Pastors — How you can transition to weekly Eucharist

Breaking of the bread. Español: Fracción del p...

I’ve heard it from several of you: “I’d love to have weekly communion, but my congregation would never have it.” 

They think it will get “stale” or rote, or take too much time.

They say most other churches do monthly or quarterly communion. So why are you getting weird about it?

If they’re Methodist and good with history, they talk about a Methodist tradition of quarterly communion.

My last post made the case for weekly communion. I’m assuming you’re convinced. If not, go back to that post. Or read Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative for a starter or Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy for some real depth (affiliate links). Those will both be great references for the preaching series suggested below.

Now, how do you make that transition?

First, if you have a congregation that isn’t used to weekly communion, it’s understandable that they’re not all gung-ho. We’re creatures of habit. When you grow up with something, it’s what you come to see as the norm. I grew up with butter in the refrigerator. My wife grew up with it on the counter. We were both shocked to learn anyone would do it differently. I digress… My point: be patient. Weekly communion isn’t part of their history. They haven’t been taught to value it, so you can’t expect that they will.

Second, plan some time for teaching and preaching on communion. Do a 6–8 week series on communion. There’s so much rich theology here that 6–8 weeks should be no problem. Use that series to show your congregation how the Eucharist historically was the climax of the worship service. Use it to tell them that the Methodists only started doing it quarterly because they couldn’t get an ordained pastor there more often — and they rushed the table to get to it on those occasions! Also, it just makes sense that you should take communion each week during the series.

Third, memorize a Eucharist liturgy (we call it The Great Thanksgiving in the UMC). When you learn this by heart, it will begin to change how you see the Eucharist. It will change how you present it to the congregation — not as a dry reading, but as something that you have begun to internalize. Something you pray. Give it a try! You can do it, and I think you and your congregation will benefit from it.

[Edit: You should go read this brilliant article, Praying the Church’s Prayer in the Eucharist,” suggested by Holly Boardman in the comments.}

Fourth, my hope is that spending 6–8 weeks in the depths of eucharistic theology will lead you and your people to ask, “How could we ever go without this anymore?” Perhaps you can just suggest that as you move along. “This is really good, the way we should always worship… why don’t we just keep doing it?”

And if the people don’t go along with it? They suggest that you just offer communion in a back room after worship for those who want it. Or to have a special early morning, or Wednesday evening service for communion. Just don’t mess with the main worship service.

I’m biased, and perhaps a bit hard-headed here, but my opinion: make the change anyway.

Let’s put this in a different context… You show up to a new church where there’s a Scripture reading and sermon once a month. The rest of the weeks, there are other things in its place: dramatic dance to contemporary Christian music, readings from the Koran, testimonies about social justice work… How long will you go before you require a change?

If you accept the Eucharist as an equally important part of the Church’s worship, won’t you require the same change for it? Even if people aren’t all on board with it?

Yes, some (many?) will be upset. This is why I at least suggest step two above before an immediate, permanent change — to help educate. But at some point, if you really believe in this, I think you need to make the change.

21 thoughts on “Pastors — How you can transition to weekly Eucharist

  1. Memorizing the Great Thanksgiving may be a problem for most clergy. Generally, most clergy say it incorrectly when they read it from the hymnal. The hymnal version includes several * which are ignored. Instead at those points in the service the presiding elder should insert words that connect the Great Thanksgiving to the season of the liturgical year, or the scripture lessons of the day. I have even heard bishops preside without doing this!

    My own bishop, Timothy Whitaker, wrote a wonderful blog post on the importance of using the eucharistic prayer of the church rather than a prayer of a particular pastor.

    http://bit.ly/zRbE3g

    Using the authorized prayer of the church and even READING the prayer as written are important acknowledgements that this is a prayer of the larger church. That in itself is part of the symbolism of the sacrament.

  2. Good points, Holly. For Methodists, the Book of Worship provides a number of rich versions of The Great Thanksgiving for different seasons of the year. If you choose to memorize, by memorizing the standard pieces, you’ll find that it doesn’t take much more work to also memorize the words for special occasions or seasons.

    When we use that same standard week after week, the special words for the season become all the more striking and noticeable. Like if you inserted a special line in the middle of the pledge of allegiance — people would notice when that changed!

