When I first started attending my local UU congregation, I was fascinated by the opportunities for members to share in a part of the service called "Joys and Concerns." It was an open-mic format where people shared personal anecdotes, milestones, political/social concerns, stories about ailing friends/co-workers/loved ones, and grief and sorrow over the deaths of pets/friends/relatives.
Sometimes it was intimate and comforting. Other times is was a bit awkward. And occasionally, someone took over the service with sharing that was almost as long as the sermon.
When I went to seminary, I learned more about the history of this practice. It was started with good intentions, but not with a good articulation of the purpose of the ritual nor with the boundaries of what could/should be shared to keep a sense of reverence for deeper levels of sharing. We had discussions about how to balance the intimacy of the congregational community with the need for Sunday morning to be a public (or "third") space that is welcoming to the stranger.
This tension was brought into the spotlight for me when I heard this story: A church that had the open-mic format of Joys and Concerns had a Sunday where members shared impersonal concerns about national events and minor concerns about ailing pets. Then one member got up and shared that their child had died that week, and they didn't know how to share such a deep grief following what had already been said.
That story convinced me that the worship leaders needed to moderate--or even refocus--this element of the Sunday service. I think that the core, generative question is, "how do we balance the need of being a community of care during members' significant times with the need to be relevant to the newcomer in our Sunday worship services?"
I've seen lots of variations and modifications of the "Joys and Concerns" format. But I want to share one model that was so moving, so authentic, and so participatory that I was moved to tears.
The UU Church of Akron, Ohio has developed a ritual where the minister and a member of the Pastoral care team stand by a rack of candles while meditative music plays. Members, friends and visitors line up, and the pastors connect with each person as they light a candle. Whispered words of gratitude, grief or joy might accompany the lighting. Each person is heard, and each sharing is acknowledged in a satisfyingly personal way.
During that ritual, I could feel how deeply that community loved each other, and how deeply they were open to loving the strangers within their midst. I'm not suggesting that this ritual is right for every congregation. But I do want every congregation to be as intentional about being a community of care for the newcomers as well as the established members.