What week am I on?

I spent the morning doing “The Rota”.

To anyone administratively challenged, this sounds like an utter nightmare, but if approached prayerfully and in the right frame of mind it can be encouraging and exciting as it allows me to spend a little time thinking about a good percentage of my congregation (their gifts, personality, frequency at worship) and to be thankful for the increasingly high level of involvement – and this is only Sunday morning worship we’re dealing with here.

Basically, The Rota consists of fourteen columns covering everything from preaching to staffing the sound desk; fifteen rows, taking us up to the end of the calendar year; and involving over 40 people, not bad for a small church of around 100 active members.

By the time I finished I felt I deserved a mathematics diploma. It wasn’t just the co-ordination of rows and columns that was the problem (although it is always important to ensure I don’t have someone down to do several things in several different places at the same time – after all, we know that omnipresence and omnicompetence is only expected of pastors). I also had to try to match gifts to tasks and topic, and to take into account the dynamics of a given service, and who would best fit where.

This got me thinking. A generation ago, all that was needed in virtually all churches was someone to lead the service and preach and, usually, someone to play some sort of keyboard and/or lead the singing. This has been the way for most of church history- never mind the almost certain ‘simplicity‘ of the apostolic church. Now, as my good friend Jim Crookes has blogged elsewhere, the putting together of Sunday worship requires the sort of complex permutations normally reserved for top-level military invasions. What have we gained and what have we lost?

I think, undoubtedly, we have gained something tangible in terms of every-member ministry. The Rota stands as one clear and evident example of a variety of people using their gifts: a statement against clericalism (although it is important to recognise that every-member ministry must stretch well beyond Sunday worship-participation; on that, see Neil Hudson’s excellent book Imagine Church). We have also gained in terms of training and equipping. One of the first myths to be exploded when one embarks on implementing ‘The Rota’ in a given church, is the idea that this means the pastor has to do less. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The easiest services to plan and execute are the ones where I do everything (they are also probably the most uninteresting and unhelpful). In contrast, as I was putting names into columns I was having to think of how many emails/conversations/coffees/practices/debriefs were going to be required to help the person develop through the experience of leading/praying/operating/welcoming/playing/reading. In a simple proof of the laws of inverse proportionality, the more that went on to the rota, the more my real workload increased. But the effort in terms of church body-life and spiritual development is certainly worth it, and that, after all, is a major part of what my job is about.

Nevertheless, have we lost something? Something of the simplicity of worship? Something of what is absolutely essential, as opposed to secondary? As with the case of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 (preached in GPC on the 16/9, podcast here), are the “many things” – in this case the many things crowding our rota – in danger of blocking out “the one thing” – the voice of Christ speaking to us? That will always be a danger.

Perhaps I need to insert an extra row where, one week, no-one does anything apart from bring the word of God to us (a type of rota Sabbath); or perhaps I need to add an extra column where someone is responsible for ensuring there is a period of silence and reflection each week, where we do nothing (include check our watches). Read another friend, Stacey Gleddiesmith here, on that.

Is the very act of producing this administrative masterpiece every quarter, giving a subconscious message that participation in worship is limited to doing one of these things and that everyone else is a spectator? At one time when attendance at worship was alarmingly sporadic among the congregation, I joked with Gwen that when I put up the rota I should write underneath it:

“This rota outlines some basic tasks, but please feel free to attend even if your name is not down on a given Sunday!”

‘The Rota’ can also indulge a consumerist mentality, and the breadth and variety of people involved can lead to people treating church the way they would treat the gig list at the local pub; they turn up when the show will fit in with their taste.

In one of my previous churches that had multiple praise groups, children’s teams and other assorted groups, I remember one gentleman coming in to the office to look at the rota. He was selecting a Sunday for his child’s baptism. There were a limited number of praise groups, children’s teams – and preachers – that he liked, and he was looking for the perfect combination, a little like an addictive gambler will wait for the rows to align on a slot machine. One week it was the wrong preacher, the other week it was the wrong musician, and so on. The child was half weaned before I got to do the baptism!

Certainly, The Rota has its dangers, but they are dangers that can be circumnavigated, and I wouldn’t swap it for a return to any incarnation of the stifling one-person ministry still too evident in some quarters. That is why, after the mathematical conundra had been resolved, and even after two of the people down for this coming Sunday informed me they were unavailable(!), I still took a deep breath and gave thanks that within every local manifestation of the body of Christ we have been given a wonderful gift in each other, and what better place to give expression to that, than when we meet together in unity to worship the God who made us so diverse.

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One comment

  1. Gordon Campbell · · Reply

    Hi Monty,
    Thanks for these stimulating thoughts. At its worst, the rota is a necessary evil: at its best, a technicolour snapshot of healthy body life.
    Gordon C.

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