Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Joys and Sorrows of Joys and Sorrows

Background Information
In my column in the January 2009 edition of our church newsletter I made reference to the essay that appears below. To give those who have not read the newsletter column a little bit of background, in November we began to experiment with different formats for the “candlelighting” (or “joys and sorrows”) portion of the worship service. Traditionally we had invited those in the worshipping community to come forward to light a candle and share a brief, personal joy or sorrow. We experimented. On one Sunday we invited the congregation to fill out a form with a written joy or sorrow. The slip of paper was then placed in a basket at the front of the sanctuary and read aloud by the worship leader. On another Sunday we invited the worshipping congregation to speak of their milestones, millstones, and stepping stones. We made available smooth stones and invited people to drop their stones in a vase filled with water as a symbolic act. On other Sundays the worship leader has set a tone and rhythm by sharing several congregational joys or sorrows before inviting the congregation to participate.

In my column in our newsletter I made reference to several pieces of writing about the practice of including a time for sharing joys and sorrows in worship services. I also wrote that I was going to use this conversation as a “foil” for asking some theological questions about our church community.

Introduction: Individuals in Community
When I first became the minister at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church one of the earliest things I wanted to discover was how the congregation reacted to the use of theological language. One Sunday early in my ministry I decided to end the service with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” After the service, I received two comments. One person said she hated “Amazing Grace” and hoped that we would never sing it again. Another person said she loved this hymn so much she wished we could sing it every week. There is no pleasing everyone. The only solution was integrity; I would choose “Amazing Grace” when the hymn fit the overall tone and tenor of the service and I would not choose the hymn when it didn’t fit with the service.

When I began to receive feedback about changes we had made to “candlelighting,” the responses were just as varied and polarized as the two opinions about the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Some people loved “candlelighting” and wanted us to keep it like they were used to. Others wrote to say that they despised “candlelighting” and wished we would do away with it

There is an intrinsic quality within Unitarian Universalism that encourages differences of opinion. As people with inherent worth and dignity engaged in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, our fifth UU principle attests to each of us having the “right of conscience.” As a religious tradition that is not centered on any specific creed, we explicitly affirm that “we need not think alike.”

Our UU principles also declare that we are “interdependent.” This claim means that our individual actions and inactions have an impact on others just as the actions and inactions of others have an impact on us. Our tradition also affirms that, though we do not share a common creed, we are a covenantal faith. A covenant is a set of sacred promises we make about how we will endeavor to be together in community.

Worship and Community
It is impossible to say anything substantial about “candlelighting” without a working theology of worship. What is the point of worship? Why do we worship? What is the relationship between worship and the other parts of the life of the church? These questions are deep and it is beyond the scope of this essay to answer them in full. Instead, I want to contextualize my answer by writing briefly about how worship functions in a church like ours.

The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church would be classified in church literature as a program-sized church. What this means is that between 150 and 400 human beings pass through our doors on an average Sunday. (On a usual Sunday, we approach the mid-point with 250-275 adults, youth, and children coming through our doors.)

If you are interested, Alice Mann describes these sizes in her book Raising the Roof. Here is how churches of different sizes are categorized:
Family Size: Up to 50
Pastoral Size: 51-150
Program Size: 151-400
Corporate Size: 401-1,000
Super-Church: 1,000-3,000
Mega-Church: 3,000-10,000
Meta-Church: 10,000 and beyond
What makes a program-sized church distinct is that worship acts as its own program. At smaller sizes, there is a blending of functions and the Sunday morning worship hour is used to meet many different needs. It is completely normal for a smaller church to invite a professor to give a lecture instead of a sermon. In this case, the educational needs of the congregation take precedence over worship on that Sunday. In at least one smaller UU church, worship is cancelled one Sunday each year for a church clean-up day. Several smaller churches cancel worship on the day of their annual congregational meeting; governance displaces worship.

Worship, education, governance, social action, fellowship: these are all important functions. In a program-sized church, the goal is for there to be abundant program offerings in each area. The programs are not in competition for the limited resources that you would find at a smaller church.

So, what makes worship distinct? In most churches worship is the most attended program. It is also the program that visitors will come to first. In the words of Rev. Tamara Lebak, “The church’s primary opportunity to define itself as a single corporate body with a common vision is in its public worship.”

While I want to resist trying to define worship too narrowly, the thing that I want to say about worship is that it is the leading vehicle in helping a community to define itself and project its vision. Worship can (and should!) address issues of ethical and moral importance, but worship is not social action. Rather, worship might inspire the corporate body of the church to engage in social action. Worship is not devoid of intellectual content but the purpose of worship is not to be a vehicle for the dissemination of information. Worship can have a pastoral function. It can help a community to address a shared grief or a common element of human living, such as coping with death. But, worship could not possibly replace other avenues for pastoral care available in the church.

