Experiments in Ministry: Art and Science

Jennie Barber —  September 29, 2015

True confession: science was never my favorite subject. My university science requirements were fulfilled with courses like “Human Nutrition” (I get to talk about food every day?) and “Geology” (how hard could looking at rocks be?). During 7th grade parent teacher conferences, my life science teacher reported I preferred talking to active participation in class (um, that was definitely the girl who sat next to me!). Studying theology as an undergraduate and pursuing a call to pastoral ministry allowed me to avoid all those labs and experiments my science-loving peers voluntarily signed up for…at least I thought so.

Crazy scientist. Young boy performing experiments

True confession: as a pastor in ministry, I do a lot of experimenting. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent, and continue to spend, a significant amount of time focused on youth ministry. My seminary professor Kenda Dean often asserted, “Youth ministry is the de facto research and development branch of American Christianity.” So, for me, experimenting comes with a territory. While I agree that youth ministry is a hub for inquiry and change in the church, I think those of us who serve as pastors in today’s church are, and will be, challenged to experiment more and more as we navigate a rapidly changing social, cultural, and religious environment. As I experiment in ministry, here’s what I’m learning.

Hold your horses: It’s tempting to jump into experiments full speed ahead. Personality types that dream big, embrace visions, and passionately drive change define many pastors. But sometimes we’ve got to pull in the reins on our desire to pursue an experiment n-o-w. I’ve discovered I have to make a practice of learning and observation. This practice invites me to slow down so I can find out what’s actually working and what isn’t. It encourages me to take time to listen to voices other than my own. A particular tradition might seem stifling and tired, but it’s important to get some perspective before I proceed to encourage change. Sometimes, learning and observation confirms my worst fears about a particular situation—that’s how the youth group got it’s name?! Other times, it gives me fresh insight I would not have gained if I plunged full speed ahead.

Don’t go rogue: As far as I know, experiments in the scientific world aren’t conducted by individuals in complete solitude. Teams of researchers and colleagues collaborate to test hypotheses and reach conclusions. The best experiments I’ve conducted in ministry happen when I collaborate with key stakeholders. For me, this often means the youth committee with whom I serve, parents, youth, and other staff. Towards the end of my first year in my current call, I felt like we needed to change things up with Sunday evening youth activities. So I came up with a proposal based on youth ministry research, personal experience, and insight from seasoned youth pastors. I presented it to the youth committee for discussion. Working through their questions and hearing their excitement encouraged me to move forward with the experiment. I offered my proposal to parents so I could hear their feedback and answer their questions. I’ve asked youth to share their opinions, which I know they will honestly submit. I’m learning how vital it is to continue to pursue collaborative efforts to implement and evaluate the experiment as we move through the school year.

Plan, but not too much: I’m a planner; I like to organize details and prepare for unexpected elements. But planning too rigidly eliminates something vital to experiments in ministry—the art. When I get so concerned with the details and plans, I find experiments get constricted. There’s no room for the elements of surprise and failure that give birth to new insights and growth. It’s ok for experiments in ministry to get a little loose and messy. This doesn’t mean I throw all my plans out the window and abandon attention to detail. It means I give experiments some room to breathe.

Get out of the way: Experiments need room to breathe so the Spirit can move in and work in transformative, life-giving ways. It’s easy to feel a sense of ownership and power with respect to an experiment—this is my great idea that I came up with. I need to remind myself over and over that when the church is refreshed with a new sense of vitality and purpose, it isn’t because of successful human efforts. It is because humans were open to the powerful, surprising, beautiful work of God in their midst.

What are you learning about experiments in ministry? What challenges or excites you?

Jennie Barber

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Jennie is currently serving as the Associate Pastor at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a wife, mother, lover of Asian food, and a pastor seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.