Worship planning is an art. It’s a discipline. It must be done over and over and over again in community order to get worship “under our skin.” How we plan worship reflects what we believe worship should be — a transformative, communal experience of observing, trusting, trying, reflecting, and taking chances for the sake of experiencing the Holy One. At Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC where I am Minister for Spiritual Formation, we have created a process that has cultivated our skills for planning worship.

Worship at Pilgrims has been called a “wild mess” by Andy Wassenich, a church member at Pilgrims. While working well within the boundaries and framework of the Reformed Tradition, our worship changes liturgical season after season, with nuances each week. Walking meditations? Check. Pilgrims singing in three-part harmony? Check. Prayer stations, compost pile as communion table, Biblical storytelling, and bubble machine for Pride and Pentecost? Check, check, check. Over a decade, we’ve opened ourselves up to improvisation and spontaneity in worship allowing ourselves, at the same time, to be cracked open by the Holy Spirit and her empowering and prophetic ways. How did we get to this point? Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

I arrived on the Pilgrims scene in January 1999 after graduating from Union Theological Seminary in NYC where on a daily basis I experienced profoundly creative and ever-changing worship. Pilgrims’ was in dire straits in the late 1990’s: crumbling building, shaky finances, lack of identity and purpose, and existing without a called pastor. The congregation was small, getting smaller, and depressed.

Their worship reflected their existence—it was deathly, put-me-to-sleep boring.

A year and a half later, Pilgrims called Jeff Krehbiel who is still serving. Pilgrims re-grouped, started getting involved in community organizing, became a More Light congregation, and re-designed our administrative structure (good-bye standing committees!). While revitalizing worship incorporated many of the same principles of those endeavors, it was a different task altogether. Instead of consulting worship planning books or creating more rules on how to run an efficient worship meeting, we accessed ourselves, harnessed our own creativity, and started planning and creating worship together.

Over time, we developed an art of worship planning that has transformed our Sunday liturgical landscape and the entire eco-system at Pilgrims, the interconnected processes and structures that make up our life together.

The Process of Our Worship Planning

In worship planning we begin the process of sharing responsibility for worship as broadly as possible, shifting the dynamics of “worship leader” and “worship participant” in order to break down the barriers between “provider” and “receiver,” so that worship truly becomes “the work of the people.” –Jeff Krehbiel, pastor at Church of the Pilgrims

Four to six weeks prior to the upcoming liturgical season, Jeff, myself, Rob Passow, our music director and Lauren Dwyer, our Elder for Worship, along with interns, currently Jess Fisher and Dana Olson, brainstorm names of four to six Pilgrims to invite to worship planning. Invitees could be folks who have been at Pilgrims fifty years or five months.

We send an email that includes a link to the lectionary texts to the upcoming season and any other relevant links or an article. We are clear in the email we are asking them for a one-time commitment of brainstorming on a specific evening. We ask invitees to read the texts prior to the evening and choose one that stands out to them for any reason. We’ve realized that is all the prep work that’s needed. Less is more.

Before the meeting, Jeff, Rob, and I divide up the responsibilities of who is going to lead what part of the gathering. At the start of the meeting, we give an overview of the planning process, liturgical season and the texts. Then we move into liturgical storytelling, sharing stories of worship from the past season that have stuck with each person. This creates a shared, collective experience right from the get-go and lifts up experiences of worship that have hits our hearts for one reason or another. We’ve moved away from the “I like” and “I didn’t like” evaluative response of worship experience. In the storytelling, we are asking people to dig deeper into an experience that challenged their participation or disrupted their own thoughts and patterns of living.

After the storytelling, Rob teaches us a new song that he envisions could be used somewhere in the service based on the texts. We sing as a small group, a cappella, feeling the music more than performing it at that point. From there we jump into the texts, offering people time to look over the texts again and identify something that stands out to them because of an image, word, phrase, or social context. Then it’s time to go deeper either through a short, exploratory Bible study having individual time to ponder some questions or break into groups of two to three to explore.

After the reflection time, the group shares thoughts on the texts, taking time to identify patterns, connections, and contradictions and scribbling it all down on newsprint. When we’ve exhausted our wonderings, we start another piece of newsprint and share about on what’s going on in the life of Pilgrims, in DC, in our culture, and the world-at-large. How do these texts speak to our life right now? Soon, all the papers are up around the room, surrounding us.

We stand back and take a look. We ask, “how can worship make these experiences come alive?” We consider if there are sparks from recent Sundays that we want to continue, and whether there are things we want to stop doing for now.

With the doors of creativity opened, the Holy Spirit starts to flurry around the room, and improv, the artistic methodology of saying “yes…and” comes front and center. Ideas get tossed into the air, each affirmed and clustered to form a foundation from which we work. During the recent planning for Lent our intern Jess Fisher created a map of the sanctuary, distinguishing its moveable and stationary parts. When it came to placement of the liturgical furniture, the map facilitated an explosion of ideas related to our chosen theme of “The Body.” I sat in awe, listening to people give critical analysis in the weaving together of liturgical space, Christian ethics, and theology.

