For historic General Synod, worship planners hope to innovate online, still be ‘faithfully UCC’
Worship at General Synod. Large, joyful, Spirit-led services that welcome all and include all. Soul-stirring music. Thought-provoking preaching. Built on the diversity of a denomination that believes “that they may all be one.”
“There is a ministry to producing the worship, the liturgical documentation that includes the building of a just world and the church,” said the Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelwey, United Church of Christ minister of congregational and community engagement. “Synod worship will ultimately be the fruit of and a catalyst for our purpose, mission and vision and how effectively are we collectively achieving it.”
Beginning with GS 33, Howe Wispelwey is overseeing that ministry. As the new General Synod worship director, she is already leading a diverse working group from across the wider UCC charged with creating community-building services “rooted in love.” Worship that will convene in a virtual online space instead of the traditional, large physical space. A new undertaking for which she is more than equipped.
“Two words people have used to describe me consistently are artist and activist. I claim those words but have always understood my work as a ministry,” Howe Wispelwey said.
Before becoming a minister with an M.Div from Harvard in 2012, she toured full time as a singer and songwriter for almost a decade, playing at colleges, small music venues and festivals, churches and prisons across the U.S. and Latin America. By the time she was called the national setting in 2017, Howe Wispelwey said, she had worked as a local church pastor, a campus minister, a community organizer and an independent artist/consultant.
“I am absolutely thrilled that I now get to bring the fullness of that experience and work into my role serving the UCC,” Howe Wispelwey said. “I believe all of these things have equipped me to pull together an incredible worship team for Synod, this year and in the years to come, and to read the specific movement of God with, in and through us in each specific place and time, alongside our wider church family.”
‘Space for grace’ online
During General Synod 2019 in Milwaukee, Howe Wispelwey worked closely with “her predecessor and Synod mentor,” shadowing the Rev. Susan Blain, UCC minister for worship and the gospel arts. Blain co-led worship planning teams with the Rev. Scott Ressman in 2009, ‘11 and ‘13; then convened the teams in 2015, ’17 and ‘19. She’s now one of the pastor-artist-musicians working with Howe Wispelwey on the virtual worship experience.
“The challenges of the usual model of Synod worship—to create a sense of sacred space and community across a vast physical space—are at once the same and very different,” Blain said. “In the actual physical setting, we can feel the energy rise among the people as the folks gather; in the virtual setting we are working out how to create that ‘space for grace’ among people gathering at home.”
The worship planning team for Special Edition General Synod, July 11-18, also includes the new Synod music director, Bryan Johnson, executive director of music at Trinity UCC in Chicago and the Rev. Nancy Rosas, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s UCC in Buffalo, creator of the 2021 theme, “Rooted in Love.”
“The theme will flow in all aspects of the liturgies, offering worship experiences that connect us all as one Beloved Community, bringing us virtually together as a community that reflects what the power of Divine love has done, is doing, and will do through us even in the midst of our current challenging context,” Rosas said. “We are planning to intentionally reflect the gift of our diverse UCC and extravagant welcoming identity, and to encourage our commitment to justice for all through creative, joy-filled and hope-infused song, rituals, creative expressions, and calls to action a generative movement of love, justice, and healing in our world today!”
Daunting, but exciting
How that translates virtually is still a work in progress. The worship planning team spent several hours in retreat over the course of October, meeting five times in three-hour sessions over the web platform Zoom.
“As one who Zooms often and sometimes gets Zoomed out, these retreat times have been renewing and energizing,” said the Rev. Dave Sigmund, UCC 3 Great Loves ambassador. “To see our creative synergies unfold through our discussion has been a blessing. My hope for the process is that we show our church who we are AND who we are becoming.” And that, Sigmund said, is while the Synod teams figure out how to produce an online event. “It’s a high bar to meet. I know myself and other team members prayerfully discerned before saying yes. And will continue to prayerfully discern the leading of the Spirit as we live into the creative process. While daunting, it’s rather exciting.”
Blain and Wispelwey are also energized by the process.
“In previous Synods. planners worked to create a live experience of prayer, along with a kind of ‘TV show’—we had to be conscious of both ‘audiences’—how would this action work in the physical space; how would it be seen at home? Real-time stagecraft, with set design, lighting, stage direction worked with videography to create a layered experience,” Blain said. “This time around, the same crafts are needed, but the video-craft will lead.”
“The level of production, audio and visual quality will be well beyond anything produced to date,” Wispelwey said. “We are thinking about congregations gathering 10 years and 50 years after GS33, wanting to revisit this historic time and Synod and be uplifted by these worship services, watching them on large screens in their worship halls. This is a historic, extraordinary moment, and because Synod is virtual, everything will be produced with exceptional quality and we are mindful of all of these things.”
‘Historic levels of participation’ expected
The worship working group has already collected a half-dozen “amazing original music submissions, from bluegrass to high-church choral arrangements,” Wispelwey said. In the retreats, “the team has progressed a lot in shaping the three services with visions that not only include the words of liturgy, but the sounds, the visuals, the whole journey that ultimately we pray will root us all more deeply in this love we are claimed by and profess! Synod worship will be both faithfully UCC and justice-building, which embodies something unique and specific in every moment and in every context.”
Because the opening service, midweek service and closing service will be available to the greater community, accessible by internet, Wispelwey said, “We expect historic levels of participation from the UCC, our ecumenical partners and the spiritually curious.”
She and the working group are ever mindful of finding ways to be inclusive of worshippers who aren’t together in the same space.
“In previous Synods, we worked hard to break the ‘fourth wall’ perception, that all the action was taking place up front on the stage; we invited the congregation to participate in various ways from their areas in the auditorium—passing the peace; blessing with water; even tweeting prayers for posting on screen,” Blain said. “This time, of course, we will be working with social media to create those moments of engagement and contact among worshipers.
“We will be drawing on skills that people have learned in a hurry during the COVID-19 pandemic—we will be expanding our social media repertoire for community liturgy, and our young folks are leading the way.”
As Wispelwey said, “I hope that people who are familiar with the UCC will worship with us and come away with both a sense of, ‘that was faithfully UCC,’ and, ‘I have never experienced this before in worship.’”
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