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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ask the Matriarch - Lay Latitude

And on the 11th day of Christmas, we address what to do when parishioners get their own ideas about using the pulpit--as a soapbox.

My lay leader, prior to giving the blessing over the offering on Christmas Eve Sunday, read what appeared to be one of those email rants about Christmas not being allowed to be called Christmas any more (even mentioned Jane Fonda, Al Franken, K Mart, and the like). I live in the conservative South, but I thought that even by those standards, the poem/diatribe pushed the envelope too far.

In previous weeks, I've made statements that we Christians are a little too sensitive, too—and that our job is less to complain about how offended we are with a "Happy Holiday" greeting than to actually take Christ's love to the streets. I do not think he intended it as a way of arguing-with-me-without-arguing-with-me via the pulpit, but his action has made me consider wether I have #1–too open a policy of what can be said and done during worship (incidentally, a liberal-leaning guy did something similar a couple months ago, and #2–whether I ought to speak to him privately about my misgivings. I think he was trying to be "religious" and did it awkwardly. My husband (who heard it) didn't seem to be too upset by it and thinks I should ignore it. I found it inappropriate.

For me, this is a very real dilemma: I don't want to control, but I must maintain the authority of the pulpit. If I'm too laid-back, then worship becomes a venue to vent opinions. I believe firmly in laypeople taking part in worship, but I'm second-guessing my approach. It's a new appointment and I'm following what's been done in the past, but after 6 months now, I'm thinking I need to have a "training" or develop a policy for anyone who assists in leading worship.

What do you think?

Well, some of the matriarchs haven't returned from the holiday yet, but we did hear from Peripatetic Polar Bear and Jan, who agree that your concerns are valid. Interestingly, they had distinctly different reactions—you may find that it depends possibly on your denomination and certainly on your liturgical practices.

PPB says:
These pronouncements are not really appropriate to a worship service that is crafted and planned by pastor and lay-committee on worship.

It sounds, though, like people want to be able to talk and to be heard. Are there other opportunities for that to happen? A sermon talk-back adult ed? A service or time of testimony? I'm actually intrigued by testimony these days. The book Tell It Like It Is might be a place to start. (I admit that I haven't read it but have heard enough of it from the author to say that reading would probably be useful.)

To resolve your problem, I'd take the solution back to the laypeople. Talk to the lay committee on worship. See how they feel. See if there's a way to put some boundaries around what happens in worship, without putting boundaries around laity's speech and testimony—as awkward as it might be.

I understand the authority of the pulpit, but if liturgy is the "work of the people" it seems that the resolution to and authority to resolve this problem need to lay in the hands of the people.

Jan says:
While most worshippers might have reacted like your husband, I think your concern is valid. Do lay leaders receive any training before they assist in worship? They should, if not. (And I'm referring to issues bigger than "Speak into the microphone and slow down.")

In the training, it's helpful to remind them of a couple of deal-breakers:
#1–Worship is about God, never about us. We might be personally moved by a specific cultural issue (be it Darfur or the fur trade), personally devastated by the death of a celebrity (be it Gerald Ford or James Brown), or personally ticked off by a rant-worthy pet peeve (be it "Happy Holidays" or the playing of Christmas carols before Halloween.) Nevertheless, it's never about our own personal issues. It's about God, and in particular . . .

#2–Worship is carefully and prayerfully planned along themes, lectionary-based readings, whatever the professional worship leader has prepared which is her job. For worship to be effective and authentic, it needs to flow.

The lay leader's beef might be valid, theologically sound, and in line with everything the pastor herself personally believes. But if it distracts from the focus of worship (God's Word, etc.) Then it's not helpful. For example, we once had a lay leader from Lebanon who used all her parts in worship (from announcements to the assurance of pardon) to talk about the plight of Christians in Lebanon, which is great—except it was the Sunday School kick-off day and we were focussing on something else.

Just because you are the liturgist (or the preacher) doesn't mean you get to hijack the worship service to sound off about a personal gripe. (And that's my own rant for the day.)

The takeaway
I'm struck with the thought that some people don't know the difference between a rant and a reflection, and what may be offered as food for thought may be received as force-feeding. Help people learn the difference, while acknowledging their need to express and share, and you'll be fine.

In the meantime, all of us who rant and reflect in our various blogs send our support and prayers. If you have something you'd like to share, please do so in comments!


  1. This is an issue dear to my heart, both as someone who has suffered through some theologically and otherwise appalling lay sermons and as someone who, in the midst of lay ministerial training, had the scales fall from her eyes as she realized that many of her own attempts at lay sermons were going about it all wrong.;-)

    I absolutely agree that the pulpit is not a place for just any layperson. (A pastorly friend of mine wryly notes that in our tradition we put up multiple barriers to laypersons celebrating the Eucharist -- a fairly by-the-book process -- while we, in his words, "let any idiot go up to the pulpit and preach" on a Sunday when the pastor isn't there. I think that, in the absence of persons with formal extra-congregational diaconal/preaching training, there should be training within the parish for persons who want to pinch-hit for absent pastors. And personally I'd rather have a layperson who can read well and is comfortable speaking in public read a "canned" sermon than have someone without the educational/dispositional tools attempt to write/preach a sermon from scratch.

