Confessions of a Part-Time Pastor: The Words Must Be Right

After worship someone said to me, "I liked how the songs we sang were all around the same theme. You probably did that on purpose."

Darn tootin' I did that on purpose.

Just like I scripted the Bible reading as a mash-up between the Message version and the New Revised Standard version on purpose -- because the modern phrasing of the Message is generally engaging, but at certain points it is just hokey so you can't read it straight.

Just like I re-assigned the parts of the call to worship from directional designations to simply "side 1" and "side 2" on purpose -- because if it says "North" and "South" I will be standing in front of the congregation turning in circles trying to figure out which way is what; and if it says "left" and "right" I will just look back and forth between the two sides of the congregation, unsure whether it means my left or their left.

So of course, I chose thematically appropriate hymns on purpose. I plan each element of worship with care and intent. Which sounds like a good thing, I suppose. But this is my confession for the week: I'm a bit of a control freak when it comes to worship.

I should qualify that. There are some parts of worship I don't get too worked up about. For example, while I did choose thematically appropriate hymns for this past Sunday, I did not notice, as our song leader pointed out to me afterward, that they were mostly in 3/3 time, thus giving the entire service a lilting, waltz quality. And I'm not too picky about the front table. (Mennonites -- at least Peace Mennonites -- don't have altars.) Sometimes kids decorate the table with artwork or blocks or Lego vignettes. Sometimes it's just the cross and offering baskets. Sometimes someone brings flowers they stole from their neighbor's yard. Whatever. I'm not too concerned with the microphone either. It has been funky for a few months now. I thought we would have to perform an exorcism on the mic last Sunday, but instead I just turned it off part way through the service and used my preacher voice.

So I guess I'm not that much of a control freak. Except when it comes to the wording and language of worship. My other blog is full of "worship pieces": calls to worship, benedictions, prayers of confession. I don't write them because I am spiritually enlightened or because I seek to share my gifts with the wider body. I write them because I can't find anything out there that is just right for my church. Even when I do use something someone else wrote, I almost always change at least a few words -- just out of principal.

"Painstaking" might be the word for my approach to liturgy. (I won a poetry contest in junior high, so I fancy myself a bit of a wordsmith.) I have to attend to the theology and the language of a liturgical piece; the rhythm has to be right; the unison congregational reading cannot (please, oh please) be a long chunky paragraph that everyone reads at a different pace. Each. Word. Must. Be. Perfect. For the readings and prayers. By the grace of God, I am slowly moving away from this approach when it comes to my preaching -- because the sermon as poem is excruciating to write and probably not much fun to listen to either.

Nevertheless, people in my church seem to like my preaching -- or they are much better at sustaining lies over the long-term than any of my children. After discussions with leadership, I announced at our recent congregational meeting my plan to start preaching three times a month rather than only two times a month. "Since I'm still just part time, that means that rather than me planning every Sunday, someone else from the worship team will have more responsibility for the fourth Sunday of the month." (The troublemaker who brought up fifth Sundays got assigned to preach those.)

Don't worry, I played it cool in front of the congregation. They had no idea the utter panic I felt at the mere mention of someone else (i.e. not me) planning worship. I don't think they saw the fear in my eyes when I considered that someone else might just pick a random call to worship off the internet without changing anything. That they might leave in the hokey parts of the Message reading and/or the stodgy parts of the NRSV. That God might accidentally be referred to in masculine terms. That hymns might make their way into worship just because someone likes them with no consideration of the greater narrative arc of the service. That the congregation might be asked to read something long and nonrhythmic in unison -- heaven help us all!

Well, "let go and let God," right? That's what they say.

Because they are into trite religious cliches, which have no place in a well-worded worship service. And I won't be able to keep them from saying stuff like that if I don't write out every word of the worship service!