Monday, November 24, 2014


I would normally post this on the Lively Tradition, where I've been doing most of my blogging as of late, but posts there get reviewed first by Tom Shade.  Tom was down in Missouri this week, but was headed home today.  He stopped in the middle of Illinois and turned back South again as the Grand Jury results were announced.  

I have no eloquent words to share tonight.  Just a cry of "no more."

My heart is heavy tonight as I hear the Grand Jury's decision.  It's not a surprise, any more than it was a surprise that George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin's death.  And it may be that this decision is what is legally right, but it means no justice for Michael Brown, just as there has been no justice for so many young black men and boys who have been killed by law enforcement, including Tamir Rice, age 12, who died yesterday in Cleveland, shot for playing with a toy gun. 

If Darren Wilson didn't break the law, what we need in this country, I'm feeling, are new laws.  We need new laws limiting the use of deadly force.  We need new laws that prescribe other methods of stopping people whenever possible.  We need police to enter a situation and not escalate it, but deescalate it. 

If it's legal to shoot an unarmed man six times, we need to change that law.  And changing that law isn't on the Grand Jury, it's on us, the American people. 

We need to have a national conversation about the use of lethal force by our police, and how this is being so commonly used against unarmed black men in this country, and how we're letting that happen.

Monday, November 17, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 6

This is my final post in this series on UU sermon writing.  I've been trying to establish that sermon-writing for UU ministers is a more time-intensive practice than in many other preaching traditions, that it takes a bigger percentage of time for the new minister, the long-term minister, and the part-time minister.  That being most of us, what I'm saying is it takes a whole lot of time and there are a lot of variables that make it take even longer than some might think, and it's not a one-size-fits-all thing.

So then I've turned to what we can do about it.  In my last post I reviewed the ideas of theme preaching and preaching extemporaneously, both of which I recommend.  The review of Nate Walker's upcoming book Exorcising Preaching: Crafting Intellectually Honest Worship, which he kindly mentioned in the comments of the last post, says, "all of us are smarter than any one of us."  This is why theme-based preaching is so helpful.

So I think finding ways to make the sermon-writing process easier is good.  And I think those calling for extemporaneous preaching as a way to get out of our heads and into our hearts may be right about that.  But the truth is even with talk of "congregations and beyond" and even with branding and insight into new types of ministry, right now the Sunday morning worship is still the heart of what we church ministers do.  It's appropriate that we throw much of our lives into that work, and while it's always good to find ways to make that easier, another option is to take that work that we've poured our lives into and use it more

One thing that the internet age has done is upped the ante for good preaching.  No longer is it sufficient to be the best preacher in town.  An "excellent sermon" is now a higher standard as we can easily compare our sermon on any subject to dozens of colleagues' sermons with a simple internet search. At the same time, we're firmly rooted in an academic tradition which prizes original writing and academic honesty.  Ministers found guilty of plagiarism face strong consequences.  And I don't disagree with that -- plagiarism is not honest.  But think about this idea for a moment.  What if instead of always crafting our own sermons we sometimes shared, openly, what we felt was the best writing out there on the subject at hand -- even if it was not our own?  Why shouldn't it be okay for some of our worship services to be focused on the work we find to be most excellent in our movement?  Right now a good sermon gets shared maybe five times, for most of us, except for those who are invited regularly as guest speakers who might use a sermon more than that.  You might preach it once in your own church, twice doing pulpit exchanges, once at a General Assembly workshop if it wins an award, and then it might get picked up and read at a UU fellowship.  Given that most of us guest-preach or do pulpit exchanges only a few times a year, I'm guessing, most of our best work ends at our own church's doors.  And sometimes we just know, let's face it, that a sermon isn't working for us, and that our words are not coming together on a subject.  Maybe it should be more okay to say, "my colleague X speaks eloquently on this subject, and today I'm going to share their sermon, with a few changes that I'll mention where I'm personalizing it to our location." We should take those award-winning sermons and archive them (with an index of topics or some other search method in place), and make our own best work more broadly available. 

It's a radical, and uncomfortable, idea, I suspect.  But I think we need to think outside the box like this in this new era.

