Someone has been sitting in my chair!

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This year marks my 40th year being a ‘paid’ church musician.  I’m not quite Methushelah but, I admit, I started my career in music as a young teenager when phones were fastened to the wall and screen time meant playing with Etch-a-Sketch.  I have spent more time in church than I care to admit.  If  I wasn’t sitting on the organ bench practising and waving my arms leading a choir, I sat in a pew supporting my husband, an Anglican priest for over 50 years who’s now retired.

While I have had some long term church gigs, I was and still am a musician for temporary hire – a substitute while the church is looking for a permanent musician or when their regular church musician is away.  This has worked well for me because I’ve also worked for many years as a music producer for CBC, and because I love the freedom this arrangement offers.  I like taking the temperature of churches of all denominations,  working with the choir, and seeing how they worship.  And because of how church has changed during these years, I feel compelled to jot down these musings. It’s NOT to pour gasoline on the conversation ‘This is why I don’t go to church’, but rather it’s to start a dialogue on how churches can address some long standing assumptions and create a safer and more welcoming space for those that want to venture inside a sacred building for the first time.

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And one major problem has to do with the question of where it’s safe to sit.  No matter how many times I step through the doors of a ‘new to me’ church, I feel a certain angst in the pit of my stomach because I’m pretty sure I’ll set my keister down in a spot that will make someone mad.  It actually begins as I pull into the parking lot and wonder:  “Where do I leave my car without ticking someone off?”

You think I jest?  I remember the day I pulled into one church’s parking lot years back, and a few parishoners greeted me not with “Hello” or “Welcome” but “YOU CAN’T PARK HERE.  This is where so and so usually parks.”  I didn’t see a reserved sign, but nodded and moved my car, despite feeling sorely tempted to drive away, pick up a copy of the New York Times, and go home to listen to ‘The Sunday Edition on CBC’.  But because my husband was a guest preacher at the church, and it was a rare Sunday when I wasn’t playing somewhere,  I wanted to support him.  But it was hard for me not to burst out laughing with my distinct cackle when I saw their faces at coffee hour after my husband had introduced me as his spouse!   It doesn’t now surprise me to learn that the church is struggling with poor attendence.

After I think I’ve found a safe spot to park my car, my next dilemma is where can I sit. T-T-15777-Goldilocks-and-The-Three-Bears-Someones-Been-Sitting-in-my-Chair-Speech-Bubble

I love cosying up to a pillar if there is one, or finding a good back seat for easy escape.  Trouble is, I can never guess which seat is ‘free’.  People are creatures of habit.  They like their tea a certain way at a given time.  They usually take the same route to work unless there is a collision.  And they sit at the same dinner place.  It only stands to reason that they also like ‘their’ spot in church.   But think about it.  How is a guest suppose to know that it is taken?  B8xRcePCQAAUhaN It doesn’t even matter if the sanctuary is almost empty.  Some months ago I checked out a church that I was going to supply at for a stint.  I wanted to get a feel for the flow from a congregates point of view.  I arrived early to hear the prelude to see how the organ sounded …was it too loud, soft, where does the choir stand, etc….  There wouldn’t have been more than 15 people there when I arrived.  I bravely plopped myself into a pew, and hoped I was safe.  But a few minutes later, a woman walked down the centre aisle and before she too sat down, she asked another parishoner if this was Lucy’s spot.  Eaves dropping, I learned that Lucy had moved up north to be near her daughter – and probably would never be back.

Things get a little odder when I tell you about another church where my mom went for the first time to hear me play her favourite piece.  Again, it was at a church where you could play throw and catch without fear of hitting someone.  “YOU CAN’T SIT HERE!” scolded a rather officius “force to be reckoned with” individual.   “That’s Josey’s seat”.  The elderly woman, who was perched next to the woman advising my mom on her seating plans, said, “Yes dear. Josey died a few year’s ago but we like to keep it free in her memory.” 8290bfd59d0bf0ae19fabfcf7ff27018--angel-s-angel-wings

Does this happen in your church?  Do you know?  Do you care?  You should, because most congregations treat newcomers the same way.  So  I ask you: clergy, board members, congregants, how do you plan to change your church culture to create a safe and inviting place for everyone? How do you plan to address the stink eye that prevents people from being welcomed and comfortable to sit where they want.  I have some ideas – but what are yours?  Time to start talking, folks, or more churches will be putting up “for sale” signs, and will only have the invisible Josey’s left sitting in the pews.

 

 

 

 

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Yes, shorter is often better!

I have listened to well over a 1000 sermons in my day, delivered by at least 100 clergy from all denominations.  Many of these sermons have one thing in common. They are too long!  This cliché is true.  A sermon should be like a hem, long enough to cover the topic and short enough to keep it interesting.

When I was a little girl, if I wasn’t singing in the choir, I would sit with my grandfather in the last pew on the aisle, for a quick get away after the service.    The service would start at 11 am, with the expectation that by noon you would be on your way.  Sometimes, the sermon would go on for so long, that my grandfather would tap his watch to make sure it was working or hold it up to his ear.  On the walk home he would say to me, “He certainly  likes to hear the sound of his own voice.”

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Aural memory is the shortest type of memory.  Clergy, if you have too many points, or take to long to cover your topic, you have lost the congregation. People will tune out and think about supper plans, or other activities they would rather do on a Sunday morning that might be a little more fun!  Intro, 3 points, and extro usually does the trick.

During one service, I actually fell asleep.  The sun was streaming in the stain glass window and I was wrapped in a comfy down coat.  The cadence of the preacher’s voice was like white noise.  It was the shuffling of feet getting ready to sing the closing hymn that brought me around.  I only hoped I wasn’t talking in my sleep or snoring.

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One minister told me, and he is one of the best homilist that I know, the following true story.   He was walking back from the parish hall after the ‘meet and greet’ that follows the service, to pick up his coat in the office.  He peeked into the sanctuary and saw *Jack  (not his real name) on his knees.  Concerned, he approached after a bit when he realized that Jack wasn’t praying.  “Is everything ok?” he asked.  “Well Father,  I am looking for my hearing aid.  I always take it out during the sermon.”  A humbling moment to be sure!

I frequently practice at a church in the neighborhood where I run into the parishioners that poke their head in to see what I am up to.  After pleasantries, they always tell me their priest goes on for 40 minutes.  They are old, tired, they have to go to the toilet and their bums hurt from sitting too long.  They have asked him to keep it short, but alas, he says, I can preach as long as I want to.   I have even heard two clergy wives complain about the length of their husbands sermons, with their partners in the room.   So it isn’t just me, an organist for hire that has these observations.

One more thing.  Don’t end your sermon with a salad.   ‘Let us pray … Let us go forth….

Clergy, keep them wanting more so they will comeback next week.

Do you have stories where you wanted to edit the sermon?  Please share.