The grace in how often Sunday comes around

We only get good at something when we practice it -- a lot. Are our organizations set up to encourage learning on the job?

One of my colleagues has earned a reputation for cautioning “if we don’t do something often enough, we’ll never get good at it.” It’s his version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule: we only get good at that which we practice intently and consistently. To become masterful at it, Gladwell suggests that we need to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours practicing at it.

I was thinking about my colleague’s caution a few weeks ago as I was listening to a young and well-intentioned pastor preach, which lets you know where the story is going. The sermon had much to commend it -- it had been carefully researched. It honored text and tradition. It displayed a depth of thought and reflected preparatory time and effort. But, frankly, it was lifeless and directionless. It was like going to the zoo when all the animals are asleep: there’s something to see, but you spend the entire time imagining all the ways that this experience could really be better than how it turned out.

To be clear, this is not the fault of the young pastor. He has been in full-time, parish-based professional ministry for a mere 10 months now; he has probably preached four times since he began there and probably four times in seminary. So, surely, it’s unfair to judge harshly what I guess is his ninth effort, but at this rate, preaching once every other month, he simply will not get better until he has a chance to preach more often.

Clergy often complain about the frightening regularity with which Sunday comes around, forgetting that there is a measure of grace in this. There’s grace in the weekly wrestle with text. There’s growth and promise in the sound-it-out struggle of sermon-writing. Preachers are formed a bit more each week as they ponder how to proclaim good news as much with gesture and movement as with words. We mature when the sermon falls flat, and we figure out why. We find our voice when the sermon takes life in the very midst of the people of God.

Churches that see being incubators of future senior pastors as part of their mission have to develop a great tolerance for risk, letting the inexperienced experiment repeatedly and then providing them with communities of support and challenge for the purposes of evaluation afterwards. These are the kinds of things that lead both to personal and professional development. This is the nature of “doing something often enough” that enables one to “get good at it.”

There is, of course, an institutional corollary.

Any and all organizations that value overinvesting in the young, as Leadership Education describes it, have to give their young talent real responsibility with the possibility of real but redeemable failure. (The story of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is one great model for what this looks like.) It can be difficult for institutions to do this because, by nature, they prize predictability, order and success; yet the tendency toward these things can stultify organizational life and ironically inhibit the very talent that is crucial for vitality and longevity.

So it falls to leaders of congregations and Christian institutions to turn my colleague’s observation into a question about institutional life. When we ask the question? That young preacher may be given more opportunities to try, and the young colleagues on our staffs may be given the chance to practice leading when the stakes are real and the learning can be meaningful.