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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ask the Matriarch -- Seen but not heard?

It's happened to everyone: a baby has started wailing in the middle of the service, or four five-year-olds have decided to play a loud round of hide-n-seek in the middle of the church, or you ask a rhetorical question during a sermon and the precocious eight-year-old in the third row is not only listening, but fires off a grade-school answer that would make a sailor blush in his "outdoor" voice. Earthchick has a whole list of things: "We have certainly all been in situations where distractions happen
during our sermons - cellphones go off, babies cry, someone has a coughing fit, people enter or leave the sanctuary, a child won't settle down, etc." she says. "To me, it is the mark of a professional to be able to carry on in the face of such distractions - without calling more attention to them and/or saying/doing something to make the person/people involved feel bad."

So imagine one ringmember's distress recently when the following happened--and afterward, the family was divided about how appropriate the response was:

I went to a wedding this weekend, where I had no official duties except to sit there and be a proud aunt. My two grandnieces were flower girls--a little young-- 2 and 3 --but really cute. They did their job well and delightfully, walking down the aisle, spreading their petals. After the bride and groom had gone up onto the platform, the two flower girls went to the side, front aisle and sat with their mother and grandmother.

It was then the real show began. The two girls, after having traveled, rehearsed, and having been at the church for pictures since 10:00 a.m. (it was a 1:30 p.m. wedding) were a bit frazzled. They both regularly take afternoon naps--their schedule had been upset for the two days before the wedding. They never really did sit down when they got to their aisle seats. They moved, talked, laughed, messed around a bit. It was somewhat cute, and funny to me and my spouse. They weren't really distracting and I could hear everything fine.

BUT, in the middle of his message (about 20 minutes!) the pastor stopped and said "Excuse me a minute, would you please take the little girls out of here?" He then repeated it, I guess because they weren't moving fast enough. The wedding then proceeded, although it was several minutes before I could pick my jaw up off the ground.

My first thought, when I was thinking again, was that I should have offered to take over for the pastor, if he was getting flustered. My dad--who wasn't there-said he would have just told the pastor "No, they're staying."

Now, you can all save yourselves a lot of frustration by making sure there's a discussion about this with the bride and groom ahead of time, say the matriarchs, who are pretty much as astonished as you were. But we all learn from experience, says Karen. "I had a similar experience at a wedding recently--complete screaming meltdown by flower girl and ring bearer--who were cousins to each other and niece/nephew to the groom," she says. "I didn't ask them to leave, but I was plenty peeved that some responsible adult didn't undertake this task themselves as it was so obvious that this is what needed to happen. But I am partly to blame because I didn't give this particular bride and groom my "kids in the wedding party" spiel because the kids were a late addition to the plans and there were other crises afoot that day."

Remember, they *are* children
Karen suggests addressing the following points with your bride and groom:
1. Think long and hard about having kids younger than four in the wedding party--because those are the ones most at risk of creating a real disruption. "I had a colleague early in my ministry years who flat out would not allow kids younger than four in wedding parties he was working with," Karen says. "He was the father of a toddler at the time, so it wasn't that he hated kids, he'd just seen too many disasters. I don't go that far, but I lay out what I see as the risk factors.
2. If you really want to include your adorable toddler/preschooler in the wedding party, make sure you have designated, responsible adult who can step in if need be. And, there needs to be a planned escape route that allows for a quick getaway.

Our newest matriarch, Jacquelyn of FaithStones, also emphasizes the importance of laying it out ahead of time, and makes a further point of understanding how much kids at various ages can handle, and to consider each child's individual personality. "Some children will be able to remain in the front and standing with the wedding party while others, usually younger, children do need to do their part and then go sit with family (as they did in this case). The other piece, however, is that the pastor and the family consider the needs of the children in planning rehearsals, picture-taking and the service. It seems unreasonable to have a morning picture-taking session (or rehearsal) and early afternoon wedding and to expect young children to be present for both. I always do an early evening rehearsal the night before the wedding. At least any pictures that involve the children would be taken after the ceremony."

Jan agrees, and adds that the type of ceremony can make a huge difference, too. "If the couple really wants the children in their lives to be included, then they surely realize that little children can be squirmy, talkative, etc. Not a problem, if they want everybody there. Big problem if they assume theirs will be an elegant, sober wedding ceremony."

The rehearsal is important, though
Abi allows as how there's a line between distracting and disruptive, and it may be different for every pastor, perhaps something that should be underlined and pullquoted in every wedding magazine and planning book. Her own daughters were in a wedding recently, and while she had to signal to one daughter to quit waving the flower basket around, they mostly handled it well. (The ringbearer, she says, was another story.) "At the wedding rehearsal we worked out how the kids were to be dealt with, who would do what with them, and what was expected. Before the wedding, we even went over things with the girls again, and the big reminder about behavior," she says. "I think that is why having a rehearsal and being clear as the Pastor and the bride about what you expect of everybody, making plans for how the kids are to be handled in a wedding. I don't think a wedding is the same thing as a worship service or a sermon being preached. Kids are kids and are going to be distracting--learn to handle it. Now, kids being disruptive is a whole other matter."

