A few summers ago, my husband (also a UM elder) and I were asked to be the clergy on site for a week long summer retreat for high school aged youth. There were about 40 of them, and we were to lead worship and develop small group curriculum. It was something we really wanted to do, but with us both serving high maintenance churches, seemed an overwhelming task to prepare for. The camp director had selected the book In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars by Mark Batterson as the theme for the camp.
The book is based on 2nd Samuel 23: 20-21 in which Benaiah chases a lion into a pit on a snowy day and kills it. Yes, someone wrote an entire book on two verses. Impressive. Each chapter ends with discussion points and questions, setting up easy small group planning.
We broke the book down into four sections to correlate with the four Sundays we planned to preach the books in our churches and the four main worship services we would be doing at camp. We tag-teamed the sermon writing (I did rough draft, he cleaned it up) and we split the small group development so the kids got a picture of our differing theologies and approaches to life.
From this, we had a month long sermon series and special short-term Sunday school class for our churches and a week long retreat for the youth retreat, each modified for the audience. Our churches knew about the retreat and loved being the test audience. It turned out to be a great way for them to be more engaged with the sermon as they wanted to give us meaningful feedback on what touched them so we could potentially emphasize that with the youth.
Not only does sharing the workload make it easier on all parties involved, but it can be very refreshing to work with others in our often isolating vocation. Got clergy/candidate friends in the same city? Pick a scripture (or theme) and do a round robin. Everyone write their sermon on their interpretation of the scripture and then rotate churches so you preach the same sermon three or four times and the congregations get to experience different preaching styles, theological interpretations, and liturgical styles. Consider a picnic at the end to get all the congregations together, or do joint mid-week classes so they can be together.
Got clergy friends scattered around the nation? Pick a book of the Bible or book of non-fiction or sermon series and assign each person one sermon draft to write. Share them all, and let your congregation know who provided the basis for the sermon. If your technology allows, Skype the congregations together for a workshop to talk about how the regional cultural context impacts the theological experience of the book/series.
The United Methodist Church often seems rooted in competition, not connection. We are judged by statistics and the almighty dollar and pitted against each other. The Connection can be built in ways other than apportionments and monolithic organizations. Build it with relationships, and work smarter, not harder.