By Ervin Stutzman
In a sermon at Parkview Mennonite Church (Harrisonburg, Va.), Pastor Barbara Moyer Lehman reflected on a pastoral practice she remembered from her childhood at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church (Pa.). She recalled how the ministers used to raise their hands high, arms outstretched, when they pronounced the benediction at the end of the worship service.
During her early days as a pastor, Barbara wondered if she could do that as a woman. Somehow, it didn’t feel natural and she questioned whether she really had permission to do it. Giving a blessing in such a demonstrative way was something she had only seen men do. Now that Barbara feels more comfortable raising her hands in a spoken benediction, or blessing, it seems less common to do so. In my travels across the church, I don’t observe as many pastors who stretch out their hands in blessing as I witnessed in my early years. The same is true in my own congregation.
Barbara’s comments about benedictions drew a vigorous response from our Sunday school class. I was surprised at the depth of feeling she had evoked by her observations. We discussed why our congregation doesn’t regularly practice the giving of a benediction with outstretched arms. We observed that most Sundays, we have a worship leader who is not part of the pastoral staff. For the most part, these worship leaders do not feel comfortable giving a blessing with outstretched hands. Perhaps they feel that only a pastor can give such a blessing.
A number of people in our class reflected on the deep meaning which the benediction had for them as children in other congregational settings. One person recalled that one of the ministers in his home church would raise only one hand to give the blessing, while the other one would use both hands. In his memory, he felt a stronger blessing when both hands were used. Further, class members felt that it made a big difference how far or wide the minister’s arms were outstretched during the benediction, or how they held their hands. Each nuance in posture communicated something different, whether as openness, embrace, invitation, or even domination and control. The nature of the nonverbal communication seemed to be as important as any words that were spoken.
I hope I’ve made it clear that the giving of a benediction is a form of power that has the capacity to profoundly bless a congregation. A pastor who intimately knows the follies and foibles of the congregation, as well as the redeeming grace of God, is in a unique place to pronounce God’s blessing, not only in the worship service, but in other places as well.
As pastors, whether men or women, we will do well to reflect on the many benedictions in Scripture and find ways to introduce their spiritual power into the life of our congregations. We can also compose our own or draw on the rich worship resources available to us. Particularly during this time of Lent, let us exercise the power of benedictions with deep humility before God and with deep love for our people. And now I leave you with this benediction, which I learned from the apostle Paul: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).