5Thoughts: How To Lead Services

0. THE FOLLOWING MAY BE PARTICULAR to Jewish worship services, which are the only sort I’ve led (not counting five weddings and various improvised blessings/moment-summonings). But I’ve tried to adapt the advice for anyone whose worship tradition includes structure and text, and who finds oneself in the liturgical spotlight. Hope it helps; I learned it all the hard way.

1. Know your material. This may sound fairly obvious, but I mean it in a deeper sense: The service-as-conducted is a living breathing entity whose skeleton is the service-as-written. Know the latter like you know your own breathing. At least know how and why it’s structured — what each piece hopes to achieve, and how it leads to the next — and, most importantly, what page everything’s on. (PostIts are a big help here, as is having your own siddur (prayerbook) to notate.) Likewise, see in advance to the functioning of candles, wine, microphones, guitar strings, etc.; there’s nothing like a last-minute surprise on a solemn occasion (ah, but see thought #4). (And if you’re feeling terribly insecure, keep in mind that for group readings you really only need to emphasize the first five words. It takes that long for people to catch on and start drowning you out.)

2. Know your congregation. The folk before you may be familiar faces — but why are they attending? Religious feeling? Obligation? Socializing? Learning? Moral support? What brings them here today? If you’re to perform the important magic of elevating people by meeting them where they are, you must be constantly aware of the public pulse — and your part in keeping it beating. (This is most important in the context of humor. A little goes a long way, and that distance isn’t the same for everyone.) Ideally, that pulse will change from one part of the service to the next. Learn to anticipate.

3. Keep it flowing. In addition to something alive, a worship service is a little like walking through a building room by room: you want to stay in each place long enough to “be” there, but without losing sight of the building itself and how each room leads to (and supports) the next. Worship services are often interspersed with “teachable moments” in addition to a sermon — little lessons on why we say what we do — especially when some congregants may be unfamiliar with the service. Tuck these brief gems into natural service breaks; i.e., when you’re “between rooms” instead of “inside” them. There’s no better way to spoil someone’s experience than by telling them all about it (see thought 5). And when in doubt, trust the liturgy! (That’s why it’s there.)

4. Don’t worry about mistakes. The common ones are a) going too fast, b) going too slow, c) involuntary body movement (e.g. swaying, nodding, beard-scratching), d) addressing the congregation as “the audience,” e) talking to the book or podium instead of the people, and f) apologizing in advance for your shortcomings. However, you are in a position where everyone wants you to succeed. Don’t forget it — but don’t let it go to your head. It’s a tremendous trust with which your fellows have endowed you. If you’re not at least a bit terrified by what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

5. It’s not about you. Neither is it about performing or lecturing or showing-off or anything else other than showing respect and love and awe of God. It’s about constructing a space within which people can experience that expression (or whatever else they came for). This actually relieves you of a tremendous responsibility. See yourself as a conductor rather than an entertainer. And that’s a much easier job. Remember: if you really want to connect people to something, stay out of the way!

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