Blog: March 2004

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Leading services

I've been wondering about this for a while: how do clergy pray? Not "what mechanics do they use" or "do they pray privately" or anything like that, but rather, how do clergy who are leading services set aside the stage-management aspects enough to be able to actually pray? Or do they mostly give up, on the theory that the officiant doesn't get to personally connect while doing so?

Of course it's not always this or always that, but I do sometimes wonder, when watching my rabbi, whether he gets out of the service anywhere near as much as I do as a mere participant. When I have been the leader, I've noticed varying degrees of this, from being purely a stage manager to being just one of the daveners. It depends on the formality of the setting, my connection to the other people there, and -- somewhat -- on the presence of microphones. (I feel that a mike fundamentally changes your role with respect to the other people. That one time I was leading services at Tree of Life during a power outage, I was actually glad that we were forced to all work together a little harder. And it's not like I can't make myself heard in a moderate-sized room...)

In our Shabbat morning minyan, the service practically runs itself and if the rabbi has to leave early we just keep going. This Shabbat that happened (unexpectedly); he looked at me and said "torah service?", I said "yes", and I led it while he left. (The torah reader, who would normally get dibs on this, had a sore throat and was trying to conserve word-count.) No problems there. When, last summer, the worship committee jointly led a Friday-night service (both rabbis were out of town), I spent the service feeling like I was herding cats and didn't really pray. (This is not a comment on the other people; it is a comment on the nature of group efforts.) Another time I and one other very-competent person led the Friday service and it went better, but I was still mindful of the fact that I was up on a bima with a mike in front of a congregation that wasn't fully participating. I think, though I haven't done it yet, that when I lead shacharit services at Tree of Life I'll just be one of the louder daveners, and that'll be kind of neat. Of course, I'm also confident that if I mis-step, half a dozen people will jump in to correct me. :-)

But to an extent, every person leading a service is paying attention to some meta-issues. How are we doing for time? Is the person with the next aliya ready to walk up here? What happened to the person who's supposed to read the announcements when I'm done with this prayer? Do we read tachanun today? And so on. I find myself wondering how often people who make a career of this really pray, as opposed to leading prayer. And while I'm talking here about Jewish prayer, I imagine the question generalizes to other religions.

Occasionally my rabbi and I will be the only ones who show up for a weekday service. (This happened this past week.) When that happens we just drop into Hebrew and go, independently for the Amidah per tradition rather than in unison as is common in the Reform movement. And he always thanks me for the opportunity when we're done.

One of these days I'll get around to asking my rabbi about this. I'll probably ask this summer during the sh'liach k'hilah program, too. It would be pretty frustrating if the people who are so committed to religion that they're willing to make a career of it are the ones who are least likely to be able to pray effectively during services!


See comments for lots of interesting discussion.