I’ve been hearing a lot lately that my congregants don’t know what a minister does. In one way, it makes sense because so much of what we do is invisible. In another way, it’s frustrating because I love this congregation and I work hard to help it succeed.
The truth is that my personal life has been in a period of intense change and re-vision. I know that it’s natural for a congregation to worry when their minister is going through crisis. If a minister’s personal life is messy, it makes it hard to be sure that they will still be able to minister effectively.
All sorts of things naturally come up in a situation like this. Part of the worry is grounded in real changes in me. I don’t have as much enthusiasm and joy right now. People can tell I’ve been struggling for a while. They can see that I am carrying stress and worries of my own. I’m slower with responses, with answers to questions, with new ideas and solutions. My energy is limited. So they worry. And when they worry, they wonder: Is he still an effective minister? What does he do anyway?
As soon as I knew that my personal life was going to need my attention, I made a decision. I thought about what I do and decided that the most important thing I contribute to the congregation is the Sunday morning worship–not just the sermon, but the whole worship experience. We’ve been seeing a lot a visitors lately and they, as well as my “regular congregants” need Sunday mornings to be meaningful and to feed their souls. I decided that I would make quality worship my first priority.
If feedback from the congregation can be trusted (and i think it can), I’ve succeeded in keeping the quality of worship high. People have had lots of good things to say about the sermons, the music, the quality of lay leadership, and especially our 25th anniversary service.
So, what does it take to create that hour on Sunday morning? I think most people have no idea. (And that’s probably a good thing.) Oh, they know I prepare a sermon–but how long can that take? It takes about fifteen hours a week, actually. That includes planning the title and topic well in advance, doing research, coming up with a meaningful “angle” to share, and writing the thing. I don’t do a lot of rewrites, so actually, I’m a pretty quick sermon writer. In seminary they encouraged us to plan 1 hour of preparation time for each minute of speaking. (My average sermon is 15 to 20 minutes long.)
What else do I do to get that hour of worship to happen? I meet monthly with the worship committee to attend to the details of the planning, and lead an annual retreat to train them in the “arts of worship.” I meet with the music director for 60 – 90 minutes each week to select music for the choir, hymns and songs that work with the upcoming services. I also communicate with any special musicians and the accompanist. If I have a good idea well in advance, I may try to inspire the musicians to learn a new song for a service. And whenever I hear a good local musician, I make a point to offer them an invitation to play in church. You’d be surprised how often this pays off and how much depth and diversity it’s added to our musical offerings.
I write up the order of service, working with a lay leader to find readers, storytellers, chalice lighters, and anyone else who might participate. I pay special attention to balancing words, silence and music, trying to create a rhythm that leads people toward meaning and then releases them to act in the world. I also think a lot about balancing innovation and tradition: I want people to feel comfortable because they know what to expect, but not get bored.
I choose readings, write the opening and closing words, and create or choose a meditation or prayer for the service–another couple of hours of writing. I’ve tried using more “prefab” readings for these, but most often, I end up adapting them or writing something new. It’s important to me that each word matters in the service–they set the mood, express additional thoughts about the theme of the sermon, or create space for whatever the congregant has brought with them to the service that needs their attention. There is a lot that needs to be “done” in that hour–the creation of a space/time where something potentially meaningful, reverent, and even life-changing can happen.
That amazing task takes around 25 hours of preparation. I spend about 5 hours at the church on Sunday–getting in about 9 a.m. and leaving about 2:00 p.m. (A short day compared to some, since we have only a single service.) So, for about 30 hours a week, I am planning, thinking, searching, scheming, creating, writing, and trying to make that hour on Sunday morning something that really matters.