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Joys and Concerns: Do it Right

Done well, they show that we're a caring and reverent religious community. Done poorly, they embarrass us. Joys and Sorrows, or Joys and Concerns, our Sunday morning sharing of the highs and lows of our lives, can be a rich and rewarding experience that builds community. Or it can start the week on a sour note as speakers take off on political and commercial tangents, give too much vacation detail, and share their weight-loss successes.

Many congregations have found new ways to make joys and concerns meaningful. At the River of Grass Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church (100 members), in south Florida, members are invited to come early, write their joys and concerns in a book and light a candle at the front of the sanctuary.

During the service, the minister reads the comments, ending with a prayer and period of silence. "We are a new congregation," says member Deb Wood. "We saw this as a way to avoid problems that some of us experienced at other churches, where the sharing time could be torture."

The UU Church of Little Rock, AR (199), also asks for written messages. "Since it takes time to write them, we don't have any long ones now," says Johnye Strickland, president. "We also print them in our newsletter to keep everybody informed."

At the UU Church of Berkeley in Kensington, CA (555), those who write caring concerns into the Memory Book on Sunday morning are named in the minister's meditation. They also receive a caring note and some are contacted later by the minister. After each service the Committee on Parish Ministry offers "a caring, listening presence to those who want to share sorrows," says Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway.

With fifty-three members, the UU Church of Whidbey Island in Freeland, WA, lets members speak. Because they are frequently reminded (in the order of service, from the pulpit, and elsewhere) to treat Joys and Concerns with respect, "It is a very meaningful, moving time...and not likely to be abused," says member Kord Roosen-Runge. When there are problems, the offender is gently reminded.

At the UU Community Church of Glen Allen, VA (153), a chime is sounded to begin Joys and Concerns, and again when there is time for one more. At First UU Society of San Francisco, CA (500), people light candles silently in the service and write messages for posting in the entryway, says Moderator Galen Workman.

"If done well, joys and concerns can serve as the UU equivalent of what more liturgical traditions call 'the prayers of the people,'" says Rev. John Buehrens, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) president. "The problem is that we have little sense of liturgy—a word that just means 'the work of the people'—little sense of how worship needs to have a shape and tone that is reverent rather than self-indulgent."

He encourages "having joys and concerns become part of the pastoral prayer, or be spoken aloud in the silences of what is called a 'bidding prayer.'" Here's an example:

"Today we are grateful for many things. Here in community we call them to mind and speak aloud some of the things that bring us joy. 'My daughter's graduation...Our wedding anniversary...etc.' 'Today we have concerns and prayers for loved ones and friends. For Christine's operation.. .For Ed's loss of his mother...'"

"This can convey to newcomers that this is a caring and reverent religious community," says Buehrens. "I personally do not care for the custom of people coming forward to speak multiple sentences about joys or concerns. All too often it is not reverent and seems more an exercise in 'let me tell you about me' than a real religious exercise. Ministers should be allowed to help limit joys and concerns and make them a more effective part of a liturgy that works for the whole congregation, including visitors."

Reader Feedback: Heart-felt Joys and Concerns

The article on 'joys and concerns' (InterConnections, October 2000) was a joy to read, but it left me with a concern. The joy is that so many of our congregations are inviting participation in the Sunday service. The concern is that so few make the most of it.

When I arrived in Westport seventeen years ago I was asked by the search committee if I would be willing to continue the candle lighting element in the order of service which my predecessor had started. I said, "Of course, if it works."

The thing is, it didn't really work well. So I worked at it. That's the point, in a nutshell. To make it work well, the worship leader has to work at it. And it takes time. Years, really. Our candle lighting is one of the most important ingredients to our congregation, and not only in the Sunday service. It is also the glue which holds us together, the spirit which unites us.

People need to be told what candle lighting is about and how to do it. First, it must be personal, not political. Not an announcement.To be personal, it should be heart-felt. Not an idea. The candle lighter must introduce him or herself, and be brief. If someone starts to go 'on,' the worship leader can put a hand on the person's shoulder and whisper, "Thank you." Often the hand is enough.

I try to include most of the candles in my meditation. This requires concentration and the ability not to be thrown by the occasional inappropriate one. Yes, it takes time. And, yes, the sermon is sometimes shortened a bit, but there are often very important candles. I often find myself referring to things candle lighters have said during my sermon. I can say, "As John told us this morning, the support of a friend at just the right time can make all the difference."

People almost always approach candle lighters in the coffee hour and they tell me how supported they feel. Our candle lighting deepens our worship. It is a challenge. It is an ongoing effort. But, when the community understands what it's about and develops a 'culture of candle lighting' it enhances the service the way no other single ingredient can. I would encourage our clergy as well as lay leaders to work at candle lighting to make it work. And I certainly would be glad to be in communication with anyone who wants to work at it.

—Rev. Frank Hall The Unitarian Church in Westport, CT (560 members)  

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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