The Straight Dope: A Blunt Guide To Best Practices For Lay Worship Leaders

All worship services happen within a larger context. How does this service fit in with the other worship services in that season or series? How will it minister to the congregation and to newcomers? What story does it want to tell and what message does it convey? What is its emotional arc, and how will you use music to achieve that? These are the essential planning questions.

Internal preparation: worship preparation begins for me when I wake up on Sunday morning. I’m thinking through the entire service (including the transitions between elements), proofreading, thinking about the message, the community, and considering any last minute edits or adjustments. I always check my e-mail and the headlines to see if there is anything that may need to be addressed in a pastoral way during the service.

Whatever your role in the service, prepare internally for it. You are the medium through which an important message will be communicated and a ministry shared. Don’t walk in cold.

Do a sound check. Know what you sound like when the mic is on, and know how to turn the mic on and off. If the mic takes a few seconds to come on, accommodate that. Stand for that three seconds in silence. NEVER blow into the mic or tap on it.

Similarly, please never, ever say, “Is this thing on?” or “Can you hear me” during the worship service unless there is a true tech breakdown. Worship is an art form and Sunday mornings are the performance of that participatory art form. It is the leaders’ responsibility not to disrupt the worshipers’ experience. Handle insecure moments silently and swiftly, and if all else fails with a microphone, project your voice and carry on.

Do not allow interruptions of worship for any reason. Gesture to the ushers or a staff member if you need assistance dealing with an interruption. Do not engage with the interrupter, as this will prolong the distraction.

Sarcasm, jokey asides and insider language are the fastest way to communicate that we don’t like newcomers (because this sort of humor and commentary presumes an intimacy that isn’t actually shared among all present) and that we don’t take worship seriously. Jokes at your own expense are also distracting. Please avoid the temptation. Worship is a formal occasion even when it is warm and friendly.

Review your content to assure that no one would ever have cause to ask, “What is she talking about?” This includes acronyms, shorthand for church or denominational programs, and references to people you presume everyone knows.

People don’t know who you are! Wear your nametag and please introduce yourself if your name is not in the order of service.

Review your sermons or homilies for negative or insulting content, particularly prejudice or sarcasm against political figures or religious groups. This is very common among Unitarian Universalists. There is a different between an honest observation or righteous anger and snotty put-downs. It’s okay to be critical, but do it thoughtfully and within the context of our theological tradition. Every week, dozens of people walk out of our congregations and vow never to return due to our hypocrisy. We have to get better at this (Again, see note about sarcasm).

Representation matters: review your content for diversity of voices in readings, stories, quotes and songs. Review readings for gender-inclusive language.

Storytellers:  please see me or Julian about guidelines for Time For All Ages. They are, in brief: 1. Respect the children and never laugh at them or join in congregational laughter at any of them. 2. Choose age-appropriate material. 3. Try to be thematically connected to the rest of the service. 4. Do not give the children the mic but repeat their comments after them so the congregation can hear. 5. Tell stories by heart or use notes; do not read books. 6. Have a strong beginning and ending and make a smooth transition to the Recessional hymn.

All worship leaders and participants should be aware of issues of cultural appropriation. When in doubt, bring in another opinion. We’ll research, discuss and make decisions together.

PRACTICE. Whatever your part in the service, practice it. Think about what has gone before you in the service and what will come next, and how you fit in the flow of things. Be aware of transitions: is there a hymn after your part in the service? Who will introduce it? It might be you. Worship services have an emotional arc that is broken by awkward, insecure transitions between liturgical elements. Start strong, end strong. Know why you’re up there.

Volume and diction: Please project!!!! Do not rely on the microphone!!! This is imperative and is the single most avoidable problem in worship services. Being heard and understood is an accessibility issue. If you are someone who is afraid of having a big voice and tend to swallow your volume, try singing your part at home and learn how to take deep, full breaths to support your sound. So many wonderful sermons and readings have been inaudible due to insufficient breath support, dropped volume at the ends of phrases, and rushing.

Let’s say it again for the cheap seats: DO NOT RUSH. You don’t want to speak at a ridiculously slow pace but most speakers need to slow down and allow time for ideas to sink in with the congregation. Slowing down also allows more opportunity to connect with eye contact. I still have to remind myself to slow down while preaching.

If you’re preaching, see my hand-out “How To Preach a Sermon.”










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