More radical than this idea is something that's already being proposed, and that's multi-site ministries.  Look for a new webpage up about this in the next couple of weeks.  If I think about it then, I'll come back and link it in, but it's still being developed right now (for now, here's the GA workshop).  But this is the work coming out of Scott Tayler's office at the UUA and with regional staff focused on it across the country (in MidAmerica, that would be Dori Davenport).  When congregations are yoked together in different ways, it may become more the practice that the best sermons we do will get heard in more locations -- or at least the best preachers will get heard in more locations, and hopefully have the time they need to devote to their craft.  You see, it's also true that not all of us are great at everything.  It's hard to admit it sometimes, but we all have strengths and weaknesses.  And for some of us, preaching is a weakness, yet we may have other real strengths for parish ministry.  But there aren't enough associate positions to go around if they're limited to the big churches.  That's why we need to bring congregations together so that we can all play more to our strengths and have someone else helping the church in our weakness areas. 

These are just two models of how we can reinvent the preaching role.  But we need to explore a lot more ideas like these as we respond to the changing religious landscape around us.  What are the ways in which our intellectual professorial model of the sermon is working for us, and what are the ways it is not?  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 5

My interim friends have told me I have overstated the case on interim preaching, and that there are many who always write fresh material or whose rewrites are extensive enough that it's not much of a time-saver to have old material to use.  I believe they're right, and apologize for overstating the case.  I think it's still true, however, that the time when sermon-writing takes the most time is early in ministry in general and after a number of years in a long-term ministry.  The longer you go in any pulpit the more you know you've used your best stories and examples.  Moving to a new church lets you use those pieces again, even if written into new sermons.  Early in ministry, in general, you have a lot of fresh examples, but are unused to the rhythm of regular preaching, which makes it harder.

So, turning to the focus of my last parts of this series, I've talked about how preaching in our religious tradition takes up a significant portion of the week, and a higher percentage for part-time ministries.  It's appropriate that this big percentage of our working hours goes into the production that is Sunday morning, since this is the most visible part of ministry and Sunday morning worship is the heart of the church still.  Even so, it's a lot of work for a one-time production, and it leaves less time for all those other parts of ministry which may be things that would attract the non-churched "nones," like web presence, social justice work, community building, adult religious education, and other writing and other public speaking and public presence. 

There are two things we can do to change the equation.  One is spend less time on Sunday worship.  The other is use the worship service more.

For the first (and less radical) option, I highly recommend the workshop on "Preaching by Heart" ( by Rev. Stephen Shick  and Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy.  I went through the workshop last winter.  I'm a manuscript preacher and love the written word.  I love writing.  But I tried preaching extemporaneously from that point forward on a regular basis (less often this fall, but still using it), and the results were great.  Even though I still felt like it kept me from finding the exact perfect words that I might have chosen on paper, my congregation greatly appreciated the extemporaneous preaching, something they had always liked about my predecessor, Rev. Susan Smith.  And it saved a lot of time.

Shick and Kennedy argue convincingly that people today are suffering from spiritual disconnection, and the direct experience of connection more present in extemporaneous preaching is what they're longing for more than for the perfectly crafted theological argument.

Another way to change the equation by spending less time in worship preparation is through theme preaching, which is a movement that is sweeping our country.  The secret to this isn't that we're preaching on themes, it's that we're doing it in groups and then the groups can share resources -- stories, images, examples, quotations.  Each preacher can then frame those in their own way, but it saves a lot of research time.  Essentially we're getting that lectionary benefit that Christian ministers have by working with each other and sharing themes.

There are a number of theme-based groups, I think, across our movement.  But the two main ones I'm aware of are the "Soul Matters" group ( led by Scott Tayler (Congregational Life Director at the UUA) and the themes published by All Souls, Tulsa ( 

I would guess that each of these tactics can decrease worship preparation anywhere from 25-50%.  For me, preaching extemporaneously probably saves me 5 hours of actual writing time, but all the other preparation time is the same, research particularly doesn't go away.  Soul Matters themes, on the other hand, changed things in the opposite way -- research is decreased by maybe as much as half, but the writing time is the same.  Since trying themes I've used less extemporaneous preaching, so I can't speak to how the two might work together, but it's conceivable that together they could decrease worship preparation time very significantly by decreasing both the writing and the research. 

Next and final: worship and the changing church -- using the worship service MORE.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 4

I've talked about why UU sermon writing takes more time, why UU ministers don't preach every Sunday, and why the dynamics are tougher for part-time ministers.  Next I wanted to talk about some models for making this situation more workable, particularly in light of the changing dynamics of church life.  But before I do that, I want to talk about one more thing that really belongs in Part 1 or 2, which is for whom does sermon-writing take the most work?