"Candlelighting” and Worship
Rev. Tamara Lebak is the author of a provocative essay entitled, “My Concern: Joys & Concerns” that appears in the new book, Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism. She writes,
I am shocked by the many churches in our movement that cling to “Joys and Concerns” in worship, especially in the name of inclusion. In its most common form, “Joys and Concerns” is an open-mic sharing in the middle of a corporate public worship service, and serves as the model spiritual practice of unhealthy churches… This unscripted and unpredictable practice speaks volumes about what is most important to us. It clouds the worship message, gives power to a vocal minority, and focuses the entire church inward on personal matters.
What Rev. Lebak is saying here is not that personal matters are unimportant, only that worship is not the right vehicle for sharing them. In a lengthy chart she lists many of the functions that people claim “Joys and Concerns” fulfills and then rebuts those claims by listing programs that better address those functions. She points to programs and tools like small group ministry, pastoral care, membership programs, and communication technologies as functions that better achieve the purposes of “Joys and Concerns” or “Candlelighting.”

Rev. Lebak is not alone in this criticism of the practice of having an open-mic time in worship. In the book Worship that Works, Rev. Wayne Arnason and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz write,
Open-ended invitations to express joys and concerns during the service are a cherished part of the liturgy in many UU congregations. Whatever the criticisms or abuses that arise from time to time, the power of this ritual of personal sharing embodies what many UUs hold up as one of our most important principles….

Many congregations have sought a creative compromise between an open-ended invitation and elimination of the ritual altogether… Even in small congregations there is no way that all the pastoral issues and personal feelings of those present will be expressed through a Joys and Concerns ritual. It will always be a sampling from people who are the most motivated and expressive. The idea that it is a sampling makes it easier to understand the ritual as having a symbolic role in the liturgy, rather than a functional one. There are better ways for the congregation’s pastoral ministry leaders to hear about something going on in a member’s life than a public announcement in worship.
While Arnason and Rolenz do not call for the elimination of the practice, they do suggest alternatives, including inviting members to light silent candles, to write their joys and concerns down for a worship leader to read, or to include the text of “joys and sorrows” in the printed order of service. Other suggestions do leave space for participants to speak “off the script.” Arnason and Rolenz conclude their section on “Joys and Concerns” by advising congregations to, “Experiment with a variety of styles until you find the one that will work well over time.”

For a wider perspective on ministers’ feelings about “Candlelighting,” it is worth turning to a study done by Rev. David Keyes and a number of UU ministers in the Atlanta area in 2005. The “Excellence in Worship” project interviewed ministers who were widely considered to be the best at leading worship. Here were some of the responses,
Rev. Lynn Ungar wrote: “Participation of laity in worship can be both the best and the worst of our worship practices. Joys and Concerns, or candles, or whatever name, expressions of worship such as this I see as essential and even beautiful, as expressions of our theology, as prayers. At the same time, they can be annoying, tedious. The more we allow the untrained [to] have access to our community ritual, the more loss of control, and, at times, completely inappropriate sharing we have.”

Rev. Kathleen Rolenz wrote, “[One of worst practices is] joys and concerns. Sorry. I know this is a sacred cow. They can be done well, with grace, dignity and discipline, but usually it’s a celebration of the individual that borders on idolatry.”

Rev. Greg Ward wrote, “Joys and concerns that have no clear criteria – I believe that joys and concerns (and the myriad of ways that we can present it) CAN BE very powerful in bringing about that sense of ‘something greater’ among us. They can also be diatribe and passive aggressive commentary and advocacy and announcement forums that actual detract from safety, discourage depth and break down feelings of community orientation.”

A minister at one of our largest churches wrote, “The worst [part of UU worship] is joys and concerns. If I ran the world we would stop it. We have stopped it at [the church I serve.] At its best joys and concerns can be touching and can reinforce community. However, as it is usually practiced it does us untold harm. While some visitors find it warm and touching, more of them find it off putting and an in-crowd exercise that leaves them out.”

On a more positive note, Rev. Frank Hall writes, “One of the best worship practices in Westport, helping to create and maintain a sense of community, care, support, and encouragement, is the invitation to come forward to light a candle and to say something. I've been working on this for 22 years; it makes me nervous (helping to keep that 'edge.') It took a few years to get it 'under control.' But it was worth every drop of perspiration, every uncomfortable time I had to put my hand on someone's shoulder and say, quietly in his/her ear, ‘Thank you,’ meaning, ‘Enough.’ It's risky business, this thing we call 'worship.' So, sure, the candle lighting time is a bit risky, and it may make some folks in the pews uncomfortable. But it's worth its weight in gold, as my mother used to say.”
It is worth remembering that these comments were solicited from ministers who are widely considered to model excellence in worship and are considered as the most thoughtful ministers in our movement about worship practices.

The Risks and Rewards of “Candlelighting"
In the literature there is frequent mention of the open-mic (unscripted, unpredictable, etc.) nature of “candlelighting.” Even when this part of worship is carefully introduced, there is no way to control what will be said. It is worth considering whether the practice of “candlelighting” is compatible with my “Letter of Call” with the congregation that stipulates that “The minister will be responsible for all worship services.”

