As a Worship Leader

In the pulpit at First Parish Church in Beverly, with the congregation's unique stone chalice in the lower right.

It was my love of preaching and worshipcraft that first drew me towards the ministry. Below you will find audio recordings and text to give you some flavor for the tone and style of the services I lead.

Call to Worship

If you poll my congregation as to what the most distinctive element of my worship leadership is, my guess is that you'll get a lot of folks mentioning the Call to Worship. It's somewhat conventional in Unitarian Universalism and in the Protestant worship model that most of our congregations still follow to a greater or lesser degree to begin the service with a reading or brief remarks delivered from the pulpit. I give the Call to Worship extemporaneously, from the floor where I have more space to move around and engage with the congregation. Usually I tell a story or relate an anecdote with some sort of playful element or twist to spark curiosity and help set an open, engaged tone for our time together. Here is one example from a few years ago, during the Christmas season. As an added bonus, the method of recording allows you to hear what the service sounds like from the inside of my suit pocket.

 
 

Speaking from the floor. If the flowers didn't give it away, the fact that I'm wearing my robe in a service during the day means it must be Easter.

Sermons (click title for text and audio player)

Imperfect Parts

This sermon opens with a reenactment of a baseball double-play, performed by members of the church softball team, the Hale's Angels. The message was intended to help set the tone for a congregational year during which we would be reexamining our covenant of right relations. It also gives an example of managing the unexpected during worship, as you can hear on the audio track that one of our housing-insecure neighbors who spends time in the public square next to the church called out his encouragement to me a few times through an open window into the sanctuary. Finally, I mention where I would place myself as minister in the metaphor of a baseball team - which is decidedly not as owner or manager. (I also recently preached a revised version of this sermon for my home congregation in Rochester, NY. The Zoom recording of that version is available on their YouTube channel, here.)

Yoked By a Fool

In 2018, Easter fell on the first day of April. This homily was my attempt to explore the intersection of the two holidays: the teacher Jesus as Detective Colombo.

The Amen Break

This sermon was really an experiment. I'd wanted to preach for a while about the Amen Break - the most sampled piece of music in the history of recorded sound. But it felt hollow just to talk about it. So I figured out how to connect my laptop to the sound system and ran my own music cues from the pulpit.

Cash Machine

This sermon was part of a year-long series I preached on each element of our standard Sunday Order of Worship. The element in question for this week was the offering. This was also the sermon for the official launch of the annual canvass.

The War to End All Wars

The sermon I preached on the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Great War. There's a break around 2/3 of the way into the recording as we pause to ring the church bells at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Why Black Lives Matter

This is the sermon I preached on the day of the special congregational meeting to vote on whether or not the congregation would place a "Black Lives Matter" banner on the outside of the church building. (The motion passed overwhelmingly.) For this sermon, I committed myself to explaining the moral urgency of the issue exclusively through Black and African sources and voices (other than my own voice, obviously).

Questions & Answers

One of my favorite services of the year is the annual question and answer service, in which I field questions from the congregation live in the pulpit. The second question, at about 6:30, might be of interest to anyone curious about what it means for me to be both a Unitarian Universalist and a Jew.

What to Do When the World Falls Apart

This is the sermon I preached the Sunday after the 2016 Presidential election. The recording that morning failed, so this version had to be rerecorded shortly thereafter, in an empty sanctuary.

 

During the Laying On of Hands for the ordination of Rev. Joanna Lubkin at Arlington Street Church.

Meditation

I came up with the title and concept for this meditation as sort of a "right-on!" response to Rev. Elea Kemler's "The Church Where Everything Goes Wrong." It was printed in the Skinner House anthology, "Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders."

The Church That Doesn’t Matter

In the church that doesn’t matter, there are no quarrels, no arguments, and no one ever says anything they regret at the meeting to discuss the sanctuary’s new paint color. There is nothing to inspire such passionate intensity because none of the decisions of the church touch anyone’s heart, and no one lives or dies by its choices, or even feels for a moment like they might. Everything is easy as pie.

In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much: there is always enough to go around. There is always enough, because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvass season is always a breeze.

In the church that doesn’t matter, no one ever disagrees with the preacher’s sermon. The music is always just fine. There is never a fight about the liturgy, not even if they do joys and sorrows (and not even if they stop doing joys and sorrows). There is never any controversy because no one ever says anything they really care about, and no one else ever seems to care. Because of this, the service is always equally inoffensive at both 9 o’clock and 11.

The sounds of children during worship, the recruitment of Sunday School teachers, the compensation of professional religious educators and the size and condition of space dedicated to religious education; none of these things are ever talked about, or thought about, in the church that doesn’t matter. Those issues just seem to take care of themselves, somehow.

No one ever has to clean up in the church that doesn’t matter. Or figure out the old electrical system, or consult the building codes, or climb a ladder. If no one bothers to make coffee on Sunday, no one complains, and if no one greets the visitors, no one seems to mind. Everything is easier in the church that doesn’t matter.

The total solution to all the frustrations of congregational life requires no consultants, manuals, or webinars. Simply avoid, at all costs, meaning and purpose and anything that might lead you to either or both. Whatever you do, do not let yourself care about the people around you, or the covenant you share.

