Magazine article The Christian Century

Say a Few Words

Magazine article The Christian Century

Say a Few Words

Article excerpt

WE WERE ABOUT to have another church banquet. The chair of the committee that was organizing the event stopped by my office to review the program. Seated across from me with her iPad in hand, she checked off one item after another as I kept smiling and saying, "That sounds fine." Then came one of the most familiar questions of my ministry: "Oh, and pastor, will you say a few words?" This question hadn't even made the checklist. It never does. It's just a reflexive action of all chairs of church committees responsible for banquet programs.

I've never known exactly what is meant by this request. Do they want me to say a few words of inspiration, prophecy, consolation, biblical theology--or just a few words about how much I appreciate the person who asked me to say a few words? Maybe the important point is to use only a few words.

Seminaries teach future pastors how to do careful exegesis of the biblical text, how to explore the wonders of over 2,000 years of theological tradition, how to take seriously the mission of the church, and even a few important insights on how to do pastoral care. But no professor has a lecture in her or his syllabus on "Say a few words."

I am often tempted to walk to the microphone and to offer these few words: "I've got nothing." If they had asked me to prepare a homily or devotional, or even to offer a few words about Didymus the Blind, I would have known exactly what to do because I am trained for that. But that's not what the congregation is asking of its pastor at the end of a banquet program that has already run too long.

As I've thought about this for a very long time, and as I've offered many few words along the way, I've become convinced they don't care much what I say. No one will remember these words the next day. And yet it's critically important that I say something.

I'm sure that those who are sitting in a church basement on metal folding chairs, finishing up their desserts and drinking lukewarm coffee, enjoy it if my few words are witty and make them chuckle. They appreciate my appreciation of those who put the banquet together. They're probably OK with a few words that reminded everyone that Jesus is concerned about those who are hungry and who didn't get an invitation to our banquet. Or at least, a pastor saying things like that doesn't surprise them.

Now that I am a seminary president, and attend even more banquets where I'm asked to say a few words, the question continues to bang around in my head--why do they want me to speak at all? …

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