    I agree — just reading a full Great Thanksgiving would be a great improvement for many. For those who are willing, though, I think memorizing the liturgy can be a great next step.

    • The Order of St. Luke has also published a great resource for weekly communion based on the lectionary. I found it helpful even when I was NOT preaching from the lectionary. I would simply find the scripture text that I was preaching on IN the lectionary, and then look up that week in the Order of St Luke’s book. Sometimes I would change the changeable words a bit so they would fit my theme better (I would use a post-it note in the book with any necessary changes.)

      The series is entitled, Lift Up Your Hearts. Each year of the lectionary (A,B,and C) has its own book. It is in a nice, spiral format with large print so it can be easily read at the communion table. It is available from

      OSL Publications
      P.O. Box 22279
      Akron, Ohio 44302–0079

      Congregations should be encouraged to memorize the appropriate parts of the communion liturgy as well. Although this is not a major issue when Holy Communion is a weekly experience. Certainly within 6 months, most regular worshipers will learn the responses. It would be well to continue printing the responses, however, for new Christians, or visitors who may use a slightly different version of the liturgy (the Roman Catholic Church has recently CHANGED some of their responses, so a visiting Catholic or Episcopalian might stumble with the UMC version).

      I hate to say it. but I think you may be a bit naive or optimistic thinking that a 6 week sermon series or teaching plan will be enough background for a smooth transition to weekly communion. It might be a better strategy to work towards starting a NEW worship service on Sunday morning that is centered on the Eucharist. It may take several years to lay the groundwork for this, but I think it will be more successful than trying to change an existing service.

      I also believe that offering Christ in a weekly communion service may be a key to the spiritual renewal of the United Methodist Church.

      • Thanks Holly. I agree that 6 weeks isn’t likely long enough to have people all on-board for moving to weekly communion. But if someone, as a pastor, is truly seeing this as a vital part of worship, they need to be moving their primary worship service toward weekly communion — and relatively quickly.

        To again use the analogy I made about walking into a church that uses Scripture once a month… I don’t think the answer is to create a NEW worship service and leave the other one alone. You wouldn’t let one service go on reading Aesop’s Fables and just create another worship option that offers Scripture instead. I’m arguing the same for communion. If it’s truly that crucial to the church’s worship, it needs to be part of the primary worship service. Try your best to do it without upsetting too many people. But at the end of the day, I think you’ve gotta find a way to do it — and not take three years to get to that point.

    • My worship professor at Candler required us to memorize the anaphora from our tradition, and it has been enormously helpful in presiding at the table. It has really given my congregation a sense of appreciation for the liturgy, and I’m able to engage them more so that it’s easier to recognize the Eucharist as a prayer of the whole church, and not an incantation the pastor reads out of a spell book.

      • Wesley, I honestly have no problem with a pastor READING the Great Thanksgiving from a book. Even Roman Catholic priests do that. In addition to being a retired pastor, I am a former public school reading teacher. I believe READING is important and has value, even in church and in worship. The written word serves an important function in the church. It LASTS in a way that the spoken word does not. READING the traditional prayers of the church well (with fluency and prosody) is an important skill for clergy. If a pastor sounds like they are reading “out of a spell book” something is indeed wrong. However, knowing how to read well and with appropriate expression is a vital skill for clergy.

    • Great article! And I agree with the pastor having the final authority according to discipline. (I have read Holly’s response about being moved, below, but I do think that is an issue between the bishop and the pastor. If this is the continued pattern of the pastor and the bishop keeps moving the pastor, at some point there needs to be a conversation between the pastor and the bishop about This Holy Mystery, the denominations position, which is to move to weekly celebration as the norm, and the bishop’s support of the denomination’s position and of the pastor.)

      However, Teddy, you are speaking to a UM context specifically when you say (if there is opposition) go ahead and do it. That is, even if you get moved, you are still assured that you will be somewhere. In other Methodist contexts (The Wesleyan Church, Nazarenes, etc.) that have a call system, one really does have to be aware of the possible “fall out” if the “right people” are not on board. (FYI, I’m ordained through the Church of the Nazarene, serving as pastor in the UMC. — Also, president of the Wesleyan-Anglican Society. — And I will be sharing this article on facebook and on my blog, http://wesleyananglican.blogspot.com )

      • Hi Todd,

        Thanks a lot for this response. You’re correct that if job security is a concern, what I say only fits in a UM context. I may only speak for myself here, but I think this would trump job security for me. (And I can say that as a part-time local pastor who doesn’t have guaranteed appointment.)

