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It Takes a Team: Examining the Worship Planning Process

Introduction

These excerpts from my LOFT notes indicate that sometimes the synergy promised by team-based worship planning goes unrealized. On the other hand, there are times when efficiency isn’t necessarily a virtue—when a little team-based diversity of opinion might be welcome.

So what is the best way to organize the worship planning process? Here are a few observations, along with a model for analyzing your own congregation’s worship planning routine. We use this model at LOFT, but the principles are applicable whether your congregation’s worship style is traditional, contemporary, blended, or something else.

Flow Charts

A helpful exercise in thinking about worship planning is to draw a flow chart—a diagrammatic representation—of the worship planning process in your church. Use boxes, circles, arrows and dotted lines. You don’t have to know anything about official flow chart protocols or standard function shapes. Just think on paper about each step in your congregation’s practice. Is it a fairly simple procedure, involving maybe the pastor, musician, and church secretary?

Or is it complex, involving layers of decision-making and revision, calling on the skills of preachers, pastoral musicians, multiple worship teams, graphic designers, hospitality professionals, and tech support personnel?

We often think about the product that emerges from worship planning and the personnel involved in it. Sometimes we reflect on the principles that guide our planning. But seldom do we give serious consideration to the process by which the Holy Spirit moves through both tradition and innovation to create the worship services enacted by our congregations on Sundays.

Planning Styles

Whatever your planning style, it’s likely dominated by one of two organizational philosophies: collaborative or centralized. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

If your church’s planning process is primarily centralized, decision-making is concentrated in one or two people (usually the pastor and/or minister of music). These folks often have the necessary theological and/or musical expertise to make decisions on behalf of the congregation. This creates a very efficient process—a definite benefit, given the relentless recurrence of Sunday morning every seven days. At the same time, the concentration of power can lead to authoritarian attitudes and a humdrum sameness that comes from limited sources of creative input, or both.

On the other hand, if your church’s process is primarily collaborative, it is characterized by input from a broader congregational constituency. More people feel a part of the process, which increases ownership, expands the range of ministry gifts used, lightens the per-person workload, and increases overall creativity.

At the same time, it increases the likelihood that suggestions, while creative, are unfitting if not downright heterodox. And efficiency goes right out the stained-glass window.

The trick, then, is to find a process that incorporates the virtues of these two models while minimizing their drawbacks.

Caveats

In this article I want to present a worship planning model that points in this direction. A few caveats are in order. First, this is an idealized model—that is to say, it’s the target at which I’ve aimed in my work at LOFT. Sometimes we reach the target; often one or another step breaks down. We keep trying. We do so because we’re convinced that, despite the significant effort involved, a good process is worth it.

Second, since we’re an educational institution, this model incorporates a significant pedagogical component. Each year I have been responsible for training twelve exceptionally gifted student worship leaders as “worship apprentices.” Each of them has particular gifts for music, hospitality, technology, drama, and so on. Each is in charge of his or her own team of students (so, for example, the “hospitality” apprentice has a team of hosts, the “tech” apprentice has a team of techies, the musicians each have a band, and so on.)

I know that this embarrassment of riches is not available to most congregations. Thus, the model I present here may or may not be right for your congregation; your own context may require something altogether different. My hope is that this model may inspire you to come up with a decidedly better worship planning process. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

A Five-Part Process

Whatever your situation, I believe the worship planning process has at least five distinct stages: previse, devise, revise, realize, and analyze. Most congregations accomplish all five, even if by accident, but few are intentional about each. For example, a congregation may put lots of energy into the second stage (devise), and next to nothing into the fourth and fifth stages (realize and analyze). It may be that a bit of focused tweaking is all that’s needed to greatly improve your congregation’s worship planning. I’ll describe each stage and then offer some final comments.

Previse

This first stage is about soliciting input from as broad a group as possible. Between two and six times a year, invite the entire congregation to a post-service potluck/meeting to discuss the next season’s services. Begin with a bit of education about worship basics (see below) and then brainstorm about themes, songs, drama, art, dance, and so on. Use a broad range of resources, including magazines, web-based material, and other worship services. Don’t worry about straining out the good ideas from the bad. Write everything down. Use what the Willow Creekers call an “Umbrella of Mercy” (no idea is a bad idea). Use butcher paper as tablecloths, and provide crayons.

The idea here is to include the maximum number of people to create the maximum amount of synergy, generating the maximum number of good ideas with the maximum amount of congregational ownership. This is a great way to help dissipate a budding “worship war” before it gains momentum. Let each congregational constituency be heard. Just as important, let each hear each other.

A meeting like this is also an excellent opportunity to teach. We often assume our congregations know fundamentals, but that’s not always the case. Congregations need reminders about the meaning and purpose of worship. They may not be eager to come to an education-hour workshop on this topic, but they’ll jump at the chance to voice their opinion about which songs to sing, what themes to address, and how worship should be conducted. A yummy chicken casserole or pasta salad doesn’t hurt either.

