When I came out of Seminary (yes, I know, did they have seminaries back then? or cars?) we had one required course on worship -- one course that covered the liturgy (TLH p & 15), the daily offices (Matins & Vespers), the rites (baptism, marriage, funeral), church year, and everything else you needed to know. To his credit Dan Reuning tried to give it all its due but it was too much material in too little time. I am told that there may be one additional course required now...
My point is that somehow we thought that presiding at the altar or font came naturally. Preaching took at least four courses but any idiot could pick up how to lead from the altar or font. Baloney. I have been to many churches where the Pastor preached a credible even laudable sermon but looked like it was his first time at the altar. He was comfortable in the pulpit and uncomfortable at the table. And the people knew it. They tolerated it because he was a good preacher. But I watched them wince when arm movements and gestures and page turns and awkward pauses all said, "I don't know what I am doing here, folks."
I believe it is important to be comfortable in the pulpit (though not too comfortable -- a little edge is a good thing when it flows from the awesome task before the preacher and his desire to do God's bidding as best he is able). But I wonder why it is that even after years of ministry and service some presiders still look, act, and must feel uncomfortable at the altar? Certainly this too is an area where a Pastor needs to be at home -- at home with the space, with the liturgy, with the liturgical books, with the liturgical gestures, with the liturgical vessels... I am not speaking about being comfortable with the highest of ceremonial but being at home at this place where he leads God's people at the appointed hour of their gathering around Word and Table. It is just as uncomfortable to the people in the pew when the ceremonial is not authentic as it is when it is mechanical and wooden. We are not talking about learning to be somebody else but you learning to be comfortable in this most important of places and roles -- Presider!
First is the problem of what they saw from the pew. Many of us grew up in congregations where the Pastor did not model being at home at the altar. So we learned that it is good enough to get through it even if getting through it is about as comfortable to us as that exam men over a certain age have in their doctor's office. We need good models -- people who are comfortable in their own skin at the altar of the Lord.
Second is the problem of priorities. We need to rediscover the value and high priority on what happens in the service -- how it flows, how to prepare for it, how to prepare others for it, how to follow it through -- all so that you are comfortable there so that the people can be comfortable there (in the pew). We need to give a higher priority to practicing, to liturgical study, to reading the liturgy in devotional settings so that you are comfortable with it in the Sunday morning setting.
Third may be the problem of, should I say it, too MUCH variety. If every week is fruit basket upset and things follow a different route week after week, it is no wonder neither the Pastor nor the people are at home in the liturgy. Variety is good within the context of the liturgy itself and its appropriate options for season and Sunday... but, variety is bad if what you are doing at the altar comes across as a person putting together one of those particle board pieces of furniture with its myriad of unmarked pieces and obtuse directions.
Fourth is the problem of preparation itself. How many pastors stand at the altar and read the collect for the first time on Sunday morning? or the Prayers? or the lessons? They must be reading it for the first time because sometimes I have sat in the pew afraid to say "Amen" because I was not sure what I was saying "Amen" to! Or maybe they cannot read?!? Practice makes perfect -- said the teacher trying to show me how to write cursive. A good rule for preparing the liturgy as well.
Finally, think what it says to visitors or prospective members who see and hear the stilted words and actions of a Pastor clearly uncomfortable doing what Pastors do most of all. Lets be real here. Will people trust themselves, their spiritual well being and that of their families to a Pastor who does not look at home at the altar? I have had members who moved out of the area and then come back and tell me that they not only did not like the contemporary hoopla of some Lutheran congregations but they held their breath at others who walked through the hymnal word for word -- as if it were a tightrope and the whole thing were going to come falling down. How can we expect the people in the pew to be comfortable in the liturgy when the Pastor is not?
So lets make it clear... be at home at the altar as well as the pulpit... look for good models of liturgical leadership... give it the priority it is due (in your busy Pastor schedule), prepare and then prepare more, and consider what your uncomfortableness is saying to the people in the pew. And, for God's sake, buy some books on the liturgy, read them, and set a goal for yourself...
In the movie U-Boat 451 the executive officer is left in command and when trouble comes he answers "I don't know." The seasoned old salt pulls him aside and says "A captain always knows. Don't you ever say you don't know to your crew. That is why you are the captain. A captain always knows." Some good words for those who step into the chancel as well. Strong, Loving and Wise... good words from Fr. Hovda, a Roman Catholic battling the same kind of thing in his tradition.