We leave the gathering with a pretty good sense of where the upcoming season of worship is headed. We’ve primarily spent time sitting with the macro-image of worship; we haven’t struggled with the nitty-gritty details of the service that can bog down creativity and create power struggles. But the big picture is all that Jeff, Rob, and I need establish our own marching orders to give life to participants’ ideas. We take the ideas, cycle through a number of more detailed conversations about responsibilities and delegations, and then toss the whole enterprise up into the sky and let the Holy Spirit continue on with her work.

The Method of Our “Wild Mess” Madness

We collaborate. We think outside of the box. We touch. We listen. We share. We’re vulnerable.

Sometimes we cry. We incorporate our experiences, our lives and our personal work into worship planning. We brainstorm and then make it come alive. We’re interconnected. We taste, touch, smell, listen, feel. We do all of the above in worship planning and I think that this process makes it all happen in worship itself as well. –Lauren Dwyer, Elder for Worship at Church of the Pilgrims.

What does our worship planning create? What kind of culture has it created at Pilgrims? How does it impact worship?

Worship planning has let Pilgrims find its own unique voice not just in our expression of Sunday liturgy but also in Pilgrims eco-system at-large. How we brainstorm and “do” liturgy has impacted the web of life and interconnectedness at Pilgrims. Indeed, the intentionality of our worship planning method is not isolated to those evening planning sessions. Our methodology has now infused itself throughout the congregation, impacting how we run meetings, share meals at Open Table (our Sunday lunch for hungry neighbors), welcome first time worshippers, and plan our Capital GLBT Pride events.

Improvisation: Improv is a state and being of creativity that involves saying “yes….and….” Improv involves structure (like the structure in our worship planning and order of worship) and that structure creates safety to say “yes” to new ideas. The “yes…and” results in the creation of new patterns, behaviors, actions, and structures. There are no mistakes in improv; only risk-taking. We say “yes” to new ideas in worship planning and beyond all the time at Pilgrims. This doesn’t mean that all ideas are used. It means all ideas are welcome, noodled around with, explored, and honored.

Improv has also taken us “off script” more often than not in liturgy. We use the “call and response” model a lot; use an improv communion liturgy when it fits the service; and if the liturgist “messes” up like sharing a prayer of dedication before the offering has been taken, it’s not a mess-up. It’s liturgy. It’s life. It’s human. We stop what we are doing, re-group, and move forward without judgment or evil looks from the pew.

Safe, Welcoming Space: Improv is almost impossible without safe space. Improv connects to creating a safe space whether in the sanctuary, coffee hour, or a planning meeting for the Capital Gay Pride parade. Cultivating a safe space where ideas, bodies, spirits, stories, life histories are valued is crucial to taking risks that take us beyond our edge as individuals and a community. A safe place lets us find our edge, that emotional, sensory place within us that tells us we are moving beyond our comfort zone. It isn’t a place of pain or suffering; it’s a place where we move beyond our own, personal norms and socially constructed ways when we can die to our old ways, and rise to the new. Caitlin Bousquet, a recent member at Pilgrims, “in the couple of planning meetings I’ve attended, the people leading and participating have been very open to listening to, validating, and considering all input, no matter how out there it has been.  This openness has led to some really creative practices and experiences in worship.”

We can say “yes…and’’’ because we’ve created a safe, permission-giving environment to plan worship. This doesn’t mean we are void of discomfort, tension, or anxiety in our planning process. But we learn to live with these feelings as we come face-to-face to express our trust in the stories of faith.

Power: This is huge. Power and liturgy go hand-in-hand. Our worship planning has deconstructed power and constructed power in new ways. First, as clergy and a music director, we see it as our job to get out of the way. Deconstructing power means dismantling constructed sources of power—clergy, in particular, are socially constructed sources of power in a congregation. We provide a certain type of leadership and guidance in worship planning and then make sure our egos and any power tripping are taking a nap. The center of worship planning isn’t us as clergy, it’s the Biblical narratives which exist to agitate and heal our lives. Worship planning lets the texts do the work needed on us.

Power in worship planning is then centered on the texts and community, as the Spirit moves, does her thing, and creates a “wild mess” of a liturgical season.   Liturgy can affirm hierarchical, dominating, and life-sucking-can’t-afford-rent-because-minimum-wage-is-so-low kind of power. Liturgy demands relational power–the kind that creates space for people to connect and feel their own capacity to create Holy change. This means having a worship planning process that reflects the kind of worship we want to experience.

Impermanence: Each Sunday, eighty impermanent beings sit in Pilgrims sanctuary. That’s eighty human beings. We are born. We die. We are impermanent. As the scriptures and those around us show us, we are soil, and to soil we shall return. If we are impermanent, then why do we try so damn hard to keep worship the same week after week? Why do we bolt down with all our might the pulpit, pews, organ and whatever else when we ourselves will be released into the great, swirling energy of the universe? Why do we hunker down with nostalgia, like it’s been guerrilla glued to our DNA? Why do we have liturgy that works against our human nature of transformation?