Here are some of the risks associated with having an open-mic available in worship service:
Safety Risks
+ Someone might slander or verbally abuse another person in the congregation.
+ Someone might make a remark that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise prejudiced.
+ Someone might make a political statement that violates IRS regulations and threatens the tax exempt status of our congregation.
+ Someone might share in a way that makes others in the congregation feel unsafe. (Imagine if someone announced a violent fantasy, said they were contemplating suicide, etc.)

Identity and Message Risks
Worship is the time when our congregation broadcasts its vision and its identity.
+ Insider language can have the effect of making our congregation appear insular, cliquish, and unwelcoming.
+ Some sharing, such as describing something luxurious, may have a classist tone and convey the message that our church is not welcome to all, regardless of socio-economic class.

Risks to the Integrity of Worship
+ Elements in the worship service such as the sermon and music are carefully prepared in advance. When “candlelighting” takes a long time, these elements have to be cut or dropped.
+ Effective worship sets an intentional tone. One person’s sharing during candlelighting has the potential to disrupt the tone and flow of the entire service.
Those who endorse “candlelighting” often point to the rewards of this part of the service. Those rewards include building a sense of community, allowing worship participants to name either a profound grief or a profound joy in their life, informing the congregation of these events so that we the members of the congregation are better able to minister to one another, and making the worship service more personal.

For those who feel this way about “candlelighting,” I would invite you to read Rev. Tamara Lebak’s essay in which she challenges each of these positive rewards that come from the practice. And yet, while I find much insight in Rev. Lebak’s arguments, I take a much more moderate view. I think it is possible for “candlelighting” to work effectively in a church like ours. At the same time, I believe that we need to be more disciplined about the practice.

"Candlelighting” Etiquette
The other day I had a conversation with someone in my own generation. We reminisced about getting our first email accounts. With some laughs and some embarrassment we talked learning the hard way not to send “spam” or annoying chain letters to our entire group of friends, not to reply to the entire group with a message meant for an individual, that some communication is better done over the phone or in person and not over email, and so forth.

Church etiquette is something that makes people nervous. In fact, evangelical and non-denominational churches have picked up on the sense that un-churched people tend to be very nervous about attending church because they won’t know what to do. In response, these churches have developed a “come as you are” informality and have all but eliminated participation by the worshipping congregation. In the worship service at SMUUCh, the worship leader gives clear instructions when it is time for the congregation to participate by singing or speaking. When we say our affirmation, the worship leader informs the congregation that the words are found on the front cover of the order of service. When we sing out of both hymnals, we specify whether the hymn is located in the gray or the teal hymnal.

Here are some helpful hints for “candlelighting”:

1) Say your name so others know who you are.
2) Put the cordless microphone close to your mouth so that it picks up your voice and allows everyone to hear you.
3) Share briefly. This is not the time to tell a story. One or two sentences should suffice in most cases.
4) Candlelighting is about community. Even though the candle you light is for something that is personal to you, the moment is front of the congregation is transactional. “My aunt is having surgery this week and your thoughts and prayers would be greatly appreciated.” “I invite you to join with me in celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary which is today.” “It is a real blessing and I feel honored to have been asked to write a book.”
5) Leave out details that are too graphic. I like to say that it is one thing to say that your aunt is having surgery. It is another thing to describe the re-sectioning of her colon.

"Candlelighting” Going Forward
After careful consideration, research, and listening to thoughtful and diverse comments from many in the congregation I’ve reached the decision that we will go ahead with “candlelighting” in a slightly altered form. The introduction to this time will be extremely intentional and the worship leader will begin by lighting a number of candles for congregational joys and sorrows. These first candles will establish a rhythm that is intended to set a tone.

Covenants in our Community
In the article I wrote about “candlelighting” for our church newsletter I wrote that I considered “candlelighting” to be a “foil” for a larger theological question. That question has to do with how we relate to one another as a covenanted community. Earlier I wrote of the tensions that exist between individualism and community. There is a larger question that is implied: What responsibility do we have to each other? This question has to do with “candlelighting” but it also transcends “candlelighting.”

I have noticed that when a person lights a candle to express personal grief that the care of the congregation is extended to them. People express their condolences and ask if the person needs anything. When someone shares a joy, others approach the person after the service and offer their congratulations. This is part of our covenant to be a church that cares for one another.

I would submit that it is also a part of our covenant for our members to confront one another when behavior detracts from the well-being of our community. Such confrontation should not be done angrily or harshly, but honestly and compassionately. Are we able to honestly say to one another, “What you said in ‘candlelighting’ made me feel uncomfortable.”? Can we say, “I felt like you took advantage of the trust extended to you in that part of the service.”? This goes far beyond “candlelighting.” When we perceive that someone is not living up to a commitment, when we perceive that a person is not fulfilling the expectations of membership, are we able to approach that person and ask how things are going?

I conclude this essay with the reiteration of something I wrote earlier: “Our 7th Principle declares that we are ‘interdependent.’ This claim means that our individual actions and inactions have an impact on others just as the actions and inactions of others have an impact on us.” It is a hard challenge to ask us to be compassionately honest with one another about how other people impact us. However, the goal of deep community is not easy.