Worship is the core of the life of the church. It is the center of congregational life: nourishing, inspiring, comforting, challenging. The elements of worship – preaching, individual and corporate prayer, celebration of the sacraments, joining voices in song – are the acts that reflect and shape our faith.
I cannot imagine anything more important for church leaders than prayerful, thoughtful and creative planning of worship. And I would add one more word to that list: collaborative. I believe collaborative worship planning is essential, whether in a large church with many staff members and multiple pastors, or in a much smaller church where the staff is either part-time or non-existent and the solo pastor does everything but mow the lawn! Worship that brings our congregations into a deep awareness of the presence of God requires careful and intentional planning. It takes time and energy and commitment, and calls on a variety of gifts, talents and experiences that are unlikely to be found in one individual — even a theologically trained, experienced and creative preacher. The week-in and week-out nature of worship makes it even harder for one person to create vital worship experiences each and every Sunday.
However, collaboration can be hard; it takes time, energy and commitment, too. But the rewards are very worthwhile, both for the worshipping congregation and the worship planners themselves. The process leads to worship that feeds the congregation, but the process also feeds the planners, who most often find that the planning time renews their own energy and commitment to worship leadership.
For collaborative planning to be effective in creating meaningful worship services, the planners must have a shared vision of what worship can be. They don’t have to have the same preferences; in fact, it’s sometimes better if they don’t. But they do have to care, and they must want to be part of the process. For example, in a big church the worship planning team should include the key Christian education staff, but this might require a paradigm change if each leader has tended to work in isolation from the others. Similarly, if the music staff (or in a smaller church, the person who plays the piano on Sunday morning) has always chosen the hymns and service music without much consideration for the rest of the service, they might be resistant to having a discussion with the preacher and others about which hymns and anthems might be best to support the proclamation of the Word. An effective collaborative planning process requires active listening, extension of mutual respect, trust and openness to new ideas. Of course, these are practices that have great benefits far beyond worship planning, so developing them can have significant peripheral benefits.
Congregational worship must be integrated into every aspect of the life of the congregation. Worship both reflects and shapes the life of the church in every program area: learning, pastoral care, stewardship, mission, fellowship, hospitality and every other aspect of church life. As we plan worship we need to keep all these things in mind, and it is very helpful to have the staff who oversee these programs at the worship planning table.
Collaborators truly co-labor — that is, they work together. They bring their own gifts and passions and the worship services they create are the product of the entire group. Over time they are balanced, but also more diverse, more multi-sensory and more likely to draw in congregation members of all ages, all educational and social backgrounds and all levels of experience with the church. Each individual service is integrated around the texts of the day, giving the congregation a cohesive worship experience. Planners working together bring their own gifts, and a broader range of knowledge, creative ideas and awareness of resources, and certainly leave the planning meetings with a sense of ownership of both the process and the worship service they have mutually created.
There can, and probably will be, bridges to cross and fences to take down if collaborative planning is new to a church. People don’t always agree on what makes worship vital and growth enhancing. And in every church I know, the staff is already very busy. But you can overcome differences of opinion, differences in working style and differences in priorities, and when this happens, both the staff and the congregation will be the winners. For collaboration to work, the pastors must be willing to plan ahead. I have heard some suggest that when you plan ahead you don’t let the Holy Spirit move in your preaching. I would argue that by planning ahead you actually create space in which the Spirit can move.
At Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta where I serve as minister of music and fine arts, we plan worship in two stages. Twice a year we do long-range worship planning. These meetings include the pastors, the organist, the part-time staff who are responsible for the youth choir and our children’s choirs, those who coordinate our liturgical/visual arts programs and the drama program, the leaders of our liturgical dancers and drummers, and the support person who creates the bulletins each week. We do not currently have separate staff for youth or children’s programs (one of our pastors is responsible for Christian education), but when those positions existed they were part of worship planning. We tentatively consider the upcoming liturgical seasons, any special events in the life of the church and other issues that might impact worship. We are a lectionary church, and the pastors come prepared with a notion of which Scriptures they are most likely to choose as the sermon text, though at this point none of that is written in stone. We discuss ideas that the musicians and other liturgical artists are thinking about, generally brainstorm and explore opportunities and possibilities and make provision for things that might take several weeks or months to put together so that they can be included in a particular future worship service. These meetings are very important in that they enable planners to create congregational art projects that take time to coordinate, they allow the musicians to choose anthems and voluntaries that require longer rehearsal times and they provide a forum for pastors to explore ideas regarding preaching texts far enough in advance to allow creativity to bloom. Of course, world situations and crises, congregational events and everyday occurrences sometimes lead to deviations from the original plans, but more often than not thinking about what you might do far enough in advance to allow you to do it, and do it well, is a good thing in many ways.
