Pastoral Formation as Improvisation

Introduction

So what does slapping together a sandwich in a soup kitchen have to do with priestly formation? And how does packing medical equipment for a mission trip help anyone become a spiritual father? Or visiting random old dudes at a nursing home who likely will die before one’s ordination: what has that got to do with becoming a pastor? Those are the questions we might use to challenge the old adage: “These hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”

These questions arise in the pastoral formation of seminarians. And they are important because, unlike the dogma we must study, pastoral care is improvisational. Dogma is like the notes on a scale: they do not change. But pastoring is improv, it is communicating doctrine according to the condition of the receiver because as Aquinas says otherwise doctrine cannot be received. You can’t explain doctrine to a child the same way you do to his grandmother. A priest cannot demand that all parishioners adapt to him, rather, like St. Paul, his call is to become all things to all men.

Consider that a priest can orchestrate much of his life. Dioceses arrange workshops for our continuing intellectual formation as well as compose presbyteral retreats for spiritual formation; and priests themselves choreograph vacations or visits to the gym for health and wellness. Thus, a priest can orchestrate intellectual, spiritual, and human formation according to the melody of the parish or diocese. But the pastoral pillar cannot be orchestrated: like jazz, the pastoral pillar is improv. How can you orchestrate parishioners so that they die according to the rhythm of the pastor’s preference? No life crisis responds to the tempo of any priest’s metronome.  Therefore, like jazz, the improvisation of pastoral care requires both preparation and adaptation.

Practice or Perish

Pastoral formation requires both adaptation and preparation or practice because improv requires the confidence acquired only from competence. And competence can only be developed by practice. Pastoring is improv because in a crisis as in improv we default to either competency or incompetency, whichever we have practiced. Thus, a priest, like a jazz musician, must be practiced in order to adapt to the unpredictable pastorate. Like a jazz musician, we either practice or we perish.

A priest must be adaptive because while pastoring is something for which we must practice, it is not something which we may predict. When Mrs. Magilacutty calls from the emergency room because she’s bleeding from her husband’s beating, we must immediately adapt from relaxing in our Lazy Boy to practicing hard, pastoral care. Now we may notice on the drive to the hospital a growing irritation because we’ve told Mrs. Magilacutty for months to get a restraining order. But is oozing irritation on Mrs. Magilacutty what she needs just then? If we’ve practiced serving sandwiches to people who occasionally seem ungrateful or inebriated, and we’ve done so patiently, better compassionately, than we’ve practiced being aware of our emotions, and how to manage them for the good of others. Thus, under some unexpected stress in the future we adapt, that is, we default as a priest to what we practiced as a seminarian. What seminarians practice in their community chores or parish outreach prepares them to act helpfully in the future.

However, if they do not practice patience, self-awareness, and generosity now, they will not be prepared to act helpfully in the future, rather, they will react hurtfully. Because in a crisis, as in improv, everyone defaults to either competency or incompetency, whichever we practiced. If in seminary we practice impatience and judgementalism, then as a priest we’ll be just another irritated male communicating to Mrs. Magilacutty that she got what she deserved — and that is not pastoral care, that is pastoral cruelty.

Pastoring is something for which we must practice precisely because it is not something which anyone may predict. Preparation by daily practice in seminary forms the habits needed in the pastorate later. Choosing reconciliation with brother seminarians rather than gossiping about them prepares one for inevitable conflict in any future parish. Teaching catechism to bored teens when we’d rather binge on Netflix takes the same patience as the listening skills of a future pastor. Learning how to adapt our communication to the needs of an older generation like Mrs. Magilacutty is more likely to occur through mundane preparation in the neighborhood nursing home than through some miraculous intervention. In ministry as in improv we default to either competency or incompetency, whichever we have practiced. As Louis Armstrong said: “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it . . . for two days, the critics know it . . . three days, the public knows it.” Likewise, if we don’t practice patience, reconciliation, and good listening now then the future Mrs. Magilacutty will know that we are just another male telling her she deserves what she gets rather than a priest assuring her she deserves what God wants. And that would not be ministry, that would be a catastrophe.

Conclusion

So what kind of future priests do we want: a pastor or a disaster? Seminarians who practice now to be the kind of priest they want to be in the future experience pastoral assignments as opportunities to practice public leadership in the Church often through quiet, personal struggles in self-mastery and sweaty spirituality. Every pastoral assignment always has a public, communitarian or ecclesial dimension. To prepare for jazz or for pastoring, the same three words are essential: Practice, practice, practice. Hence, the following are suggested either for priest formators to discuss with seminarians or for seminarians to consider on their own (perhaps with a spiritual director):

  1. How have you demonstrated pastoral zeal in your assignment?
  2. Did you prepare well although you felt tired or overwhelmed?
  3. Did you put forth consistent, positive effort?
  4. Were you open to learning new skills?
  5. Were you able to receive constructive feedback?
  6. Had you the humility to work with others including laity and women toward a common goal?
  7. How has your prayer informed your ministry and your ministry been brought to prayer?
  8. Have you demonstrated obedience toward your supervisors?
  9. Have you constructively resolved conflicts?
  10. Have you grown in your ability to work with people of a different generation, race, culture, or language?
  11. Did you give a consistently good example even when under stress?
  12. Were you responsible and trustworthy?
  13. Did you show unconditional respect to everyone in your ministry?

Priests do well to make frequent the practice of examining the information, emotions, and skill we display in order to reflect upon the question: Was I perceived as the priest I want to be? The improv of the pastorate will always be imperfect, but with practice, we become less tone deaf to the needs of our people, more attuned to how best to inspire them to also pick up the instruments appropriate to their state in life and join us in this heavenly praise we hear dimly now, but in the next life we will listen to with all the choirs of saints and angels.

Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.

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