My suspicion is that there are two categories of ministers who need the most time for sermon-writing.  The first is ministers who are new to the ministry.  These ministers don't have a large number of old sermons to draw from, although they have a handful from seminary and internship.  Their advantage is that their seminary learnings are fresh, and that they've had more recent experiences of being regular worshippers at other ministers' worship services, but they have a disadvantage of less experience in the work of writing sermons week after week without pause.

The second category of ministers who take more time for sermon-writing are those who have been in their current pulpits for several years.  Any bank of sermons they had coming into that pulpit has been used up, and they have to cover the same holidays for years running and bring new approaches each year. 

These two categories of ministers will need the most time for sermon-writing.  Those who will need the least time are those coming to a new pulpit from an old one, who have built up a bank of sermons from which to draw.  While every preacher will need new material to respond to events in the world and in the individual church, and most sermons will need a rewrite for a new context, these ministers are still at an advantage having large blocks of sermons that they can use from week to week.

This is particularly a useful feature in interim ministry, of course, because that ministry has all the regular work of ministry plus particular goals of the interim ministry period to achieve.  Having blocks of sermon-writing time freed up for the other work is important.  The down-side of this is that if the congregation gets used to the level of activity of an interim minister using old worship materials, then they may expect that same level out of their newly settled minister, as well.

Up next: changing models for the changing church

Friday, November 14, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 3

In the last couple of posts, I've outlined why it is that the sermon-writing process is different for UU ministers and why it is that we are not in the pulpit every Sunday.  And, of course, this has ramifications.  And the impact of this is different for bi-vocational (part-time) ministers.  It's important to look at this, since bi-vocational ministry is getting a lot of interest these days because of the increasing struggle of churches to afford full-time ministry, particularly in the changing religious landscape with fewer people in younger generations interested in traditional church.  The bi-vocational trend may need to look different in our UU churches than it does in other denominations.

Generally in our movement, it seems that half-time ministers preach twice a month for ten months of the year, or a total of 20 sermons.  They don't really get extra Sundays off for denominational leave; those are just scheduled into the half time that they're not working -- even though, of course, denominational work and continuing education is, indeed work.  Note that two half-time ministries would equal more than one full-time ministry -- a minister with two half-time ministries would have no off Sundays, and no Sundays free for continuing education, chapter meetings, and General and District/Regional Assemblies, unless that half-time minister was preaching at two churches on the same weeks at different times.

Now think about what percentage of a minister's time is devoted to preparing for and leading worship.  With a full-time minister, it might be as much as 20 hours a week on those weeks the minister is preaching, or 60 hours in a four-Sunday month.  If that minister is working, conservatively, 50 hours a week for those 4 weeks of the month (pretend this month is February that we're talking about), then that's 60/200 hours, or 30% of their time devoted to worship.

With a half-time minister, suppose that minister is working, again conservatively, 25 hours a week for four weeks of the month, and preaching twice using 40 hours devoted to worship preparation.  That's 40/100 or 40% of their time.  So the bi-vocational minister will need a greater percentage of their time for worship preparation. 

The problem is, what do you decrease and do less than half of?  Not pastoral care.  Trust me, you can't just refuse to answer every-other pastoral need.  You're doing 100% of that, not the 50% that half-time ministry would suggest.  So that's going to take a double percentage.  Now you need to cut something else even more.  Perhaps you only respond to half of the social justice issues in your community?  The major area to cut is committee work and administration, but administration is a hidden work of the minister to begin with, that congregations don't think you're spending much of your time on.

Basically, as every half-time minister knows, there's no such thing as half-time ministry. 

This becomes even more complicated for 3/4-time ministries, particularly when increasing from half-time ministries.  A church increasing from half time with 20 Sundays wants naturally to move to 30 Sundays for 3/4 time, which is virtually full-time ministry from a preaching standpoint.  With preaching and worship being a large percentage of the job. 

If, again, you start with assuming a 50-hour week, 3/4 time of a 4-week month would be 150 hours.  Three sermons at 20 hours each would be 60/150, or 40% again.   It's a slightly better struggle than half-time ministry, because you're still doing 100% of pastoral care and 100% of everything else that you can't really do less at, but now you're getting paid for 75% of it.  So it's closer to workable.  But the big problem is when you try to go to full-time ministry without any substantial increase in the number of Sundays, so what the congregation is getting for paying you 25% more is basically just the good feeling of knowing they're paying you fairly for the work you've already been doing, but they aren't going to see much more result for it.  I suspect, as a result, sadly, the 3/4-to-full jump is the hardest to make.

