just because it is fun. Put the office trashcan on the other side of the room just to see how many three-pointers you can sink. Hang a bird-feeder outside your window and watch the squirrels furtively eat.
Read books about mushrooms. Dance with your daughters.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.7
I promised posts of no more than 800 words. This one weighs in at 1200. We will re-institute discipline for the next post.
Though it may sound like it, this is not a pseudonym. The Reverend Willard E. Michael was, while Barb and I were students at Michigan State University, the pastor of East Lansing Trinity Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is one of the reasons I am today a pastor.
Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World (Canada: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), pp. 52, 53.
As recently reported by the Washington Post journalist Jill Suttie.
From the 2005 album Drunkard’s Prayer.
Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Second Edition (United States: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), p.191.