I was talking with a fellow Missouri Synod Pastor recently and he commented on the nice bulletins and all the use of the options within the Divine Service for Holy Week and Easter at my parish. "I would like to do that," he said, "but I do not have the time you do to put in the work to pull it off." My first inclination was to make a very sarcastic and unpastoral remark about the abundance of time I have. But I bit my tongue and let it pass. I should have said something but in the interest of peace I kept silent. Now I regret not having said something.
There are many Pastors out there who would agree "I do not have the time you do to put in the work to pull it off..." Well, I am telling you, they are dead wrong. They do have the time but they choose not to use it for this purpose. It is not a high priority on their schedule of things to do. And that is worse than sad, it is almost pastoral malpractice.
First off I might remind Pastors that the one and only time you see the majority of your congregants is on Sunday morning. It is also the time when visitors shopping for a church first experience who the congregation and who you are (making judgments about both). So if this is a lower priority than individual counseling or a preparation for Bible study that may reach 20% of your congregants or calling upon the sick or the shut in, you need to rethink this. I am not suggesting that any of the above named responsibilities be neglected. I am saying that worship planning and worship leadership are higher on the priority list than any of these. All of them should be done and none to the exclusion of the other. It pains me when Pastors claim busy-ness as an excuse for opening the book on Sunday morning and reading through the Collect for the first time, or failing to organize and plan the prayer of the church or picking hymns at midnight on Saturday night after the sermon is mostly finished. As Pastors we need to look our best, do our best, and be our best on Sunday morning. Period.
Secondly, I might suggest that if you organize yourself a bit you can fulfill all the important responsibilities (and this one is important) while keeping worship planing and leadership high on the pecking order (preaching is part of this and not separate from it). It amazes me how many Pastors sluff off on the worship leadership and put all their time into sermon preparation (as if people will remember the bright shining light from the pulpit but will forget the missteps and miscues and awkwardness of the liturgical presiding).
Finally, it amazes me that congregations with CCW and praise bands will create, practice, rehearse, and plan out things for this and the very same Pastor will step into the "traditional" service with only a sermon under his belt and wing it through everything else. What gives? One of the very reasons "traditional" worship gets a bad name is when Pastors fail to plan and therefore plan to fail, looking uncomfortable, ignorant, and uncaring about liturgical matters. Why would a praise band or organist rehearse and not the Pastor? Maybe not an entire dry run but it would help to read through the lessons, collect, and consider the resources to help you plan things. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a sermon and thought to myself, there was a perfect hymn to go with that but I do not why he did not use it. I have also thought many times "I bet that Pastor read through the first stanza of that hymn and picked it without reading through the rest of the stanzas because that hymn was completely out of place with the pericopes."
Several times at District Pastors Conferences I have prepared the entire season of Pentecost with lectionary themes, themes for the prayer of the church, examples of hymn choices, possible liturgical options that fit well, etc. and distributed them as part of a workshop on liturgical planning. And afterward more than one has come up to me and said "Thanks for doing all my work." In other words, this guy will write his sermon and stick it in to what I have prepared without thinking of whether or not it all hangs together.
This is not rocket science. We have tools to help Pastors in their worship planning, things to help them tie the sermon, lessons, and liturgy together, and helps to guide them through the process (not to mention Lutheran Service Builder to pump it all out). Why do we Pastors ignore this wonderful opportunity and responsibility? I just do not get it.
Every quarter CPH sells between 1800-2200 of the Creative Worship for the Lutheran Parish series. I am convinced that the main reason for this is because Pastors do not want to do the work for themselves. They do not know the hymns in the hymnal well enough to pick what fits with the lessons, they do not know what options are inherent in the liturgy to tailor the Sunday service to its feast or seasonal character, and they are too lazy or feel it is too low a priority to do it themselves. [Disclaimer: I do write for that series implementing the same principles for my own worship planning into that series. I am not selling you on this tool and admit it is of uneven quality. Plus it is tied to the sermon series put out by CPH so if you do not use their lead there, this resource may not be as helpful as you think.]
There was a time in my life where more often than not the Pastor of the congregation where I was routinely apologized from the pulpit about his sermon and excused his failures by pointing to all the crisis situations that came up that week that kept him from being better prepared. The organist picked the hymns and the choir director the anthem so he was not responsible for that aspect of the service. What a terrible tragedy when more weeks that we cared to admit the Pastor said to the congregation, "There was something far more important than worship on my calendar... you will just have to make do with some off the cuff remarks." It was no surprise that attendance declined in that congregation and with it mission and money.
So cut the excuses, do the work, get into the habit, and plan for the service as well as the sermon. Practice and rehearse it a bit... it will make a big difference in what people experience on Sunday morning and their attitude toward Sunday morning... And it is the right thing to do. Period.
Amen. I am still amazed at how many pastors I know that put Sunday's Mass 24th on their list of things to do. May we all grow in the discipline of preparing for the Divine Service in right and salutary ways.
Rev. Michael Erickson
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