Leadership Skills Drawn From Jazz

In our conventional forms of ministry leadership, we elevate certainty and performance, not the messy, relational values of improvisation and play. Earl Palmer, the beloved and now-retired pastor of Berkeley’s First Presbyterian Church, often heard critics rail against the church because of its hypocritical, often irrelevant reputation in the culture. He countered those critics with this:

“When the Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is appalling. I wouldn’t be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave despite his deafness. You might ask: ‘Why bother? Why inflict on those poor kids the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra can attain that perfection.’ My answer is this: The Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in that audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will hear Beethoven’s message.”

Of course, Palmer is underscoring the truth that the only way a starving, thirsty, deluded, and suffering world will ever hear the music of the Gospel is through the Body of Christ, arguably the worst “high school band” ever to disgrace a bandstand. This is an indefensible strategy if performance standards are really the most important measure. But God is determined to trade the perfection of His solo performance for the possibility of playing a little improvisational jazz with us, the screechy saxophone players in the Kingdom of God’s ragtag big-band.


Repeatedly, Jesus reminds us “you must become like little children.” Children are less concerned about performance standards and more interested in the joy of making music, screechy as it is. It’s no stretch to say that what Jesus really wants is to experience the relational joy of playing music together. God has sacrificed everything, His Son (of course) but also His performance standards, to draw us back into intimate relationship. And He has not won us back so we can sit idly on the sidelines while we watch Him play solo on the bandstand. No, no, no.

He wants improvisational players on the bandstand with Him, not fans in the stands.

Respected jazz musician Stefon Harris describes the interplay among players in a jazz quartet as “sacred,” because improvisation requires trust and risk and intimacy. Likewise, “sacred intimacy” is the fruit of a less structured, more relaxed relationship with Jesus. And learning to practice improvisation in our leadership makes us more connected, dependent, and alive to the guidance of Jesus in the moment. Harris says: 

“The bandstand is really a sacred space, because you have no opportunity to think about the future or the past—you’re really alive in the moment. Everyone is listening [to each other], we’re responding. So, the idea of a mistake, from the perspective of a jazz musician, is [strange]. Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz. Real mistakes happen only when we don’t react—when we miss the opportunity to discover where the mistake could lead us.”

We recoil from mistakes because we’ve falsely believed Jesus is judging us for how many “wrong notes” we play in our leadership. But Jesus wants relationship, and like a jazz quartet, he craves “sacred space” with us—when we are “alive in the moment” because we are taking risks with him and because of him. This requires relational courage. We listen to God and each other with fierce attention, then embrace risk after risk to create something unique and beautiful.

For years I’ve been training ministry leaders to be more like improvisational jazz players in their ministry instead of classical players who are playing off notes on a page. I believe in paying ridiculous attention to Jesus (so much so that I host a podcast called “Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus”), and to others. In an interview with John Eldredge (author of Wild at Heart and Walking With God, among many others), I asked him the most important thing we can do to help others grow in their relationship with Jesus. He said:

“The most important thing is to have [a deep relationship] yourself. The degree to which you ignore your heart and your soul is the degree to which you will ignore others, including God. Everything begins with your own life with God. The more that you are acquainted with your own heart and soul, the more natural it will be to be acquainted with the heart and soul of others. I think we forget that the original disciples had a conversational relationship with Jesus. They were able to ask him questions and he answered them. The core of discipleship is leading others into that kind of conversational intimacy with God. If you teach people how to walk with God—how to hear his voice and recognize what he’s doing in their lives—you set them up for a lifetime of discipleship long after they leave your ministry.”

If you’d like to move more deeply into a life of improvisational ministry leadership, where the fruit is relational intimacy with God and transformational impact among those you lead, please join me for my Vibrant Faith MasterClass Leadership By Jazz,” beginning next week. Click HERE for more information and to register.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. His new book is The Suicide Solution: Finding Your Way Out of the Darkness. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.


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