How can preachers and worship leaders offer worship that will assist church members in recovery from the problems of lockdown, and enable individual and congregational well-being, while they, themselves, are coping with their own stresses and anxieties?
This is the question I am planning to put in the opening session of an online weekend conference for Methodist preachers and worship leaders who will be discussing the offering of worship to people struggling with the effects of lockdown on all aspects of their lives.
Being able to offer helpful and meaningful worship, and looking after their own well-being are inter-linked: none of us can care effectively for others, nor adequately meet their needs, while not ok ourselves.
“Love your neighbour as yourself” is what Jesus asks of us, his disciples. This is more than a ‘command’: within these words we find guidance. They remind us of our human inter-connectedness, of our inter-dependence. We develop an idea how to love our neighbour as we come to recognise what enables us to feel loved ourselves. But then, to truly love our neighbour, we must also be able to recognise where their particular needs are different from our own, and to be willing to offer what they really need, and not what we ourselves would want if coping with a similar difficulty.
Preachers and worship leaders – if they do not take the time to look after themselves and to recognise, and seek support with, their own particular stressors and difficulties – risk offering that relates more to their own needs rather than the needs of their congregations.
What images of God may be the most helpful? Which might cause worry? Or confuse? This is where the self-awareness and the caring for self of the preacher or worship leader is so important. He or she may, for example, find “God is our Rock” to be reassuring; signifying God as unchanging and ever-present. While in the minds of at least some of those listening to the sermon, these words may conjure up an image of God as immoveable and impersonal and uncaring.
What is important is to discover, or re-discover, ways of worshipping that will encourage and support and inspire those who are feeling uncertain, or lonely, and those who are experiencing darkness or pain of any kind.
But…..should the aim of worship be to encourage well-being?
What I intend to emphasise in my brief introduction is this. Yes, worship should enable and encourage the well-being of those who worship. But – an important but – the purpose of worship is much more than this.
Worship is about relationship with God. It is not the only way in which we communicate with God; but worship is an activity that enables and encourages our dependence on, and trust in, our creating and redeeming God. And that, surely, is essential to our well-being.
Worship that enables and encourages relationship with God will enable and encourage well-being. And not just the well-being of those who worship, but also the well-being of the community around. Church members – whether thinking of themselves as disciples or good neighbours, as ‘doing mission’ or as offering pastoral care – when feeling encouraged and well in themselves, will be re-energised to enable well-being as they ‘love their neighbour’.
Worship is about relationship with God. Preachers and worship leaders aim to encourage this relationship in all that they offer; words and silence; action and symbol. What, then, to say? And how to say it? When to speak and when to be silent? Which symbols might be helpful? And how might they be interpreted or understood? How can the preacher or worship leader ever know?
Knowing is discovered through relationships. In relationship with God who guides and challenges the thinking of those preparing to lead worship. And in relationship with the congregation. For how else can we know – unless we ask – whether our words confuse or comfort, cause pain or lead to healing?
My ten minutes of presentation at this conference with preachers and worship leaders can, I think, be summarised in these (just over) ten words:
“know yourself; know your congregation; discover well-being through relationship with God”
Rev Lorna Murray
Mental Health Chaplain (retired)
24 May 2021
Mental Health for All -Community Well-being and the Church. Lorna Murray. 2020. Published by Handsel Press Ltd