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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ What Pastors Can Learn from Zumba

Recently I took a college student with me to a Zumba class at the local Y.

“What you see may not be pretty. What happens at Zumba stays at Zumba.” This warning is necessary for all who accompany me to a workout class, given my unique combination of Lucille Ball and Miranda Hart-like skills or, more specifically, lack thereof.

Male pastors in particular, I speak to you today. I understand you might be uncomfortable visiting a primarily female workout class (though occasionally there are a few men). My advice: book a special Zumba session just for you and your staff or clergy group. It will be highly instructive, and hey, we all know the risks to personal health that ministry can inflict. You probably need to get your target heart rate up anyway.

This post isn’t so much about what pastors can learn from Zumba as what they must, and because the Venn Diagram results of clergy who sweat through Latin music dance exercise class who write yields only a small overlap, I’m here today.

1. Leaders occasionally need to put themselves in a place of following instructions in a group.

Pastors, no matter what your role or title in a local congregation, are frequently up front and on the platform. Many gatherings of pastors, who, whatever their personalities, are intrinsically in leadership positions, end up being, “all shepherds, no sheep.” Pastors are used to making decisions, bearing a weight of responsibility, and being the one who has to run things.

When I enter Zumba class, I’m not the expert in the room – to put it mildly. I’m not choosing a hobby at which I already excel (a tempting option to tired leaders). I enter the room knowing I’m not the one in charge.

What blissful relief.

You’re not the one a roomful of people is following.

But be warned.

You’re not the one a roomful of people is following.

Can you be comfortable with that? It’s a good test. You need to have some area in your life, some space in your life, where you have to be the clueless follower. You may not choose Zumba as the arena in which to practice that (though I think it’d be a great staff exercise), but you need to remind yourself of what it is to follow.

It’s also helpful to watch how someone else leads. How do they cue? Do they seem like they enjoy what they’re doing? If you find yourself frustrated, why? Is it your lack of ability to mimic them? How might people on your staff or in your congregation or district or conference feel similar?

2. Leaders occasionally need to put themselves in a place of uncomfortable marginalization.

When I enter the aerobic room at the Y, which dauntingly has two mirrored walls, I set down my water and take my place.

At the back.

The very back.

Of the hour-long class, the first 20 minutes or so I can usually follow the leader pretty well. The next 20 minutes is definitely uphill. The last 20 minutes, I’m following her in my mind, but my body doesn’t cooperate and the word “flail” comes to mind.

I deliberately place myself on the margin, but I’m in a place of marginalization nonetheless. One of my first days in Zumba I remember thinking, “and this is what it must feel like to visit a church and feel completely out of place and bewildered.” Even if you have a great “hospitality team” or “greeters,” sometimes if they’re too in-your-face it feels just as overwhelming: you want to explore at your own pace, make your own judgments.

The only way through is…doing it. Friendly faces who smile wryly between songs while getting a drink of water are helpful, but at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can do it.

It’s valuable to remember the off-kilter feeling of being on the edge, the threshold. There are participants here who are already friends, who are familiar with the music, who run half marathons and even wear Zumba shoes. Who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside?

3. Leaders occasionally need to put themselves in a place of being a minority.

Depending on the day, sometimes when I walk into the room I’m a minority, not in terms of gender or skill, but in terms of race and cultural background. The first day I realized this, a deep wistfulness washed over me.

“Why don’t more churches look like this?” I thought.

There were senior citizens and teenagers, Latina women and black women and white women, fit women and very large women, chic women and dowdy women.

All sweating together, moving to the same music, like fitness Pentecost. We were sweating enough to feel like tongues of fire were on our heads.

It’s the history of the church and the future of the church.

I so want it to be the present.

When’s the last time you picked up your keys and drove somewhere to take part in something where your culture or race might not be dominant, especially if you’re Caucasian? Do you regularly seek that out as a discipline in your life?

As I look over these three points, something strikes me, after recently visiting the site in Georgia where John and Charles Wesley spent some time.

Wesley had trouble with these things at one point in his story, as he watched from the outside as the Moravians handle crisis gracefully, as he placed himself as an outsider in Georgia with the hopes of being a missionary to Native Americans, as he had trouble getting along and following others.

All of these things helped unsettle his heart so that it could be strangely warmed (not by an hour of Zumba, according to our best church history records).

If your ministry has stalled, go to Zumba. Maybe Aldersgate will follow.