Yet, knowing this, we still decide again and again to ask tough questions, to take real risks, to do work that needs doing, and to tell the truth. We get out of bed on Sunday morning, we answer that email, we make something imperfect but still sweet for the bake sale and we give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday. We ask each other how we’re doing, and mean it, we make phone calls and craft projects for the first grade class – we offer our gifts, both humble and great. And we do these things, sometimes in joy, and sometimes not in joy, because they are done in the service of a church that matters to us.

 

Making sure everyone knows which hymnal the next hymn is in.

Invitation Card Gallery

I have a practice of making invitation cards for our "event services" (major ritual and holiday Sundays) so that folks can share them on social media. Below is a gallery with a few of my favorites (click to open).

 

Facilitating the Anunciation to the Shepherds

 

No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant Script

The congregation I serve has a long history of having a Christmas Pageant during the service on the last Sunday before Christmas. Exactly how long, I cannot say, but it seems to stretch back beyond the living memory of our eldest life-time members. The script that was in use when I arrived had not been changed substantially since at least the 1980s. In response to a need to make the tradition more accessible and alive to the people participating in it, I re-crafted that earlier version (which required a lot of rehearsing and line-memorization) into this no-rehearsal script.

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An outdoor altar for a socially-distanced remembrance of the dead, Halloween night, 2020.

Digital Ministry​

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I made audio recordings of my sermons each Sunday, and used Facebook Live to expand the reach of some events I led, but for the most part, my ministry and especially my worship leadership was focused on in-person experiences and interactions. But in March of 2020, I became a sudden televangelist, along with nearly all of my colleagues. My congregation and I have experimented with different online worship strategies since then, relying on Facebook Live for the first several months and using Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to incorporate components like pre-recorded music. When I went on vacation, we moved to worship via Zoom which was a much lighter lift in terms of technical knowledge required for those leading worship. However, playing 5-6 video clips in the course of a service (again for things like music) led to some rough transitions. In the fall of 2020, we arrived at our current formula: the congregation gathers for worship on Zoom, allowing us to see each others faces and greet each other in real time (we also use the time before the service for an entirely live gathering aimed at children and their families). We "watch" the pre-recorded worship service together via that platform (this allows me to edit the 20-or-so clips that make up each service into a smooth package before sharing screen to share the video). It also allows us to have a time for the live sharing spoken Joys and Sorrows (a tradition much beloved by the congregation) during the service, and a live time of hospitality and fellowship afterwards. It also leaves us with a video recording of nearly the full service, which we can again share via Facebook for those who find it easier to watch later. For certain cherished rituals (the Flower Communion and Water Communions, our annual All Souls remembrance, etc) I have set up an outdoor altar in front of the church and invited folks to come by to participate as individuals and households over a window of several hours, sometimes over multiple days - so that we all have the opportunity to participate in the same ritual experience, but not all at once, so as to avoid risk of transmission.

This approach has served us relatively well, and is meeting the needs of the congregation within the limitations of our present global predicament. With cautious optimism, I look forward to a time in the future when my ministry will be able to safely transition back to a grounding in in-person experience. All of our congregations which had to lurch online suddenly will need to continue to provide meaningful, quality online modes of worship and connection - there's certainly no going back to the old status quo. It may take a long time for some folks to feel comfortable and safe returning to large in-person gatherings, some may never do so, and I expect that most congregations, like mine, have seen some folks join in who are never going to be able to come to Sunday morning worship in-person for geographic or other reasons. But I am confident that future hybrid will look different than what is possible and advisable right now. That having been said, below are several links to examples of worship services and service components I've crafted over the last year.

"Adorable Monsters and Giant Robots"

One of my favorite sermons of the year is the Auction Sermon, the topic of which is chosen by the highest bidder at our annual auction. This past year's winner was one of the children of my congregation, who asked me to preach on Anime - the distinctly Japanese super-genre of animation. After we stopped holding in-person worship services, he kindly approved of having "his" service online. (The link above will open a new window, and play via Facebook.)

Calls to Worship, in the Wild

 

Reflection on the Origin and Meaning of the Chalice, 2020

This video incorporates images of home chalices sent to me by members of my congregation alone with footage of the extremely distinctive chalice we light in the sanctuary each Sunday (sculpted for us by a beloved member, now passed).

Flower Communion, 2020

The images of flowers in this video were contributed by members of my congregation.

Water Communion, 2020

Water-related images in this video were either ​contributed by members of my congregation or were taken by me, of them, during our outdoor, socially-distanced Water Communion.

Blessing the Beloved Dead, 2020

The images in this memorial montage were all contributed by members of my congregation.

Christmas Pageant, 2020

Elsewhere, you may find the script used for our Christmas Pageant in 2019. 2020 required a little bit of revision to the script, and a great deal of revision to means of performance. I invited folks both to send me pictures of themselves in-character, with homemade costumes, and to volunteer to send me audio files if they wanted a speaking part. (The link above will open a new window, and play via Facebook.)

Additional Links

Finally, here are two links if you would like to explore my recorded work more deeply:

My Soundcloud page, where you can find audio recordings of nearly every sermon I've preached in the last several years.

My congregation's Facebook page's video section, where you can find all of our publicly-available video-recorded worship services since March, 2020.

© 2021 by Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson. Created with Wix.com 

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