Puppet ministries put a new face on faith experience
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
April - May 2009

Puppets may be associated as "for children," but ask a puppet ministry leader, and they'll tell you that puppets are for everyone.

Maybe it's because puppets are a part of nearly everyone's childhood: there was Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the '50s, and Edgar Bergen and his famous puppet sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. And Jim Henson's creations of Kermit the Frog and the gang at Sesame Street continue to delight children and adults alike, well beyond Henson's untimely death in 1990.

Puppets are fun, silly and colorful. They live in a world of pretend, but they can talk about real issues, too. And in the case of puppets who reside in the world of a UCC church, they can talk about things like tolerance, loving your neighbor, and about the promise of Jesus Christ. "Every time we do something with the puppets at church, everybody goes crazy," says Jim Somers, from First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass. He and his wife, Heidi, have led S.T.A.R. (Start Taking A Role) Puppet Ministry for the past five years. "They just swarm the stage afterwards."

Jim and Heidi Somers (c.), co-leaders of Start Taking a Role (S.T.A.R.) puppet ministry at First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass., pose with the cast and crew of "Born in a Barn." photo furnished.
Somers says that their puppet ministry tries to do an all-out production a few times a year, but to keep the puppets active, a character will be brought out occasionally to make a guest appearance at a children's sermon or even just to help announce an upcoming event.

"They just love it. They just can't get enough of it. Why is this? It's probably just because it's different and it's entertaining," says Somers. "Entertaining isn't usually a word that is associated with a church service, but why not? My theater background says, you're putting on a show in the sense that you've got an audience, and you have to captivate them. The Word is out there, the Word is exciting. So let's not make it boring, let's make it exciting. It's a good excuse to say, 'Hey, let's be dramatic here.' "

Cindy McLean, of Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn., leads a troupe of puppeteers from 4th through 6th grade. As much as she sees the puppet ministry benefitting her students, she laughs heartily when she sheepishly admits that she feels it is she who is having the most fun. "[The kids] are so incredibly creative! Sometimes I'm laughing so hard with tears running down my face because they are so clever!"

McLean says the puppets give the kids a place where they can express their faith. "They have a lot of fun with it, and there's a lot of silliness in it, too," she says. "Puppets say really funny things, and get it wrong a lot!"

Getting started

Karen Mann, the leader of Good Ship Grace Puppeteers at Grace UCC in Lebanon, Penn., had the fortunate advantage of being in the right place at the right time. "We were blessed by the Rev. Dana Schlegel, a previous puppet ministry person," explains Mann.

Schlegel, a UCC minister who is noted for his advocacy of the use of sacred dance and the arts in worship, decided it was time to pass along his puppet collection. When Mann first met Schlegel, she knew that he wasn't going to give his puppets away to be used as playthings. "Just the way he handled the puppets, I knew they were very special to him," remembers Mann. "They were like his kids."

Since then, Schlegel, who suffers from MS, continues to be an invaluable teacher and mentor to Mann's puppet troupe, comprised of eight adults at her church. To honor Schlegel and his important role to the puppet ministry, proceeds from the Good Ship Grace Puppeteer performances go to the MS Society.

Starting a puppet ministry from scratch can have start-up costs, according to McLean. "You need a couple hundred bucks to start," she says. "Now that we're getting established, we're part of the budget. Every show has costumes and scenery."

McLean's troupe had humble beginnings, which required some ingenuity. Instead of purchasing the more costly hand puppets, McLean opted for making "Peeper Puppets," a technique that involves a set of eyes worn on either a bare hand or a glove.

Through websites like <peeperspuppet.com>, these sets of eyes that hook under the puppeteer's finger can be purchased for just over $3.00 each. McLean's puppeteers would wrap boas and feathery things around their wrists to add color. In fact, even after purchasing the more "high-tech" hand puppets, McLean says the peeper puppets still make appearances in their productions. "They're just so cute, we can't bear to let them go," she says.

Puppeteers from Peace Puppets at Peace UCC, Duluth, Minn., share the spotlight with their "Birds of Pray." photo furnished.
What's my line?

Somers, McLean and Mann all agree that the internet is the first stop for inspiration and resources. One Way Street, Inc., a Colorado-based company, gets high grades from all three puppet group leaders. The website sells instructional DVDs on puppeteering, scripts, puppets and scenery, and sponsors periodic training seminars and performance festivals.

Still, each leader finds what works best for his or her group. Depending on the skit, Somers will turn to different websites that offer free, downloadable scripts. Mann says her troupe writes their own scripts or adapts a pre-written one, and often they'll center a performance on a song. McLean has also used songs to tell her puppet's story. But since McLean has yet to find scripts that she feels reflects UCC theology and faith, she has written all of her scripts entirely herself.

Taking the show on the road

Mann's troupe, the Good Ship Grace Puppeteers, gets bookings from all over the local area, and the 8-person troupe has developed a close working relationship because of it. Performing at events like Relay for Life, Special Olympics or performing and leading a workshop for the local Girl Scouts keeps them on their toes, especially since they like to customize their performance for each particular audience.

When Mann got called to fill in at the last minute for some entertainment at a Christmas party for a group of electricians, she admits to feeling a bit worried, wondering if the group of adults would take kindly to being entertained by the puppets. "Thank goodness for the internet," laughs Mann, who hurriedly searched for "electrician humor" so that she could work in a few electrical jokes to the set.

She needn't have worried. "We left there with two other bookings [for future shows]. People said they thought it was so funny." Even when playing to a secular crowd, Mann says, "We don't downplay the religious side of what we do, but we're not grabbing them by the lapels, either. There are subtle ways to get the message across."

Finding your niche

A puppet ministry takes a lot of work, but the results bring people close together, sometimes bringing out talents that were never before realized.  "This ministry can reach out to kids who maybe don't have another niche," says McLean. "One of our kids who had a disability was one of our best puppeteers. She was awesome, just awesome," she says. "It was just something she could immediately do."

Somers agrees. "The cool thing about puppets is when someone wants to get involved, but they're terrified to stand up in front of people ... This way, they can hide. All we see is a puppet! They can have a blast, tell a story, be part of this whole ministry without actually being in front of anybody."

Mann feels she's part of something that allows Christians of all ages to go back to the basics. "The puppets teach us about showing Christian love and how to treat people," she says. "[The Rev.] Dana [Schlegel] told us that a long time ago. People hear from a puppet what they might not hear if a person just stood up and talked."

Want to start simple?

pepperspuppet.com 

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