        I’d again compare it to an attitude toward the word of God. If a congregation insisted that it only used the Christian Scriptures in worship once a month, would I be willing to accept that for the sake of job security? I wouldn’t. I would rather lead no worship than lead a worship without a proclamation of the Word. For me, the same would be true of the Table. I think its importance would outweigh job security for me. Now I don’t say that to insist that all others have the same attitude of mind toward this. Just to say that what I’ve said doesn’t absolutely presuppose job security, though it does presuppose some pretty strong values.

        • Teddy,
          (I don’t know how to respond to your response, above, so … )

          I would say that if a church only used Scripture once a week, I wouldn’t accept a call to that church without making it clear up front that that was changing on day one. And if they didn’t want that, they shouldn’t call me. — However, such is not the case in Nazarene churches (where is it the case?). — It is the case in most Nazarene churches that they do not celebrate the Eucharist each week. That is simply the way it is. If there is opposition after such a sermon series (and I think that it would take a much longer term process for most Nazarene churches), then perhaps, with such convictions, one might consider making a pastoral move. — I think in such a context, one has to look at moving in that direction … which may take a while. (Though I’m happy if it doesn’t take long.) — Otherwise, if one isn’t willing to work within that reality, one might look to move to a different context … say the UMC!

  3. Pingback: Why Weekly Eucharist? | teddy ray

  4. Pingback: Would you preach once a quarter? « John Meunier

  5. Holly, that is where the Episcopacy is supposed to deter that type of response from the congregation. I understand that this is not always so, but we must put faith in our polity otherwise our whole Discipline and understanding of the intinerant ministry is at stake. The intinerant ministry with the Bishop that sends us is put in place SO THAT elders may preach without fear of losing ones job, but preach and lead as we (the UMC) believe and is taught.

    • I have pretty much lost faith in the polity of our church, Josh. I retired pretty much for that reason.

      Having a guaranteed appointment does allow a pastor freedom in the pulpit; but it does not mean the pastor will stay in a congregation that doesn’t want him/her even though the pastor may be EXACTLY the person needed by the congregation.

      The pastor may simply be moved to a new church, so the church can maintain it’s status-quo without working through these troublesome issues.

  6. I am excited to tell you that at least in the VA Conference we have a Bishop devoted to the prayer and renewal of our church. I am sure that this is no new news to you, but invite us to be in prayer as we open ourselves as a church to God and be renewed and transformed to who God desires for us to be. I know personally I continue to pray for the leadership of the United Methodist Church from the Lay Leaders, to the pastors, to the council of Bishops.

  7. If I may be so bold as a layperson to add something to this discussion, our church moved to weekly eucharist in 1982. It was a long and loving process. We had a group of lay people write a paper about the Eucharist we fondly call “The Communion Paper.” it was discussed and added to and we had gradually started celebrating communion more and more, and by 1982 it became every Sunday. We have the service of word and table every Sunday and have now for 30+ years. We insist that each new pastor understand the primacy of word and table. It is who we are as a congregation. We sing the responses and understand that all we do in worship leads us, indeed calls us to the table. It is where we rediscover weekly what being the body of Christ is all about and recreates us as community.
    We are a small congregation, diverse in so many ways, but the one things we all witness to is the essential role of the Eucharist in our midst.
    I could go on, but the message is really that as usual, all you clergy folk think that you have to drag us lay folks along. Let us do some of the work and be moved by the Spirit. We might just lead a few of you every now and then.
    I believe worship is the work of the people. It must engage us, include us and enrich us. We do that for each other.
    Hope you don’t mind me joining in on this discussion. I appreciate being part of this Facebook group that you have accepted me into, but I have never felt I had much to say.

    • Conrad,

      What a great and beautiful testimony! Thanks for sharing this. I’m encouraged by your congregation.

      This post suggests that a movement in this direction will come from a pastor who believes in it, and that’s more typically what I’ve seen. But for it to rise up out of the congregation would be far better. I’d love to see “The Communion Paper” if it’s available for sharing.

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