Before seminary was a gleam in my eye, I was lucky to be a member of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado, under the leadership of the Rev. Robert Latham, who introduced our congregation to the concept of shared ministry. Robert was the author of a chapter in the Congregational Handbook which outlined the charge of a Committee on Ministry, a relatively new concept at that time in the UUA.
I liked what he was telling us about shared ministry, the idea that ministry is not just the minister's job. It is the job of every member of a congregation, to find a place to serve others and to uphold the mission of the congregation. The minister might be the one in the pulpit most Sundays, but the ministry of the congregation was not a one-person job. The COM's basic task was to review if and how that was happening, which was quite a departure from the older concept of a Ministerial Support Committee and a much bigger job!
Anyhow-----from Robert, I learned how valuable it is to share the pulpit. Robert asked laypersons to serve in a variety of ways during a service, from songleading and chalice lighting to offering readings and personal reflections relevant to the theme. He asked me to help him on several occasions, even letting me pick out my own readings for some services. At the same time, he read (correctly, I think) JUC's hunger for "Joys and Sorrows" as a hunger for more participation in worship, and he helped to feed it by inviting people to share the pulpit. At the same time, he weaned us off of a lengthy, rambling J&S session by changing its format to "Milestones" and scheduling it only once a month.
As I got ready to graduate, be ordained, and start serving a congregation myself, I took the lesson of shared ministry with me and in every congregation, I have instituted that participatory, collaborative model as fully as local circumstances allowed.
Moving to Whidbey several years ago gave me the chance to expand his model into my own ministry and I was surprised recently to realize that the way we create meaningful worship here is somewhat different from how it's done in many other congregations.
Twelve people from our worship team (far more than any other congregations attending) hopped on the ferry one Saturday morning to attend an all-day worship workshop across the water at a nearby UU church. We knew it would be good, as it was being taught by my colleague the Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove. And it was an eye-opener, not because it was all new to us but because our approach was far more collaborative than others. We learned some great things, but the greatest may have been that we are unique, at least given the sample we experienced that day.
Our approach has evolved over the years because we have moved from being a tiny, totally layled congregation, where all services were pulled together by volunteers and were pretty hit and miss sometimes, to being an 84 member congregation with a half-time minister who is in the pulpit twice a month. It also moved from being active only from September through mid-June to all-year-round services.
When I first came, I came for one long weekend, preaching on Sunday but doing committee work and pastoral care on Friday, Saturday and Monday. When I moved to the island, I was able to spread my work out over a full 5-7 days and as my availability increased, so did my hours and my income. I began preaching twice a month and the worship committee planned the other 2-3 services.
We began to offer trainings every fall, we changed the title of our service leaders from "facilitator" and then "layleader" to "worship leader", a title appropriate for me those times when I took on that role when we had a UU minister as a guest, and we became much more reflective about what "quality" worship meant. What worked best for us in worship? What was distracting or less meaningful? What about those times when a service worked well for us but didn't work for someone else? How could we help people with this concern?
Gradually, we became a committee of about eight with a host of well-trained, experienced worship leaders. We required all worship leaders to attend the fall training and hosted a spring "best practices" and "thank you" luncheon for all who had served during the year.
A couple of years ago, I began to invite the worship leader who had volunteered to serve during one of my services to a session in which we not only picked hymns and readings and children's story but also talked about the sermon topic and how we might address it. I wanted to know the WL's thoughts on the topic; how did s/he view this topic? What might s/he want me to address? What did s/he have to add to my thinking? This conversation preceded the service by about ten days, giving us lots of time to get just the right elements and for my thinking on the sermon to percolate.
Some of this is only possible because I preach every two weeks; I'm not sure if I could do it if I were preaching every week. But the evolution of our process has resulted in a worship team that is confident, deeply spiritual in its approach to worship, and feels like equal partners as we create worship that works.
Yesterday we had our thank-you luncheon for worship leaders and talked about what each person found most meaningful in our worship planning and leading; many, perhaps most, valued the collaborative process we had developed. I'm not sure how this will play out down the line, as someday I will retire and a new minister will come on the scene. It may take another new turn at that time.
I just hope that whoever follows me, in the years to come, will find this collaborative worship ministry to be satisfying and worthy of continuing in some way. It has certainly been satisfying to me, not to have to do it all alone.