We are born. We die. Our worship planning and the ever changing nature of participants is an impermanent experience. We can’t get too tightly wedded to the group because within an hour, the group will cease to exist. People from the group might take on leadership in the liturgies they’ve helped plan but the group dies at the end of the night. The nature of our planning and liturgy mirrors our human impermanence.

Janet Walton, my Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, has remarked if worship is the same week-after-week, if worship never changes, it reflects our view on the world. We don’t want the world to change. If we seek transformation, connection, fluidity, and social change for the world then our worship must be of that same nature. When people experience their own individual and collective power and grace in worship planning, worship is an ever-changing for the sake of the ever-present need for justice and liberation for the planet which is the body of God.


People who are not “professional” worship planners frequently approach the planning with a more open mind—or at least with fewer pre-conceived ideas. Their response to worship is usually more visceral (and less intellectual/analytical) than those of us with formal seminary and/or conservatory backgrounds; and they often ask better (or at least more straightforward) questions.—Rob Passow, Music Director at Pilgrims

The questions we ask near the end of worship planning: “how do we make these experiences come alive in worship?” followed by “what have we experienced lately in worship that we want to keep, what do we want to stop doing for now?” are crucial to our creativity. The questions focus on keeping actions in worship that are meaningful to us right now, breaking through unquestioned habits done in the name of nostalgia rather than connection and relevancy.

Our worship planning has evolved in participant’s confidence and questioning. Both confidence and questioning involve risk-taking. Do the Advent candles have to be purple? Can we build a wailing wall for the sanctuary? Can we worship without the lights? Can “non-ordained” people be at the communion table? Do we need a communion table? Can we have a compost pile as a communion table?

David Gauntlett, in his book, Making Is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and knitting to Youtube and Web 2.0 writes that creativity “helps us to build resilience….and the creative capacity to deal with significant challenges.” The discipline of worship planning, and the experience of Pilgrims liturgy, builds layers upon layers of creative experiences. Not only is creativity part of resiliency, “creativity is an act of defiance,” says dancer Twyla Tharp, as creativity breaks through the status quo and pushes our imaginations to explore, dream, and imagine a world made new.

Congregants-as-Liturgical Artists

The connection I see between our worship planning and our worship services is the inclusiveness and participatory nature of it. Through our many open and collaborative parts of our services the entire congregation is given the opportunity to add to the experience and the service.” Andy Wassenich, member at Pilgrims

With Pilgrims “liturgical ecology” or the connections, relationships and systems that reflect our methodology of liturgy, we’ve created congregants-as-liturgists. News flash! Liturgy isn’t about the clergy. It really isn’t about those participating either. It’s about taking the Biblical narratives and the Reformed Tradition that’s been passed down to us and, as a community, seek to interact with it in order to recognize the Holy One in life and the organizing of justice.

The ownership and participation in planning and liturgy that’s been cultivated through our process means we have particularized our liturgy, found our unique voice to enable us to deepen and nourish the continued wrestling of faith. Congregants-as-liturgists means those participating substantially infuse themselves into the liturgical experience. Pilgrims have learned to design the liturgical experience and greatly impact the content of the liturgy.

When we improv our Prayer for Great Thanksgiving, those at the table offer prompts that create space for thanksgivings. “What aspects of creation do we need to give thanks for? “What acts of Jesus do we live with gratitude?” Those gathered around the table call out their responses, moved by their own experiences and the Spirit at work.

Recently we’ve been using two questions to reflect on worship: “What did you notice in worship” and “what do you wonder about?” Both get away from the “it’s all about me” attitude about worship, and pushes us to reflect critically within an artistic framework. In this type of reflection process, Pilgrims are thinking critically and imaginatively about their experience. We also get insights into how to nuance upcoming services.

Liturgy as a “Wild Mess”

When we create a “wild mess” in worship, we experience what change feels like, looks like, smells like, and tastes like. We learn to take risks for the sake of justice. We push through age-old, conventional, status quo driven boundaries of worship. We sing new songs, we engage the Biblical stories in multi-sensory ways, and the sacraments are authentic, ancient expressions of grace within. “Wild mess” of a worship service breaks through social and ecclesiastical norms so we can embrace the hope and possibilities of the Commonwealth of God. We learn what it looks and feels like to take a stand.

Liturgy as a “wild mess” means critiquing Empire, the powers-that-be, and the social structures that oppress, defile, and disfigure who we are as created in the image of God. It means offering a liberating way of being together, practicing in-the-moment ways of being equal, compassionate, vulnerable, and powerful. When we started this type of worship planning at Pilgrims, we had no idea what kind of liturgical journey we were embarking on, that it would impact our congregational eco-system like it has. We are inherently experimenting with our life stories and the story of the movement of God. With this type of planning, you can’t expect what will come at the end, you can’t predict. One of our long time members, Gerry Hendershot, puts it, “Every time something is added to our already symbol-laden worship, I think, ‘That’s it, we can’t add anything else.’  Then we do.” As in the process of creating social change, we engage in a process of creativity and critique with an outcome yet-to-be seen or experienced. It’s wild, messy worship full of integrity, intentionality, and experiences of change. It’s also a hell of a lot of work. And we love it.