Devise

Here is where a small group of winnowing “experts” begins to separate the wheat from the chaff. At Calvin, we meet weekly with our group of twelve worship apprentices. You can use your own small group of gifted (mostly lay) individuals: one person who’s gifted with words, another who has an artistic bent, a musician or two, a dramatist, a technician, a pastor or theologian, someone who prays well, someone who naturally thinks about making people feel welcome, and so on. If you’re short of specialists, select people who can wear multiple hats. Look at the vast material generated at the previous stage and begin to filter. Once a broad direction is chosen, assign particular services to individuals or pairs of worship planners. These come back with a first draft of a particular service to show to the key decision-making individual. This draft should include service basics: a sermon theme and text, a focus statement for some important prayers, and some possible songs to use at various points in the service (for confession, for dedication, for praise, and so on). Maybe it includes a graphic identity (e.g., a rock) or the main idea for a drama, and so on. Whatever is included here should fit into a recognizable liturgical structure.

Revise

Here’s where things really heat up. At the revision stage, the decision-making person (often the pastor) looks over what’s presented and offers suggestions to improve a particular worship plan. The planners then incorporate these suggestions and present the revised plan to the small group at their next meeting. Further revisions suggested by the small group are folded into the evolving plan and presented by the responsible pair to the centralized authority figure, and the revision cycle begins again. The more this cycle can be repeated, the better the final plan. Most congregations don’t revise at all (except in the moment—“Oops! guess we’re skipping the Apostle’s Creed this week!”); but in this model, revision is the key step where most of the plan improvement and most of the worship training takes place. Obviously, a few key conditions are necessary to make this work. First, the decision-maker in this process cannot be a powermonger; he or she needs to be committed to and gifted at empowering ministry (cf. Eph. 4:12). Second, most of the planning happens weeks and weeks ahead of time, not days.

An important point: when revising, be sure to employ a “don’t take this personally” rule. It’s altogether too easy for folks to misinterpret substantive critique as personal attack. You can help avoid this in two ways. First, be sure that evaluations are rooted in objective and agreed-upon objective criteria. (We use the seven adjectives described previously in RW 63; www.reformedworship.org/cprw_rw63_principles.htm). In other words, saying “I don’t like that song” is not an acceptable comment, but saying “that song is too hard to sing” or “that skit seems irreverent and flippant” are acceptable appraisals. Second, I’ve found it helpful to suggest that a sincere compliment precede any critique. Even when the praise feels perfunctory, it softens the blow.

Realize

When a final worship plan is agreed upon (or when Sunday simply creeps up on you), the next stage is for the planners to clearly communicate the vision for the service to the worship leaders. It’s fine if planners and leaders are two different groups—they’re two different gift-clusters. But often the strategists have minimal contact with the folk who actually hoist the sails to catch the Spirit’s wind (liturgists, musicians, technicians, and the like). No wonder, then, that some services feel stuck in the doldrums. It’s important for those who will prompt the congregation to know the whys of the service plan. So tell them—there is no substitute for straightforward communication. It’s a truncated and trivial preparation for worship when the band merely runs through the chord changes on a “set” of songs without a thought to the broader purposes of that particular service.

At LOFT, for example, the service plan makes plain each song’s liturgical function, and we’ll often outline the point of particular prayers, but allow the individuals freedom to express those thoughts in their own words. (For more examples of the sorts of service outlines we use at LOFT, see 10 Service Plans for Contemporary Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources; www.faithaliveresources.org)

Analyze

Finally, it’s a good idea to periodically review previous services. Analyze less for technical miscues or taste preferences than for theological content. Again, using an agreed-upon measuring stick is a helpful strategy (like the aforementioned “seven adjectives”). This keeps everyone focused on the main reasons God’s people gather to worship. Surface-level snafus will be noted (“we forgot to enter one of our songs into PowerPoint”), but they’ll be properly contextualized (“it wasn’t very hospitable to ask folks to sing without giving them any music or lyrics”).

Final Comments

All this is less daunting than it first appears. Keep in mind that the path through the diagram is for one service. But that doesn’t mean your small group of experts meets three times each week (to devise, revise, and analyze). Since the work is done far in advance, these three boxes represent the main agenda items for a once-weekly meeting with your team of experts. First do any necessary winnowing and focusing work for new service plans. Then revise plans for the next, say, four weeks brought by individuals or pairs, then analyze last week’s service.

This is not to minimize the time and personnel commitment necessary to be this intentional. There’s no doubt—it’s intense. But I’m not persuaded that this is a problem. Every year we increase the amount of effort and training required for folks to be involved in LOFT leadership. Yes, some balk at the effort. But there are more who line up to get involved. And the more we ask of people, the more we equip them to use their gifts, the longer the line gets. Young people especially are eager to expend their gifts and lives lavishly on something worthwhile. And since worship here is preparation for our ultimate destiny with God, it’s as worthwhile a task as there is.

Since worship here is preparation for our ultimate destiny with God, it’s as worthwhile a task as there is.

 

Excerpt
12/09 After the Planning Meeting

Sarah was pouting. For the third week in a row the group had dismissed her request: “Can’t we please sing [undeniably wretched worship song] this week?” Meanwhile, Bill was insisting on some more upbeat services despite the fact that Advent—and John the Baptist in particular—aren’t so upbeat (think Luke 3, “Repent! You brood of vipers!”). We were already a half-hour over our scheduled end time, and people were beginning to shut down. . . .

A few days later . . .

12/14

I’m guest preacher this week at a church where the worship planning team this week consists of just two people—the guest preacher (me), and the church secretary. Summary of three-minute conversation: Secretary: “If you just tell me the sermon title and the three songs you want to sing we’ll be done.” What a contrast to last week’s LOFT planning meeting!