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.
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.
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? 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.”
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.