What if your church is only ‘sixth-chair’?

What happens in your congregation if ministry cannot meet all the needs of the community or your leaders’ dreams and desires? It does not take much imagination to see all that could be accomplished in Christ’s name. But what if limitations of income, time and membership cause members to become discouraged about the things they cannot do?

One way to help focus our mission is to consider a kind of ‘sixth-chair’ practical theology. This concept is illustrated in an experience shared by Nancy Uscher, president of Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, in a recent issue of the University of Rochester alumni magazine. President Uscher recalls a time when she was playing sixth-chair violin in the Eastman Philharmonia at a concert at Carnegie Hall. She thought she was going to be inconsequential, especially after playing at the Royal College of London the previous year. She was surprised, therefore, when she was approached during rehearsal by Krsysztof Penderecki, the composer of the premier that was going to be featured. He told her that as sixth chair, she was going to begin the piece for the entire orchestra and that she had to set the tempo without a conductor. “I’ve thought of this many times,” Uscher said, and learned that leaders can be drawn from anywhere. Even the sixth chair, she tells her students, so “Be ready.”

Readiness like that teaches us how to focus our own lives and ministries. Even if we are not members of the largest or most influential congregation in our area, we can learn to perform our roles effectively and with our best efforts where we are. In one congregation, the mission committee decided that even if its members could not reach all their desired goals, they would recommend to session that mission activities be limited to just a few projects they could fund meaningfully and do well. Because they were particularly concerned about children and mentally disturbed adults, they decided to make pledges to three General Assembly-designated mission education projects in Africa and contribute to a home for mentally disturbed adults locally. In such a way, the congregation was able to visualize what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “ … we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that… extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” It reminded them of Jesus’ promise that even in the midst of doubt they could move mountains if they only had a little faith (Matt. 17:20; 21:21.)

During recent celebrations of John Glenn’s first Mercury earth orbits 50 years ago, I returned to Tom Wolfe’s fascinating book “The Right Stuff” ( Bantam Books, 1981, p. 95). In it, he draws attention to Glenn’s comments about his determination to reach his nation’s goals.

I am a Presbyterian, a Protestant Presbyterian, and I take my religion

very seriously …. I was brought up believing that you are placed on earth here more or less with sort of a fifty-fifty proposition, and this is what I still believe. We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. I think there is a power greater than any us that will place the opportunities in our way, and if we use our talents properly, we will be living the kind of life we should live.”


In our churches we may not be able to participate in epoch-making journeys, but we can accomplish all that God gives us to do with the same power that enabled another Presbyterian to reach far beyond his grasp.

EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.