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Changes in the Liturgy

I want to explore the process of making liturgical changes and its impact on the parish’s spiritual and emotional maturity.

Let me offer a story

The parish has an excellent choir. There’s a core of professional musicians, mostly not members, and a few others from within the congregation. The resulting music is beautiful.

The liturgy is generally sung. This has been true for many years. This includes the congregation’s singing of most of the usual elements of the Eucharist—Gloria/Kyrie, Sanctus, and the Benedictus. Singing the Creed has been the one surprising exception. The rector, in consultation with the choir director, decided to begin singing the Creed.

It was introduced on a Sunday with a brief rehearsal of the congregation.

Over the next few weeks it was apparent that people were having a difficult time learning the setting. It’s not clear to what extent the rector or choir director noticed this. There were no additional rehearsals; no acknowledgment of the difficulty, and it took several weeks before the mass setting music was printed in the Sunday leaflet.

Then a couple of people complained to the rector. The rector started thinking about giving up on it. As I understand it no one came to the rector with anything positive to say about the change.

Then there was a meeting of about ten members around an important environmental ministry issue.

Before the meeting began one person said to group: "How do you feel about singing the Creed?"

First response: "At first I found it hard. Now I'm starting to get it."

      Heads nod in agreement.

Other person says" "I like singing it a lot more than saying it."

      Heads nod in agreement.

Not one word of complaint from anyone in the group.

Also, no one reports the conversation to the rector. In fact it appears that no one even considered saying something to the rector. After a bit another priest in the parish heard about it and passed that onto the rector.

The 101 of change strategy about such things

1. It takes time to develop the new needed competence. Most people don't like feeling incompetent. When they begin to learn a new skill they need encouragement, appreciation, rehearsal, and coaching. Depending on the difficulty of the change there may be a need for quite a bit of all this, especially rehearsals for music and training for liturgical actions and presence. And with it all, follow up coaching. In many parishes we confuse the impact of the competence of the choir with music or the competence of the servers for liturgy with the congregation’s sense of confidence and proficiency for singing and Eucharistic practice. The first will not substitute for the second.

2. Congregations have people who tend toward complaining and others who tend to a stance of "I'll be cooperative and try to make things work." Clergy hear from the first and not the second unless structured, formal conversation processes are used. There is a special skill in using such processes effectively.

3. It makes all change more difficult when parish leaders fail to stay with a change long enough for the new skill to be learned and the practice to feel normative.

4. One aspect of the above is that those who are trying to "make things work" end up feeling cut off at the knees when we back away from the change. They are then hesitant to be supportive in the future. 

5. The result is a parish in which the least cooperative, least mature and biggest complainers control the emotional climate. 

Stay with it

This is to expand upon #3.

If you believe they will “get it” your leadership responsibility is to help them stay with it.

During the 1990’s I was the vicar of a congregation that used a liturgy that was an integrated mix of Rite 2 (modified), a lot of silence, shared homilies, jazz, and communal dance (sort of like Jewish or Greek line dancing). Surprisingly it all came together in a manner that was appropriate for that community and fed their souls.

We were experimenting with hymns and songs that could be used as a communion hymn. Because we received communion as we stood around the altar in a circle the lyrics needed to be from memory.

We picked up on the refrain in Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul.”

Don't be tempted by the shiny apple 
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit 

Hunger only for a taste of justice 

Hunger only for a world of truth 

'Cause all that you have is your soul

Here she is on Saturday Night Live in 1989 - All That You Have Is Your Soul  and in 2009 

While this may have been one of the most edgy, progressive, and open congregations in the church, it was like any other group of people in a community. They could be very resistive to change.

They started out receptive. I asked that those willing gather around the piano during coffee hour and allow Becca, the parish musician, to teach them the song. They were very cooperative.

But after a few weeks it was clear that the song wasn’t easy for some people. The grumbling and murmuring started. A couple of weeks later, Becca came to me and said she was ready to give up. I was tempted. But my sense of it was that they were close to getting it. So, I asked her and them to stay with it. I didn’t make any promise that if they did that for a time I’d agree to let go. Within another three weeks they had it.

