What Pastors Can Learn from Sommeliers

(c) Courtney Perry

For the fourth year in a row, I spent the last weekend surrounded by celebrities in the wine industry at the Texas Sommelier Conference, popularly known as TexSom. For me, attending a sommelier conference is a lot like a sommelier attending AAR. There’s lots of lingo that I don’t know — an entire language of wine that is foreign to me — just see the Twitter stream for examples. (I get in because my wife is a brilliant photographer, and I help out a bit with social media.)

Yet, in spite of the fancy French words (like sommelier and terroir), I’ve found the folks who put on TexSom to be among the most generous, joyous persons I know. They may wear a uniform of a navy suit go by a fancy title, but it turns out that they are not wine snobs. The sommelier job description is much broader than you’d think.

Having attended for a few years, I think I’ve learned enough to proffer some lessons that pastors can learn from sommeliers.

1. Be joyous in spite of the stress. You would think that sommeliers, spending their lives around fine wines, would naturally be joyous people. But their job, like any other, is rife with stress. Whether they work at a restaurant, or for a store, distributor, or importer, they’ve got margins to meet and bosses and suppliers to please. Nevertheless, the overall character of the event is joy, which I don’t often see at pastors’ conferences.

2. Service matters. When the aspiring sommeliers are tested for advancement at the conference, they’re not just judged on their ability to describe a wine’s terroir in a blind tasting — an amazingly difficult task — they’re also required to set a table and serve a wine. It might seem mundane to think about how you uncork a bottle, but when you really embrace the fact that someone who buys a $60 bottle of wine and drops $250 on their anniversary dinner is buying an experience, you understand why the presentation of the bottle, the corking, the glassware, and the pour really matter.

I think that we in the church sometimes lose sight of how important the little aspects of what we do really matter to people, and are truly noticed. Even in all of the informality of the emergent movement, I see the need for life’s passages to be memorialized with some sense of purpose and seriousness.

3. Drink beer. It’s not all seriousness, however, nor do the soms drink only fine wines. This year, there was a beer seminar for the first time, which I attended. It was fascinating, and I learned a lot. The point here for us is twofold: First, sommeliers really have to be experts in more than just wine. Many of them manage entire beverage programs for restaurants and hotel chains. They are constantly broadening their knowledge. In the church, we could stand to read outside of our field a bit more.

And secondly, the soms drink beer. Oftentimes, cheap beer. They also drink cheap wine. You know what they say about sex and pizza: When it’s good, it’s great, and when it’s not good, it’s still pretty good. That’s not quite the same way with wine — there is bad wine. But in spite of the fact that these soms regularly taste wines that cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, they’re also happy to tip back a beer or a cheap glass of wine. In other words, they don’t take themselves so seriously that they can’t enjoy the lower priced items on the menu.

4. Stay humble. You may be a Master Sommelier (the highest rank) and work at the swankiest hotel, but it’s still likely that some obscenely wealthy person is going to boss you around on your shift tonight and treat you like shit. In spite of your navy suit and the pin on your lapel, your brothers and sisters are the dishwashers and servers and line cooks. I know some pastors who excel at this type of solidarity with blue collar workers; I know others who struggle with it.

For me, part of the joy of TexSom is being completely immersed in another industry for a long weekend. No one talks about anything I’m an expert in. I am a complete novice, totally out of my league. And yet I have been warmly embraced — hopefully not just because Courtney takes lovely photos.


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