Recognizing milestones is a practice we learned about from Humble Walk Lutheran Church, a community of folks who gather around the West 7th Neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Toward the end of each worship their leader, Pastor Jodi, would take a tall container and invite people to come forward and drop one or more little stones in the jar and share their life milestones that week. Topics varied as much as the ages and stages of people sharing, but when I saw this in action, here’s what caught my attention. It was a way to get people’s voices and real life matters into the room. After the person shared their milestone, the whole community would speak back as one by saying out loud, “Milestone.” It was a way that the community could say to that one person, “We see you. We hear you. You matter.”
So, we brought it to Christ on Capitol Hill (Saint Paul). It’s modified in our big space. Our sanctuary seats 400. It’s long and narrow. It’s all the things that don’t make people feel like they’re in a cozy, safe, living room space. But somehow, it works in our worship space, too. After the Communion blessing, I say something like—“At this point in our worship, we share with one another our milestones, the highs and lows of our week. So, any milestones this week?” And usually a kindergartener leads the way: “I have my first loose tooth!” As people share milestones, I repeat after each person (or summarize, as needed) so that those who have not heard every word or those joining in by livestream can catch the essence of each one.
We might hear:
- It’s our 37th anniversary on Wednesday.
- My granddaughter is having surgery.
- It’s 5 years since my sister died.
We’ve been doing this for years now, but I’ve been surprised how it creates an open space for first-time guests to share (even the very first time they arrive):
- I’ve been sober for 3 days.
- I’m Catholic, so I was so glad you welcomed me to Communion because it’s the first time I’ve had it for years.
- We’re visiting from South Dakota today, and I’ve sung the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children” since I was a child, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen that diversity in church.
This practice of sharing milestones allows us to share our grief and sorrow to the level we are able.
- I’m still looking for a job.
- We’re traveling this week.
- Please keep praying for my uncle who has COVID-19 and has been moved to the ICU.
When we moved all our worship to Zoom in response to a global pandemic, we would chat before beginning the worship video and after the video was complete; we shared prayers and milestones. The youngest children and teens showed up for this moment, sharing stuffed animals and art they made that week. We met new people, learned about half-birthdays and driver’s exams. We learned people’s prayer requests and could follow up. How are things going this week?
Before we incorporated milestones into worship, we would be in the gathering space after worship before someone would mention to me that it was their anniversary. “Oh, I wish you would have said something!” I would say or sometimes just think. Somehow what we are already doing during announcements didn’t give people permission to share about life. It just felt like this week’s to-do list We were missing the real stuff of life that we can grieve and celebrate together.
Now, announcements are secondary and the people come first. We laugh, we sing “Happy Birthday” occasionally; we put our hands over our hearts promising to pray for another. We say hello and goodbye. We bless and send. We mark the big moments and the little ones. We notice one another. Each voice matters. All of these things have been true in the best of congregations for a long time, but this particular practice has helped us as our community constantly changes and worship practices vary and we respond and adapt to the needs of the time.
If you’d like to begin sharing milestones in your context, a few thoughts to begin:
- You decide if people coming forward and dropping an actual pebble into an actual container—the physical action—will be helpful to get people warmed up to this practice (or if you have a bunch of introverts in the room and just saying the things from where they are will work better). You know your people, both ways can work.
- When you’re first getting started, having a few “plants” (people ready to share something) will be helpful. Modeling the practice first gives other people permission and courage to share.
- Allow silence. The biggest reason people don’t share their lives is because they are convinced that no one has time to listen to them. It’s true, this isn’t a time for speeches (and if someone gives a speech, I greatly condense for the repeat through the microphone)
- At the what feels like the end of this time of sharing milestones, I’ll say, “Anything else? Anything we’ve missed?” And then, if we’re done, I’ll share the Blessing.
- Be you. Laugh with a joyful milestone. Pause and take in a sobering one. Move closer to the speaker if you can’t hear them. Be honest (For example, admit if you can’t hear the person and ask them to share again). Showing up as a human allows others to do the same.
Finally, as a side benefit—milestones give people something to talk about in the social time after worship. They can share their own experience that connects to another’s experience and share that they will pray this week for another. Members might even check out that loose tooth up close (with permission).
There will be surprises since even with all its patterns, worship is full of unrepeatable moments. May this practice fill your community with joy, love and connection, as we keep learning together how to be the body of Christ in each time and place.