The Improvised Life: A Conversation between Pastoral Ministry and Jazz Music
Arts Alliance of the Archdiocese of Chicago
Pastors face a complex set of demands to which they are often required to respond quickly and without time for significant planning. Professional demands may range from responding to the bereaved over the death of a loved one, presiding at a liturgy, conducting staff meetings, writing bulletin articles, meeting with couples preparing for marriage, and dealing with a boiler that needs to be fixed immediately. Furthermore, this might all happen within the context of a single day. Excellent pastors learn to become skilled improvisers. As a priest (for 21 years) and jazz musician (for 35 years), I have witnessed the parallels between jazz improvisation and pastoral ministry. In light of both of these worlds of personal experience, I would like to study the role of improvisation in the life of the pastor. More specifically I would like to explore answers to the following three questions:
1. What are the structural similarities (and lines of convergence) between the practice of ministry and the practice of jazz improvisation?
2. If the practice of ministry includes a measure of improvisation, is there a way to critique what is genuinely helpful and strong about it, and what is lacking? In improvised music, all performances are not equal. Some improvisations are weak, some strong; some are superficial, some profound. Can standards and methods of critiquing improvisational music be of assistance in evaluating the practice of ministry by focusing on (as in assessments of jazz performances) the strength of ideas and their development, coherence, integrity, pacing, economy of means, and a balance between the cognitive and emotional, as well as a balance between indebtedness to a tradition and innovation?
3. How can the ministerial life and improvisation be understood theologically? Out of these three questions I would like to at least begin to develop a practical theology of improvisation that might help illuminate how intentionally cultivating the art of pastoral improvisation would enrich both today’s evolving Church and the contemporary minister. Resources for this project are twofold.
First, the program for study includes readings focused upon improvisation in ministry, theology and improvisation and jazz improvisation.
Second, it includes dialog with theologians, musicians and pastoral leaders. The desired outcomes of this proposed work are an article that summarizes my research, co-leading a seminar on the role of improvisation in pastoral work, to be conducted at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN., and the enhancement of my own ministerial work.
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