Special Services Add Depth, Meaning to Church Year

Danvers, MA (221 members), gather for a service honoring "memory and tradition." The service includes awards for church and community service, a naming of those who have died (including dropping a stone for each into a bowl of water), a short sermon, and a meditation period. At the end, the church bell is rung for each year since 1967 when the church was reorganized.

The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA (232), has an annual intergenerational "Music for the Soul" service, including the adult and youth choirs and themes such as "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss," and "A Tribute to Shel Silverstein."

Special services such as these augment regular services in many congregations and provide a way to increase congregational participation. They can also deepen the worship life of the congregation by their personal nature. Here are some examples.

Special services at First Parish, Brookline, MA (139), include the following:

  • Good Friday Tenebrae service, recognizing those who have died out of time, including Jesus.
  • Ancient Way Services, held on the solstices and other days. With the congregants in a circle, a connection with the earth and the seasons is celebrated with dance and movement.
  • Passover, led by a member who is the son of a rabbi. Lots of singing, concluding with a Passover meal.
  • Healing services, helping the congregation deal with serious illnesses of a child and a staff member. The services focus not on laying on of hands, says Brookline minister Rev. David A. Johnson, but on symbolic acts of supporting each other.

When Rev. Jon Luopa was at the Unitarian Society, Hartford, CT (417), he noticed that some people seemed to disappear around Christmas. He learned that many people avoid church at the winter holidays because of deaths that occurred at that time of year, unhappy childhood experiences, or family estrangement. He and his wife, Annie, created an alternative service of quiet music, readings, and prayer, which they are continuing in his current congregation, University Unitarian, Seattle, WA (890).

"We call it the Solace in Community Service," says Rev. Luopa. "It includes candle-lighting and an opportunity for people to speak of their loss or grief. The stories are heartrending. People feel as if we are honoring their authentic personhood and they realize they are not alone in the holiday season.

"The sanctuary is dimly lit at first, but by the time folks have lit individual candles there is a whole forest of candles ablaze," says Luopa. "The symbolism is that our individual light is brighter when joined with others. Then we all join hands and I lead us in prayer. Some people say this service is the most important part of their holiday worship."

In addition to its "memory and tradition" service, Northshore Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church has a January service where members write statements about the past or present. The statements are collected and returned at a service a year later as a sort of time capsule. People are invited also to write down things they want to let go of. These are burned by the minister in a bowl.

Northshore also has an annual "roots" service where three members of the congregation, in cooperation with the music director, share an experience that has spiritual significance to them, with appropriate music.

"Our special services engage the members of the congregation in meaningful participation in worship," says Rev. Ed Lynn. "The ceremonies create spiritual experiences that are personal and tangible expressions of memory and hope."

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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