  2. At the church where I interned, all prayers by laity--even the interns, who both scored perfect scores on their Worship and Sacrament Ords--were required to submit prayers to the head of staff well in advance of worship. He provided guidance, as necessary.

    Not a bad policy.

    At St. Stoic, the session thinks the pastor is the only one who should be charged with the task of praying, ("It's what we pay you for!") so I don't think I'll have this problem for awhile.

  3. It probably bears noting that I was talking about pulpit more metaphorically than literally--I need to remember my audience sometimes, LOL.

    I think this situation precipitated out of another part of the service where a layperson was supposed to lead a prayer and extemporaneously added something, so it's something that could happen in a number of places within a service--including, if not especially, during a lay sermon!

    But it's interesting to me that talking about this in the context of the lay sermon ties it in very neatly with last week's AtM!!

  4. I know I've had to rein in my own urges to use the Prayers of the Church (aka Prayers of the People -- the weekly collection of prayers on behalf of the whole Church, the community, the nation, the world and individuals' concerns) which in our parish the lay assisting ministers compose and give, without prior vetting by the pastor) as subtle bully pulpits for my own issues. I was taught in my lay ministry classes that these prayers need to be inclusive and accessible to everyone in the congregation, so that the whole assembly of believers can add their "Amen." This is hard; it takes some real thought in composition, and it also takes enough faith to get out of the way, "let go and let God." As one of my pastor-mentors tells us, "The Prayers are not the sermon!"

  5. interesting thoughts ... personally I prefer services which are not planned down to dotting iiis and crossing ttts
    -and welcome being open to God's Spirit. That said I believe a pastor should be firm in getting the congregation at least to test if something is from God -and lay speakers (and clergy!) accepting that sometimes we get it wrong.

    I think training for preaching should be required - and a rough outline should be submitted by both guest and new speakers- with the understanding that sometimes the right thing to do is throw away those notes and speak from the heard - but no soap boxes about personal agendas! That does take away from God.

    but I'm not a matriarch :) and struggling to find MY place in the scheme of things locally - so do take what I say with a pinch of salt :)

  6. Love the title, Gallycat!

    I haven't really had a policy. I do like to vet the people who are going to speak, but not always their sermons/speech(we have one of our Members of Parliament coming in a couple months, and I won't be vetting what he has to say...). I guess I look at it on a case by case basis--if the person has had training in preaching (NOT public speaking), and they are otherwise trustworthy, then I can trust them with a sermon. The "otherwise trustworthy" part can be tricky, of course! I have a colleague who vets the sermons of clergy candidates, and that's a good idea--I sometimes wish someone had done that for me!

    This is going to be interesting this year, as we have a new policy that I can preach only three Sundays out of four. So there will be a lot of guest preachers up in that pulpit!

  7. To clarify--I MAY preach only three Sundays out of four if I want to; in other words, it's OK for me to have a guest preacher once a month.


  8. Hee hee Rainbow--I think we're all a little loopy. This was my big experiment in publishing AtM before caffiene hit the system. I am sooooo not a morning person, although I'm getting better at it. Slowly.

  9. I wonder whether a Worship Service, is any place for 'soap boxes'. It is a time of worshiping God ~ in many different ways be sure. Some comments are fine, but when they are tempered in love and acceptance. Jesus didn't always mince his words at times, mind you.

    Pastors are asked to preach even beyond what they, and we, may be capable of..they also have training and Biblical background.

    Would it be possible to have a forum some afternoon, or a potluck after church, and have soap box sorts of discussions then?

    Our Church as a whole is into all sorts of discussions of who does, should, lead in Communion.

    We have lay Licensed Worship Leaders who are trained in sermon writing and prayers, etc. We also have Lay Pastoral Ministers who take much more training. They also have more full time work.

    Some of the lines are blurring, so be prepared for that in the future. But in the end result...all Worship points to our loving God and our living out that love toward others.

  10. maybe we need to rethink the concept of "the priesthood of all believers" in the light of "many gifts, one Spirit." All are called to worship and to be participants. All are called to actively worship. Not all are gifted to lead in worship, just as not all are gifted to sing (we know that, don't we!) I'm not sure that I'm on board with my session that also thinks they are paying me to pray - but worship leading/praying/preaching in public is not only a gift of the Spirit but a practice that needs to be practiced. And it matters that we practice. And I hate it when lay leaders stop at the end of every line of scripture instead of at the punctuation marks. Sorry - a personal prejudice.

  11. Thanks for addressing this. It's a question I've been wondering about as well, because every time I go away for a Sunday, I end up doing damage control when I return after someone has offended people from the pulpit. Fortunately, most people do seem to realize that lay speakers don't have the same training that a minister does, and that when they say something strange, it probably doesn't carry much theological weight.


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