In 2009, the second edition of Jesse Middendorf’s, The Church Rituals Handbook, was published by Beacon Hill Press. This 287-page book is a little gold mine for the pastor planning a wedding, baptism, funeral, and many other kinds of rituals and dedications. Grace and Peace Magazine caught up with Jesse Middendorf to ask him a few questions about his book and his thoughts about the importance of rituals in the life of the church (no mean feat when you consider the travel schedule of a general superintendent).
G&P: What motivated you to put together your book on rituals?
Middendorf: It grew out of 28 years as a pastor looking for resources for the variety of things you do, working with people in crisis, going through funerals, weddings, that kind of thing, and realizing there were lots of good resources, but they were scattered in a variety of different places. I kept wishing I had one book, something larger than the resources available in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, but certainly to include those resources. So, that was how it all started. I was just a pastor desperately looking for good resources.
G&P: When did your appreciation for ritual really begin?
Middendorf: It began after I had been pastoring awhile. In my church, we had an infant dedication for a couple who desperately wanted to have children. She’d had seven miscarriages. They finally had a pregnancy that was going full term. Six weeks before the delivery, they discovered tumors filling the lungs of the baby. They were devastated! And so, we had a long series of conversations about how they were going to handle this situation. They had to make a decision. Would they operate in utero? Would they abort? They refused both. They decided to trust the judgment of the doctor who said, “It’s possible that this could clear up.” And so they waited. The baby was born. The tumors were present, but six weeks later the lungs were clear.
During that time, we developed the ritual for infant dedication. It took us four or five weeks to put it together in the way we felt it needed to be done, so that we could take the church with us through the cycles of grief and joy that came throughout that experience. The first Sunday they brought the baby to church, we had the dedication. As a part of the dedication, the mother read a letter she’d written to the baby during the period when they were told about the tumors. It was the holiest experience of my pastoral ministry. The congregation was so involved and so engaged, and family members were so engaged. I came through that saying, “I’ll never go through another dedication of any kind without really talking with the family and helping them to develop the rituals.” And so that was how a lot of these developed.
I remember working with various families in the church during critical transitional moments. One family was struggling with the impending loss of a grandmother, who knew she was dying. They were not handling it well. She wanted to say, “Goodbye,” but they wouldn’t let her talk about it. So, we finally had a family gathering in the home, where I helped them write what they would say to her, and I helped her write what she would say to them. They read it all together. It was incredible!
What an opportunity we’re missing. They need to be taken along on these journeys.
These kinds of rituals are for the Body of Christ, and if the Body of Christ is not involved in these moments, in these transitional moments, what are we doing? What an opportunity we’re missing. They need to be taken along on these journeys.
We did a ritual for people to claim their baptism. I have a bit of resistance to re-baptism, but we wanted people to know how they could reclaim that and make it meaningful. It turned into revival for us. It was one of the greatest services we ever had.
As a district superintendent, what do you do when you close a church that’s been a great church or a very faithful church through the years? When we face a church closing, we often just close it. After going through that once as a district superintendent, I decided we’d never do that again. And so every time we closed a church, we would write a ritual with the people left in the church, a ritual of celebration of the life of the church, the influence the church had, so they had closure with that event that would help them to be able to move on. Those are the kinds of things that this book ought to help us do.
When you are transitioning to a new building or moving to a new sanctuary, how do you close the old one and move to the new one? People have been married, buried, joined the church, and attended revivals. They got saved and sanctified in that place. Now, it’s going to be a gym. How do you transition that space? People own that space. That’s holy space. Something in the ritual of dedication ought to embrace the history of that church and set a new trajectory to allow people to return periodically and say, “This is why we did this. This is why we built this building,” so, that we can help people transition to the new thing that God wants to do.
How do you get people to talk about reconciliation if you don’t have a ritual for them? Often, we don’t have a way to say things that have to be said, which can make things very awkward, uncertain, and uneasy. A ritual becomes a good way to help accomplish reconciliation. We had a family that separated and divorced, but came back together through remarriage. To go through all that with their teenage child, who had rebelled against God and the church because of the divorce, who is now trying to figure out what this means for a family coming back together in the ritual of remarriage,was an incredible experience. That’s why ritual matters.
We don’t believe that ritual will save anyone.
G&P: What would you say to those who suggest the Church of the Nazarene is not a movement given to ritual?
Middendorf: I would agree. We don’t like ritualism. We don’t believe that ritual will save anyone. We’ve never believed that. But it’s interesting to me that we’ve developed our own kinds of rituals. To resist ritual, we’ve kind of ritualized our resistance to it. Ritual gives order. Ritual is like the Book of Psalms, which became the prayer book for the early New Testament Church. It was the prayer book for Israel. These were not spontaneous prayers that were written down by other people. These came out of the experience of the people of God, and they returned to these prayers over and over and over. I think there are times when ritual becomes for us the ability to give good expression to something deep within us.
I discovered in pastoral care, and this is a resource for pastoral care, that sometimes people needed help in saying what they needed to say. At the impending death of a loved one, people need to say some things they don’t know how to say.
G&P: Why are rituals important to our lives and our life as a church body?
Middendorf: We spend a lot of time responding to the inspiration of the moment, which I think is altogether appropriate, but we have a lot of people who don’t think through what they’re trying to accomplish. I’ve seen the Lord’s Supper put together in the last minute, with no thought given to the significance of that moment. I think that kind of event needs good solid ritual, not ritualism, but solid ritual that gives us the ability to think through the implications of what we’re doing, when we offer our people the Lord’s Table.
G&P: Are there any particular rituals that you think our church needs to recapture or rethink?
Middendorf: I think we probably need to give a little more attention to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper and to baptism. It’s wonderful to baptize our people. It’s critically important, and of course, we observe the ability to baptize by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. But what happens often is that we just baptize people. They have no ability to go through some means by which they can give good, meaningful expression to what has just occurred. We need to be able to help them say and understand things like, “This is my identification with the suffering death of Christ.” “This is my identification with the Body of Christ.” “This is my testimony to the new life that I have in Christ Jesus.” I think those kinds of rituals done in the right way give powerful meaning to the rite of baptism. Ritual is a way that we give some structure to the rite of baptism.
G&P: How do you see pastors using this book and what would you say to pastors who are not sure about the place for ritual in their church?
Middendorf: I think all of us, to one extent or another, are using ritual. If we go back and do again what we did at the last funeral, we have in a sense ritualized an approach. My sense of it is that families in our church often need help in ritualizing what is going on in their lives. What about this family that has just gotten married, and it’s a blended family? I believe a marriage ritual could be a means by which they could say something about the blending of this family in Christ in a way that could be powerful for everyone involved. So, I say it’s a great pastoral care tool in the local church.
G&P: What do you think of the Book of Common Prayer as a pastoral resource?
Middendorf: One of the things that I’m discovering is that our young pastors are turning to the Book of Common Prayer, and there are some parts of it that are utterly, incredibly beautiful. Notice the prayer for purity: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy name.” What a way to begin a worship service!