There’s a kernel of wisdom which has been true for me more often than not: “The journey is more important than the destination.” Unfortunately, when it comes to worship planning, something eventually has to make its way into a bulletin for Sunday morning, so we can’t just bask in the glory of the journey forever. But when time is short and worship has to get planned, it’s easy to let the destination (the bulletin) control the journey instead of the other way around. With that in mind, I’ll let you in on my own planning process and hope that it may inspire you to let the planning inform the bulletin more often than not.
In an effort to keep the tyranny of the urgent at bay, I try to do rough sketches for services 1-3 months out. I sit down with Sundays & Seasons, Indexes to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and Choosing Contemporary Music, all published by Augsburg. I read the introductions to the day, the summaries of the readings, and the Prayer of the Day to familiarize myself with the overarching themes. Then, with a 3-ring binder of fill-in-the-blanks orders of service, I skim through the hymn and song selections in each book, looking for things the congregation already knows and writing down lists of possibilities. The most familiar things go in one column, the less familiar hymns or unfamiliar-but-worthy-of-doing hymns go in another column. That way I’ve got a starting point when I hammer out the details of the service later on. I also check the preaching images in Sundays and Seasons. If I’m inspired to include an “occasional service” like Affirmation of Christian Vocation or Affirmation of Baptism, I jot that down. If I’m inspired to incorporate something from Luther’s Small Catechism, printed conveniently in the back of the ELW, I jot that down too. If it’s a festival Sunday, I’ll check out the orders for Thanksgiving for Baptism or Eucharistic Prayers and make note of the ones that seem most fitting. Then, when a given Sunday draws closer, I’ll visit WorkingPreacher.org, read through the texts and accompanying commentary in detail, jotting down any additional ideas or thoughts about what might be fitting and appropriate for worship on that day.
On the Monday before, I return to that planning template and make final decisions on music selections, order of service, and any other liturgical elements. Then I submit it all to the secretary for bulletin preparation. On Thursday, I proof the bulletins and make any last minute changes. On Friday, the bulletins are printed and folded. The weekend arrives, God is worshiped, and then it’s Monday again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Throughout all of this, the pastors and I do our best to meet monthly and really sink our teeth into the upcoming texts so that pastor and musician aren’t blindly passing each other like ships in the night, though this is easier said than done. Almost always, everything fits together on Sunday better than we could have hoped. On other, very rare occasions, the sermon goes in a different direction and what wound up in the bulletin would be irrelevant. When that happens, we adapt. I’ll tell the congregation, “Instead of singing hymn A as printed in your bulletin, let us sing hymn B…” All of this has at its heart one goal: to keep worship grounded as much as possible in the Word proclaimed that day.
As you’ll no doubt note, this process has its fair share of strengths and weaknesses. First, it’s focused on congregational song; I do my choir planning in the summer and plan the whole choir year at once. Second, it lacks a rigid structure, which makes it flexible but also easily sabotaged by distractions or busy schedules. Third, it doesn’t find me holed up in my office spending hours in text study, meaning I’m not as familiar with the texts as I’d like but I have time to do other things which can’t sit idly by while I spend all day studying commentaries. In short, it balances practicality with comprehensiveness.
I hope that this offers a glimpse of some ways of planning that don’t have to be exhausting weekend-long planning summits or require that all parties involved be present at all times. But do keep in mind that this is what works for me in my current place and time; your mileage may vary.