Ultimately, I want to say that bi-vocational ministry is harder in our tradition because the worship preparation time is harder in our tradition, and it's the most visible and desired part of ministry, and part-time ministers really are seldom given the amount of time they need to devote to it, without just working more and more hours for part-time pay.  This is one reason why you find ministers less willing, in our tradition, to consider part-time ministry. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 2

In my last post, I talked about one major reason why UU ministers usually don't preach every Sunday of the year, and why our tradition is different from Christian churches about this.  In addition, there are the following reasons:

First, and most importantly, we believe in the prophetic power of the laity.  We're not the only ones with something to say about our faith, about the big questions, about the future of the church, about social justice.  We have amazing lay people, and we believe in sharing our free pulpit with them.  This is a major difference from traditions which believe the ordained have a more direct connection with God, and a difference from traditions that don't let lay people preach without license.  While we often give ministers a quality control responsibility for how their pulpit is shared, we fundamentally believe in the "prophethood of all believers."  Our lay people are amazing, and we want to hear them.

Secondly, we have an increasing understanding that a healthy church is helped by a healthy minister, and that our ministers have high-stress jobs where they are always on call, and have little time to spend with family and friends who work or go to school in a regular work week.  We want ministers to have friends and to have family, and to get some time to spend with them.  That means they should limit their working evenings and have some Sundays off. 

So how often do we preach?  That varies tremendously.  But what I often hear is that the average UU minister (full-time) gets one Sunday off per month (for 10 months), plus 4 weeks of vacation and 4 weeks of study leave.  And then often added to this is up to 4 weeks of denomination leave for things like General Assembly, District/Regional Assembly, UUMA Institute and Chapter meetings, other continuing education, and study groups.  Some of these may not actually encompass a Sunday, but may take up enough of the week to make it difficult to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  So my math would say that full-time ministry would look like 52 Sundays a year minus 10 off minus 4 vacation minus 4 study leave minus up to 4 denominational leave, and the result would be 30-34 Sundays per year leading or participating in the worship life of the church. 

Next up:  Implications for bi-vocational ministry and implications for the changing church.

UU Sermon Writing - Part 1

With all the discussion in recent months about bivocational ministry, it's worth discussion what implications it has for that central role of the minister: the preacher.

My assertion is that Unitarian Universalist preaching for our ministers is a very different thing from preaching in Christian traditions, and from what lay people experience when they preach.  And the reasons that this is different are also some of the reasons why many of our full-time ministers don't preach every Sunday.  Here are some of those reasons:

First, in many Christian traditions, there's an assumption that all your sermons are going to in some way tie back to that specific faith and its religious text, the Bible.  You've spent much of your seminary career studying that particular text and you know it well.  Your members are not surprised to hear the same stories coming up in worship again and again, and the same Biblical images.  You may have a lectionary that you use that tells you which passages to use for each week of the year.  You have online resources of sermon starters, stories, examples, and more, to go with that lectionary.  And you probably have a group of local or online colleagues who are doing that same lectionary that you can discuss the week's choices with.

Our lay people when they preach have something of a similar experience, in that they're often preaching on something that they're an expert on, or at least is their real passion.  And they may have months to prepare that one particular sermon.

Contrast both of these with the UU minister's experience.  While you've had four years of theological school, you're expected to be well-versed in not just our religious tradition of UUism, and not just that tradition plus Christianity, but that tradition, Christianity, and all the world's religions.  But then these world religions and theology while they may inform your preaching, will likely not comprise all of your topics.  It is a common experience for the UU preacher to tackle a number of new sermon topics each year, each of which might require extensive new reading in an area completely new to the preacher, and which may be a topic never used again. 

This is the number one reason I think our preaching takes a larger percentage of our time, and also why we don't preach every Sunday even while full-time. 

The amount of time it takes a minister will vary, but I've often heard colleagues saying it takes them two full days of sermon-writing, although most of our letters of agreement give us one sermon-writing day.  20 hours is a number I've heard multiple times, which would equal about half of a regular worker's full-time week.  That 20 hours may include research, meeting with musicians and worship associates, writing, and more.  It seems like a lot of time, but as central as Sunday morning still is to our tradition, and with our expectation of scholarly and original work, it's not surprising that we put so much emphasis on it.

Coming up next:
-- Other reasons UU ministers get some Sundays off
-- Implications for bivocational ministry
-- The changing church and implications for worship