The Joys and Sorrows of Joys and Sorrows
By Rev. Alex McGee
Worship is an opportunity to gather in love and for reflection. The sharing of Joys and Sorrows is a widely debated topic among UU groups: whether this sharing enhances or detracts from the worshipful gathering? Our goal is to help the congregation know about significant life passages and events so that we can hold each other in the light and show support to each other in appropriate ways.
This summer, our ministers, Rev. Alex and Rev. Erik, have been experimenting with different ways of handling Joys and Sorrows during worship. And we have been hearing from many of you strong feelings in both directions: that you really like, and really don’t like, these changes. There is a lot of love in, and for, this congregation, and many of you are passionate about this! This article talks a little bit about what you can expect going forward, and what are the reasons that Joys and Sorrows are shared in different ways in different sized congregations. At the most recent meeting of the Committee on the Ministry, they spent the entire meeting discussing how the sharing of Joys and Sorrows can best serve our congregation. They also had a wide range of opinions and experiences and insights. Please continue to bring your ideas to the Committee on the Ministry, as well as to me and RevWik.
This experiment began last spring when we had received enough feedback that significant numbers of people felt Joys and Sorrows was detracting from the Sunday morning experience. Some people felt that too many sharings were rambling, or politically motivated, or out of sync with the mood of the sanctuary. So, in late spring, we tried asking people to write them on cards, and in a book. Then, during summer worship, they have been read out loud by the worship leader. Ideally, these cards would also be made accessible so others can read them. This is a work in progress, and I am working on a way to display them reverently.
Going forward, as we settle into autumn and a new church year, we will be revising and refreshing our worship format. We have been researching best practices and successful experiments elsewhere. We will continue to experiment and refine the use of the cards for now.
The board is also educating itself about “size dynamics,” which is a term that refers to the fact that different sized churches have different needs and different capacities and different opportunities. For example, this congregation decided in 1995 to change to two services on a Sunday morning, once the congregation grew too large to gather in the sanctuary space. Most congregations stop doing spoken Joys and Sorrows along with that change. Also, the congregation decided around 2003 to pay for additional hours of ministerial staff time, as the congregation grew larger. As of April 2016, we have 424 members. In most churches of this size, they long ago gave up the practice of individuals speaking Joys and Sorrows to the congregation. That practice is most effective in groups below the size of 150, that meet all together in one service.
As we have heard feedback from many people, all of it is based in love and care for each other and the congregation. We have heard from many of you that you are relieved to not have the Joys and Sorrows spoken, because the topics were sometimes not actually Joys or Sorrows and sometimes were shared in a way that didn’t actually serve the congregation in supporting that person. I often saw people leave the worship service to avoid Joys and Sorrows, and now that restlessness is not present.
On the other hand, we have heard from others you of a great sense of loss that you no longer are seeing the people who are speaking their Joy or Sorrow. You want to hear their voice and witness them. You found it a great way to support your fellow congregation members. Indeed, many congregation members engage in a spiritual connection to the wider humanity when you hear these deep truths spoken. Many of you have reported that you had a moment of grace when standing and speaking before the congregation. We take seriously this spiritual experience. Because of this, we continue to wrestle with the best way to proceed.
As of this writing, we are likely to continue with the experiment of writing the Joys and Sorrows on cards, and after reading them out loud, to place them where anyone can come and read them. One important need is met by having the cards available for others to read after the service: People who were here on Sunday morning but were teaching Religious Education to our children and youth can still share in learning about the Joys and Sorrows. Also, people who attend the other service can read them and stay updated, too.
No system is perfect. Some people have trouble writing. Some people have trouble speaking in public. Some people have trouble hearing people who are speaking with the hand-held microphone but not using a full volume voice.
As you reflect on this issue and what is best for all involved, I invite you to consider a few facts that often go unseen: Some people never stand up and speak a Joy or Sorrow because they feel shy, because they are scared of public speaking, or for other reasons. Also, many pastoral issues are never shared in Joys and Sorrows but are held privately with the minister or a small group ministry. Thus, only a fraction of what is happening is shared in Joys and Sorrows when they are spoken out loud. Also, we have CareNet, which is a way that people who want to help out with meals and other needs can support each other. This is another way that we share about helping each other through life passages. Finally, some of the Joys and Sorrows are not from people who can stand and speak, but are offered by the minister, based on news from someone going through a significant change. Thus, we already have many ways that Joys and Sorrows get to us.
If someone wants to have a pastoral meeting, or to receive help with meals, or ask for a referral to a therapist, all of that can happen without speaking in Joys and Sorrows.
If you are wondering whether to speak during Joys and Sorrows, you might try a Quaker spiritual practice: ask whether your words are truly coming from a spiritual place and serve the fabric of community when they are heard.
As I said at the beginning, our goal is to help the congregation know about significant life passages and events so that we can hold each other in the light and show support to each other in appropriate ways. Our goal is also to use the best tools for this, to fit the size of our congregation and the nature of our congregation. We will continue to listen and reflect and grow together! This is a chance to live our covenant as we stay in respectful dialogue.