July 16, 2015—I am part of several online groups for clergy—some specifically for supporting women in ministry (revgalblogpals.org), some for young clergy women (youngclergywomen.org), some for people who use the Narrative Lectionary, etc. These groups have been a lifesaver in what can sometimes be a lonely vocation. I have found support for hard days, ideas I can try in my own context, and colleagues nearby to have coffee with.
One of the most common uses of these groups is crowdsourcing—people ask questions about writing liturgy, ideas for curriculum, how to handle tricky situations, what to do with a summer when the lectionary includes 6 weeks of “I am the bread of life.” This year I have seen a large number of questions about organizing a sermon series around suggestions from the congregation—either questions that the congregation asks, or hymns that they love to sing. I have done both of these things, so rather than send you to search Facebook groups (now that the search function has been made extra terrible), here’s an overview of how that worked for us.
The Questions of Faith series (which I have also called “People’s Choice” in another congregation) began with a bulletin insert that invited people to write down those questions they’ve always wondered about, their favorite scripture passage, and/or a sermon title they wish they could see in the bulletin. People were required to sign their names and provide contact information, so I could contact them if I had clarifying questions or wanted to follow up. I also asked people to write down if they knew they were going to be on vacation during the series, so I could do my best to schedule the requests when they would be present.
We allowed about a month for people to turn in their requests, and then I sat down and grouped them together by similar questions, or where one person’s question overlapped another person’s favorite verse, and then created a schedule for the series, which I published in the bulletin, newsletter, website, and everywhere else we could imagine. Questions ranged from “Please talk about heaven and hell” to “What does the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ mean?” to “If Greek has four words for love and we have only one, how does that affect our reading of these various passages X, Y, and Z?”
The Singing Faith series was similar, in that people were asked to submit their three favorite hymns, with their names attached, their vacation dates, and also a sentence about why they liked the hymn. Those all went into a spreadsheet, and then I grouped them together around common themes or texts. I put them into a schedule and published it everywhere. Every week, all three hymns were someone’s favorite, and one or more of them would feature in the sermon. We considered verses we rarely think about, what we mean when we sing these hymns, and why the music of our faith tradition is important. Everyone knew that every hymn was someone’s favorite, so even if it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, we all sang with gusto.
Both of these series allowed me, as the pastor, some insight into where the people of the church are on their faith journeys, and gave me a picture of the community that I might not have received otherwise. They provided challenges for preaching and worship planning—and an opportunity to preach directly to some things I might not have dared otherwise (like the atonement theology in all those favorite hymns!). And, perhaps most importantly, they were the work of the people—liturgy. People knew their input was valued and that I was going to take their questions seriously. They knew when their favorite hymn would be sung. Our summertime participation was nearly the same as the rest of the year, because people were so invested in hearing the answers and singing the old standards.
I cannot recommend highly enough taking the opportunity to let the congregation create the lectionary for a season. Both of these series had wonderful effects on the life of the congregation and on my ability to be their pastor, and all it took was a simple bulletin insert and a willingness on my part to go outside the box. While it made the summer a bit more work for me than the usual RCL might have been, the rewards far outweighed that cost. If you’re thinking of doing something like this—I say go for it!
The Rev. Teri Carol Peterson (MDiv 2005) currently serves as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Palatine, IL. She and her best friend (Amy Fetterman, MDiv 2005) coauthored the book Who’s Got Time: Spirituality for a Busy Generation (Chalice Press 2013). In addition, she and Andy James (MDiv 2005) curate the open source worship planning resource LiturgyLink. Teri spends her free time playing with the kitties Ollie and Andrew, reading historical fiction about princesses, and dreaming up new ways to engage the whole people of God.
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