Standing Ovation

Standing Ovation

Last week you probably didn’t hear from me. I was making a long, remote pilgrimage into the snowy Catskills to meet our new bishop, Bishop Jane Allen Middleton. She had called all the clergy to retreat. So there, in an isolated resort with no cell phone service, we Methodist clergy gathered to play games, hear motivational speeches, gossip, and get massages. For our laity trying to imagine what we clergy do when we get together, picture a dorky version of a Star Trek Convention with fewer costumes and more rhythmic clapping (*insert tongue in cheek emoji*).

Although I like to make fun of our Methodork gatherings, I do usually come away with something helpful. This year, Bishop Middleton showed a short film about Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and author/speaker on leadership. Zander is known for his empowering and inspiring leadership techniques, and there was a scene in the video that has really stuck with me as I think about my own leadership and life in general. Zander was giving a master class to a young cellist playing a Bach prelude in front of a room full of people. As he talked with the cellist he also really engaged the audience, having her interact with them as she played. By the end, he had the audience on their feet giving the cellist a standing ovation with huge smiles on their faces.

From my experience in the classical music world (I played viola through college and am married to a professional classical musician.), moments like this feel rare to me. A cellist playing a Bach prelude beautifully is not rare, but an audience (especially an audience that is probably made up of other musicians) that is so invested in the success of a performer feels all too strange to me. I have felt classical audiences to often be much more critical, competitive, and almost sitting on the edge of their seats listening for imperfection.

This audience, however, seemed to be actively participating in the cellist’s success. They were smiling, fulling expecting and wanting her to touch them. Any mistakes she made could be glossed over because this group was not listening for mistakes. They were listening for beauty and soul and authenticity. Somehow, Zander was able to turn the relationship between performer and audience from antagonistic to mutually supportive, and I think that made all the difference in the experience of both.

In my own preaching and speaking, I have felt a similar dynamic with an audience. I have preached in front of gatherings in which it felt like people were trying to size me up, wondering why I was standing there in front of them, waiting for me to mess up. And I have also preached for gatherings in which everyone was just hanging on my every word, fully expecting to hear something wise and relevant to their lives (At least, that was my perception!). And, as much as I wish I were completely above it all, channeling the divine no matter what anyone thinks of me, the way my words are received affects how I preach. It affects my confidence. As much as I want to have swagger regardless of the expressions of the crowd, I have found that audiences are never passive. When we are a part of an audience, the vibe we give out can have an effect on the person bearing their soul at the front of the room, and, because of that, we can effect the entire experience. And sometimes, as an audience, we do want to intentionally disagree with what is happening. But more often, when we are not supporting the speaker/performer, we are just being unthinkingly critical, and we (and everyone else in the room) would get so much more out of the experience if we would simply forgive the mistakes and expect the sacred to show up.

I think in our leadership and in all of our relationships, we need to give more standing ovations (I’m speaking metaphorically here. Please do not start giving our sermons standing ovations!). I think we need to support one another enthusiastically rather than always looking for what is wrong with the other. There was a point a few years ago when one of our church leaders noticed that there was an attitude of blaming that permeated our community. If one leader dropped the ball on something, others tended to blame them for putting a cog in the system, and their mistake would be used as the excuse for the community’s lack of progress on some project.

So this leader made the simple suggestion that, instead of blaming each other when things go wrong, we might try support. Instead of chastising each other, why not ask how we can help? That observation made a big difference for me and our church. Instead of sitting and hurling criticism from the audience, why not give an encouraging smile, ask how we can help, and facilitate that standing ovation, knowing that we are all on the same team?

This weekend, our church leadership will be on retreat together. I hope to bring some piece of Bishop Middleton’s film to our group as we focus on the transitions before us with the impending retirement of our church’s founding pastor. What I want to bring to this retreat is that reminder that we are in this together, all on the same team, one body together. Instead of seeing the worst in each other, we can try to imagine the best. Instead of seeing our individual failures, we can work together to make one another successful. No one is in this alone, performing for an uninterested audience. We are all responsible for that standing ovation.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

I Corinthians 12:12, 26

Photo Credit: Crowd applause at the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival in 2006 (Indigo Goat)