When Rev. Peggy Clarke was called in 2019 to become senior minister of Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, “Things had been done pretty much the same way for two hundred years,” she says.
Except for one thing.
The Manhattan church had a centuries-old high church style, with an emphasis on ritual, hierarchy, and other longstanding church traditions. The interim minister who led it before Clarke, Rev. Carlos R. Martinez, instituted what was a radical change: in 2018, he invited lay people to become worship associates. That meant they would take the tradition-breaking action of ascending to the chancel to deliver readings and offer the welcome.
“It had never been done before,” says Brenda Shrobe, who, with another longtime member, Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, agreed to become worship associates. “It was a totally new concept to us.”
For Community Church, which has a large ministerial team, “just that there were lay people involved was transformative,” says Clarke. The change was well-received by the congregation, Shrobe adds.
When Clarke became minister, she was happy to continue the practice. She writes and delivers the call to worship and the sermon, and she issues the benediction. Until recently, she also chose the readings for Johnson and Shrobe. But sometimes they suggested an alternative when the reading didn’t speak to them, or an important event needed to be addressed. The congregation is about 30 percent people of color, according to Clark, and Shrobe says, “as a person of color, I want to add my voice wherever possible throughout the service.” In January 2023, when Tyre Nichols was killed by officers of the Memphis Police Department, “I was moved by that horrible incident,” says Shrobe. While Clarke mentioned it in her sermon that week, “I expanded it by reading something [Nichols] had written, and I also talked about my reaction to it.”
Now, the process is evolving again. In the spring, Shrobe and Johnson, a commissioned lay minister, told Clarke they would like to choose more of the readings themselves, in collaboration with her. Clarke readily agreed and is eager to see how this approach prompts deep theological reflections among them. “If we’re talking about sharing worship with people of great depth—and both Janice and Brenda are those people—and if we have the time to really be together and really think deeply together about something,” says Clarke, “it’s lovely.”
"Worship leadership deepens my faith, my sense of community, and my sense of responsibility to community.”
“I am deeply committed to enhancing the life of my congregation by using my voice to help create intimacy, comfort, and care,” says Johnson. “Worship leadership deepens my faith, my sense of community, and my sense of responsibility to community.”
As with so much within the UU faith, there is no single way to do things, including creating a liturgy or worship service. In some congregations, a minister or ministerial team prepares and delivers most or all aspects of the liturgy. In others, especially those without full-time ministers, lay people take responsibility for it. In some, whether or not they have full-time ministers, there is collaboration between the ministers and a lay team.
“My observation is that our congregations practice a wide range of worship-planning models,” says Rev. Erika Hewitt, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s minister of Worship Arts. “They differ according to how much collaboration there is between lay people and the professional leadership, especially the minister, and they differ according to how fully lay people view themselves as empowered to shape the congregation’s worship life.” Even the term “worship associate” has different meanings in different congregations, she notes.
The UU Institute is now offering a new worship resource, “Worship for Transformation,” available at uuinstitute.org. Developed by Hewitt, it is an in-depth course in worship comprising twelve video sessions with fifteen religious professionals. “My hope is that worship teams will view it together” as they create services, she says. This fall, Hewitt is working on another resource for WorshipWeb—the UUA’s online library of materials for worship and personal spiritual practice, which she manages—that she envisions as creating models and guides for worship, including themes and more.
Every month when Rev. Lydia Ferrante-Roseberry gathers with her service associate team to brainstorm worship services at Boulder Valley UU Fellowship in Lafayette, Colorado, something magical happens.
With a monthly theme in mind, and using a digital Jamboard to record ideas, someone might suggest a reading for a particular week; someone else will offer to share a personal memory in the service; another will bring up a song that might enrich the experience. Whoever is leading the service—Ferrante-Roseberry does so twice a month, a service associate the other two Sundays—makes the final decision, but everyone’s ideas are considered. Throughout the process, deep theological discussions based on personal experience and belief arise.
“Absolutely there is magic in it,” says Karin Griglak, the team coordinator. “We’ll frequently show up bleary-eyed at nine on a Saturday morning with absolutely no idea what next month will look like, but between the coffee and tea and all of our shared world and life experience, all of a sudden, ideas start coming forth and we’ve created an entire month of services out of nothing but caffeine.” She’s found the collaboration so spiritually fulfilling that she’s begun training to become a spiritual leader in the pagan tradition, through the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, while remaining with Boulder Valley.
“I’m a big believer in shared ministry,” Ferrante-Roseberry says. “I believe in creating a community that comes together to create and share meaning. Some of those conversations are the most beautiful conversations I have every month. For the congregation to hear from a variety of people about what’s stirring, or moving, or the life experiences that have been transformative for them is enlivening for all of us.”
"I believe in creating a community that comes together to create and share meaning. Some of those conversations are the most beautiful conversations I have every month."
For example, when Ferrante-Roseberry led a service on mysticism as spiritual vulnerability, one service associate shared her own mystical experience and its impact on her life. “In this way, we share and grow our collective theologies,” Ferrante-Roseberry says.
Shared worship is also her theology in action. “Spirit is alive in our creating,” she says, “so we are co-creating, and there is always a lot of magic in it.”
Ferrante-Roseberry learned the shared-worship model while serving as a worship associate in the 1990s at First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, where Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs and Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs were co-ministers at the time. “They had a fabulous worship associate ministry, and I modeled mine after it,” she says. “I look at the ministers that came out of First Unitarian of Oakland during Rob and Janne’s time and see a lot who do this collaboratively.”
In Georgia, Rev. Jan Taddeo relies on a worship team at the UU Congregation of Gwinnett in Lawrenceville. Upon arriving in 2011, she found a “really robust” and “very theologically diverse” worship team of about twenty people, she says, organized by a congregant, Bob Patrick.
“I came in with this background, with the idea and experience of, ‘When people gather, what do they do, and how do we do it so it becomes meaningful?’” says Patrick, a former Methodist minister. “It’s a very passionate concern of mine.”
Taddeo suggested some changes that were adopted, including creating a core team of service leaders to lead the service when she did not. (Taddeo, who will retire next year, is now part-time and leads worship twice a month, with worship associates leading the other weeks.) This smaller group meets monthly to go into “really deep” theological discussions as they plan services, she says.
“Assisting in worship feeds my soul, it really does,” says Elna Brynestad, a worship leader at Gwinnett for two years. Collaborating to create a service “helps me to think about things in both a more emotional and more detached way at the same time.”
Even when the minister leads worship, “we’ve talked about these themes so deeply I never feel I’m going in just with my own stuff,” adds Taddeo. “It’s always fed by ideas and thoughts of people on the team. I think it’s a much richer experience for the congregation because they’re hearing a lot of different perspectives and voices. I think having a collaborative worship process helps everyone to think theologically about life.”