The second stage of our worship planning takes place much closer to the day of the service. We routinely meet for worship planning every Monday afternoon for about two hours. All pastoral staff and music staff are present regardless of who is preaching on a given Sunday. We open the meeting with a brief devotional reading and prayer. Then, the first order of business is to discuss and evaluate the previous day’s worship, considering what went well and what didn’t work the way we expected it to. This is an extremely important part of the meeting and it definitely shapes our future planning. Next, we look at a draft bulletin for the upcoming Sunday, which at this point is near its final form. We still make changes, of course, sometimes for reasons related to events in the world and sometimes because the Spirit did move and we have a new idea. Our discussion of the previous day’s service can also lead to changes in the plans for the upcoming Sunday. Most of the time, however, since this service has been discussed thoroughly in previous weeks, the upcoming service can be considered final.
We then look at the texts, liturgy, hymns, anthems and other elements of the services for two and three weeks ahead. We work hard to provide multisensory elements each week, and to be aware of the youth and children in the worshipping community. The farther out the service, the more tentative the decisions tend to be — there is still time for significant changes if the group wishes, or if the preacher for a service is thinking about going a different direction with a sermon.
Following the worship planning parts of the meeting we talk about pastoral care issues and touch base about other business that the staff needs to be aware of. The tone of these meetings is very positive — we laugh, we share information about personal schedules and concerns, we celebrate and occasionally we work out difficult issues. The process is structured without being formal, and conversational rather than directive. Over the years we have had one member of the pastoral staff who really struggled with the notion of long-range planning, and one staff member who could not let go of her sense of ownership in her program area. But for more than a decade it has worked well for us and, based on feedback from the congregation, led to worship services that are deeply spiritual, meaningful, challenging, comforting and sacramental.
The planning process is likely to be somewhat different in a smaller church, though I would argue it is equally important. It might involve more people from the congregation if there are those who have the gifts and interest to be a part of the process, or it might involve only the pastor and a part-time musician, who might very well have another job, so that weekly meetings need to be scheduled to fit the musician’s schedule. As noted above, the evaluative portion of the meeting is quite important, so that it might be worthwhile to find someone in the congregation that can offer the preacher and the musician appropriate feedback and reflect the congregation’s reaction to various aspects of the service. Even with only two people, the conversations between the pastor and the musician will result in better integration of hymnody, liturgy and preaching.
It is important that the planning meetings become a routine part of everyone’s schedule. When the process is new to a church it is likely that some people whom you would hope to have at the table will argue that they are too busy or have other priorities. Other than a pastoral care emergency, I suggest that nothing should take precedence over worship planning. It is much better if these meetings can take place face-to-face, but with today’s technology someone can easily attend remotely using a cell phone or other device. Obviously, the whole meeting can be conducted online, and that would be dramatically better than not meeting at all, but there is still value in the human interaction that takes place when a group in the same room. Even if there are only two part-time staff members, for example, a working meeting for a half-hour at a local coffee shop would likely lead to better creative interaction that a phone call.
Worship planning is truly a holy calling — as a participant in the process you are charged with guiding a congregation’s spiritual life and their relationship to God. It is an awesome responsibility that requires a love for the church, a passion for worship and an awareness of the needs of the congregation. It requires planners who are willing to collaborate, who communicate well and who can accept the group decision even if it differs from their own opinion about some element of the worship service. When a team is learning to plan collaboratively, worship almost immediately becomes more cohesive and — the congregation will notice! When collaborative planning is at its best, worship is awe-inspiring, life-changing and shapes all that we are and all that we do both within the walls of the sanctuary and as we go out to serve.
David A. VanderMeer is minister of music and fine arts at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.