Transparency: How Pacific Unitarian’s Sunday Sausage is made
More than a couple people recently have asked me about my process of picking and writing Sunday services. I couldn’t tell if their questions revealed a broader congregational critique or praise of our Sunday service topics, or for that matter, a deeper curiosity about the process.
For those who may be interested, the latter please continue reading. For those not curious how Pacific Unitarian’s Sunday sausage is made, please head swiftly to our growing list of events, outings, and service projects further down your page or screen.
The truth is, my process is a highly organized version of randomness that I fell into by being curious, lazy, and in full transparency a touch greedy. Whenever I have an interesting sermon idea, or get a suggestion from the likes of you, I quickly create an electronic word document file, and dump it in there. I start a lot of these word files. Some never get opened again. Some are opened and deleted, some get added to and occasionally worked on. Over time in a process comparable to natural selection some of this titled word docs get filled with other similarly themed readings, or photos, that I think fit that topic. Occasionally, two files close in theme get combined.
If I start to feel like I got something worthy of a Service, I stick that folder and its theme on a Sunday date somewhere out in the future worship calendar. The less conventional, more participatory services I tend to stick in the summer. Holiday themes naturally find their spot, and most everything else is random. Judy Shaffer was shocked to hear that I agreed to preach on a good topic she suggested for a Sunday service somewhere in the fall of 2021. To use Judy’s topic of “Why Millennial’s don’t go to church anymore” as the example, when that date approaches, that will be the topic I build the service around and preach on unless something like 9-11 just happened, the aliens finally arrive, or I think too many of “that kind of service” are booked.
As I said in my recent Minister’s Corner Newsletter article on how I create the worship calendar, I create a lot of folders that do or don’t eventually evolve, or better graduate into Sunday Services. Sometimes it’s a sad little note that reads. “You should think about this.” Or “Sal, Lee Ann, or somebody I met at a party suggested this or that idea.” Inevitably, unless I have been working on it recently, when I open one of these files it’s a mystery.
Sometimes what I find in these digital folders, is a half-finished sermon I forgot all about, or better a whole one, and I get to do a fist pump that some or almost all of my work is done.
In general, one in three is completely from scratch, one is half baked with a great reading, a downloaded photo, an offertory joke, and an article I should read, and the other thirty-three percent are pretty polished sermons I have preached before.
I also have separate folders that are catch bins for each of the components of a normal service. I have folders for Chalice Words, Children’s Moments, Prayers/Meditations, Readings and Responsive Readings, and Offertory Humor. When I find something that doesn’t seem to obviously connect to a particular upcoming service theme, it finds temporary home in there.
Not bored yet. Ok?
As for music, at the end and start of the church year Severin and I go through the service themes, and pick hymns. This is mostly me, with the guy who understands those funny squiggles on the page providing an important editorial function. We try to loosely match hymn topics and tone to the service theme, but even more try to balance out the hymns to equally please and disappoint those in attendance. This past year, we passed a few bottles of wine around and gave the choir voting privileges on what we all sing. All the offertories and preludes are Severin’s department, and he tries to interest me in his thought process, but mostly I don’t pay any attention and try not to let him see me roll my eyes.
Like I am going to tell Severin what the choir should sing. Please?
I probably spend 30 hours to a work on Worship “stuff” each week, obviously with a focus on the next thing I have to prepare for Sunday, but not exclusively. I’m not very disciplined about doing what is most pressing, but I am very vigilant about writing and planning ahead. The greatest strength of this process is that I am always prepared. The greatest drawback to this style/process is that I tend to prepare services that are “evergreen” or always generally relevant rather than particularly timely, or local to us. You might have noticed that.
If you haven’t quit reading yet, maybe you need a hobby. I can talk about this forever.
Ok, if you’re not quitting, neither will I. When I look out across the church year, and future church years, to be balanced I tend to prepare three to four social justice/political themed services, one or two world religious themed Sundays, one exclusively Buddhist sermon, two Christian themed Sundays, (usually set around Christmas and/or Easter), and one Jewish focused topic usually around Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, or Passover. Earth Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Halloween, Labor Day, The Pledge Drive kick off service, and our Pacific Unitarian Anniversary Day usually, but not always, command the agenda for those annual Sunday services. Add to our annual calendar about four guest speakers, three lay-led services, two multigenerational RE Sundays, a Pagan themed service, a Pride LGBTQ themed day, three UU focused services, and something specifically lifting up the lost contribution of women and/or people of color. My goal is to disappoint all parishioners equally. When you plan for that level of balance, all of a sudden my random style feels a whole lot less chaotic, and however do you decided what you’re going to talk about makes more sense.
Still there? Still reading along? I can’t tell.
Don’t tell the others but I have a greedy side of me wringing my hands together, like The Simpson’s Mr. Burns, that I will get ahead enough in this prep to never have to have another original thought. I know this is a dumb and covetous idea, but it is a delusion that keeps me moving. I know it is a delusion because writing for you is both my muse and primary default activity. Truth is, when I am not visiting someone, at the gym, on the phone (likely with one of you), scarfing something from the fridge, on a date, riding my bike to Venice, visiting one of my two good friends in LA, or participating in or planning some church activity, I am writing something for church, more often than not, a sermon. And although ideas are never a problem, this is a participatory democracy, not a cult.
So, keep talking to me. I’m listening, eavesdropping in on your conversations, and looking for the things that comfort and challenge us as a church, and us as a movement. Everyone can be a frugal unmentioned sermon auction winner. If you ask nice and play your cards right, I’ll write.