Most of you know what came next. A year later we tried to introduce a short hymn as something to alternate with the “All That You Have is Your Soul.”  Grumbling, murmuring, even outrage. It all calmed down and they picked up on the new piece. It helped that this was a rather reflective community with a sense of humor about itself.

I think that “staying with it” had a few significant outcomes in the parish.

-People ended up feeling good about themselves and each other.

-Their confidence in my leadership increased

-Having experienced success in the one change later changes were easier for people

Introducing change requires all the traditional virtues, especially persistence and courage, and in terms of contemporary emotional intelligence it calls for self-awareness and social awareness. Wisdom might be useful too. Leaders need to see the difference between persistence and stubbornness.

Of course if there had been substantial underlying tensions or destructive congregational behavior patterns it would not have gone so well. This was a rather small change. But small changes can become the vehicle for big fights. Three things to especially watch out for:

1)   When there already a high level of tension between the clergy and lay leaders

2)   When there is a small group of members willing to damage the congregation’s harmony because they “must” have their way. (This is the “Being so Right that You’re Wrong Phenomena”)

3)   When over a long period of time, with several different clergy, there is a pattern in the parish of troubles between clergy and lay leaders.

That doesn’t mean don’t make any changes but it does mean, “take more care.” Wisdom!

Change methods that work include:

1. Understanding that you are helping people learn a new skill. That once they get the new skill they feel good about themselves and the new way becomes normal.

2. That you need to stay with any liturgical change that has a solid rationale for at least 6 months. 

3. That it often helps for people to experience some level of choice. So, if you are introducing something like singing the creed (no choice in that), you can provide choice about the setting to be used. Have those willing gather early some Sunday and try out different settings. Note: The assumption about what in behavioral science is known as "free choice" is that it is based on experience and information. So there is no "free choice" if people have never tried singing the creed. If after doing it for six months there is a survey and discussion, and people overwhelmingly say to drop singing the Creed, they may be liturgically "wrong" but it is informed "free choice."


The Episcopal Church shares, with Roman Catholics and many Lutherans, the ancient practice of singing the Mass settings -- Gloria, Nicene Creed, and Sanctus. There are some parishes that drifted into a practice of singing all except the Creed. So, in recent years many of those parishes have started to sing the Creed. It's recovering the traditional practice even if it seems "new."    There are at least three reasons why singing the Creed is an important practice to reintroduce in those parishes -- 1) Beauty; 2) it makes it easier for younger new members and those experiencing doubt, and 3) humility.

Singing the Eucharist as a congregation is an act of beauty. Once we learn how to do it something begins to work in our soul; a kind of release, a peacefulness, and maybe, by grace a sense of being part of something ancient and wonderful.

Bishop James Pike once said that when he had difficulty saying the Creed he found he could still sing it. On a blog comment about how it was easier to be receptive and open and when said it all became a bit literal sounding. As though we were pledging allegiance to something (which misses the point of the Creed). Some parishes report that new, younger members seem to find this approach helpful.

Increasing spiritual and emotional maturity 

My concern in this posting isn’t really about singing the Creed or not singing the Creed. It’s about how in the process of making changes a parish both shows its maturity and also has an opportunity to increase its maturity

We grow in humility as we allow ourselves to be open to spiritual practices that are grounded in the traditions of the church. The call is to patience and perseverance. We are to "try it" for several months. We are to give ourselves to make it work; for the good of the parish as well as for our own spiritual health. We are changed for the better when we decide to set aside our inclination to grumble and murmur and we try to make things work.[i]

This is about the emotional climate we create in how we introduce and persist with changes. It's not about the clergy and musicians having their way about some liturgical element. It is about shaping a parish into its own best and healthiest self. The emotional and spiritual core of a parish will either be held by the more mature people or by the complainers. And the complainers, what Benedict wrote of as "grumblers," are not offered the opportunity to grow if the environment of the parish nurtures the worst part of them. 


[i] I’m assuming that we are speaking of changes that are thoughtful, grounded in our tradition and useful in contemporary life rather than the faddish changes some clergy are so inclined to promote. 

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