Jan agrees that it's in your best interest to spell it out ahead of time, and if you are dealing a wedding planner or coordinator who's trying to boss everything from the outset, you need to assert yourself there, too. "I always tell wedding coordinators (for my own protection probably) that they are in charge of what happens before and after the wedding, and the officiant is in charge of what happens during the ceremony. Nevertheless, my jaw dropped too, after hearing this. Clearly the bride and groom wanted these children in their wedding. Clearly they knew their ages, temperaments, ability to hold it together (or not) for a lengthy ceremony. But it was their wedding, their call. The pastor could have said, "No children" at the get go. But he didn't."

It's about the love!
Earthchick sums it up nicely: "Better the pastor be flustered, irritated, or *gasp* not listened to, than for little children and their families to be made to feel bad during a ceremony that is intended to celebrate love, commitment, family, and the God who makes it all possible."

But, it should be noted, every single matriarch said, in parentheses, some variation of "A 20-minute sermon?!!?"

Now I know you guys have some great stories to share about famous interruptions you've had to deal with. After, all, America's Funniest Home Videos had long segments devoted to ringbearers and flower girls!


  1. When I got married, I did not want disruptions or distractions - I was nervous enough! So, we did not have children in the serivce, but we still made sure that we had childcare at the church, so that if there were small children who were behaviorally unable to participate in the service, the parents did not just have to walk with them outside. Nowadays, if there are children in the service, I make a point to ask which adult will be responsible for them if the stress of it all proves too much. I talk to that person ahead of time - but, a 20 MINUTE SERMON in a wedding? Sheesh!

  2. Oh, boy! I do not think it was appropriate to stop the sermon for this event. I recently had a young boy using the stairs to the balcony as a jungle gym during my sermon and I was distracted but I would never say anything in the middle of a service. My approach is to make it clear that young children have personal needs and that if they are going to participate, the adults will do their best to help them endure the long sitting and boring-to-them event. If the bride and groom want the children in the wedding then they are to explain to the parents that we do not want the parents or children under any undo stress. So, they should feel free to help their children in whatever way they think is best, including taking the child out of the service for a break, bringing toys to the service or even by providing a snack.

  3. PAstor was definitely out of line--both in length of sermon and in apparent lack of tact/pastoral skills/awareness of what was worth gettting upset about. (my standard wedding is 20-30 minutes TOTAL)

    I alkways discuss with the couple the need to have a couple of options for the young ones, after all they may not like the first choice.

    LASt wedding I did the flower girl conked her head on the cross hanging behind teh communion table during the vows and then almost fell down the chancel steps during teh register signing (why you would put a 2 year old in a long dress with lots of skirt to steo on in beyond me anyway). No one moved, and I just let them. If it had nbeen one of my girls they would have been collected and corralled a bit more but that is us (Patty always sits at teh back of a sanctuary so a graceful, quietis, exit is possible when needed).

    OTOH, weddings are a chance to reach out to the "unchurched". If they truly aren't used to the church maybe there is a time to let the little things slip. How many people woud return to church aftre that experience?

  4. My general policy is that I'd rather have children present and making noise in the church than have no children present at all. That said, I too have a particular talk about children in weddings, and ask that an adult who is not part of the wedding party be responsible for making the young ones comfortable and welcome. It's really not hospitable to the children to ask them to participate in long photo sessions and not be the center of attention...but I've really not had any major issues in weddings were I was the presider.
    My cousin's wedding, on the other hand, was a different matter. My 15 month old niece was the flower girl, and that was handled well. She walked down the (very short--5 rows of chairs) aisle from her dad (who waited at the last row) to her mom (2nd row) with great deliberation. During the outdoor ceremony, she played with her mom on the grass behind the last row of chairs. She was so cute, she nearly stole the show, but everyone was a good sport about it and my cousin was very clear that that's how she wanted it. Jamie (my niece) also was a big hit at the reception...she danced with everyone. The difference here between funny story and disaster is that everyone was having a good time. At another wedding or with another group of people, this could have gone over really poorly.
    The ring bearer brought up another issue. The wedding coordinator was very patronizing to the 8 year old veteran of 3 family weddings, and so when she suggested that he not carry the "real" rings on the pillow for fear he'd drop them, he flatly refused. So she warned the best man to tie them onto the pillow securely. It took at least 5 minutes and a borrowed pocketknife to free the rings and let the ceremony continue. Again, this could have been a disaster, but it was a small wedding with a close group of really great sports...we all just laughed, including the ring bearer. So much of this is what we bring to it, you know?

  5. I said "a 20 minute sermon!" too. really. for heaven's sake! the wedding party (in our tradition) is standing the whole time!

  6. P.S. to this story--yeah, it's mine :)
    My 15 year old son had the hutzpah to approach the pastor at the reception and question him about his asking to have the girls removed. If I'd have known, I would have run and hid--of course my son said something to the effect that"My mom's a pastor and she wouldn't have done that" (groan, with eyes rolling) The pastor told my son that he was unable to stay focused with "those little girls carrying on" HAH

  7. I suggest to the couple that children under 4 should not be in the wedding party. If it is absolutely necessary though, I suggest that the mother of the child be in plain sight at all times and the child can run back and be with her when ever it wants. Each family has its own needs and so I try to be flexible.

    I recently had a wedding that I "inherited" when I began as a new pastor. I don't think much instruction had been done and I didn't have time to do it. But when we got to the Lord's prayer NOBODY in the wedding party knew it! I wanted to ask "what's the point of a Church wedding." But I won't do another one like that again!

    I'm with Diane--the whole service shouldn't be more than about 20 mins unless there is communion and then that brings in a whole other set of needs.

  8. I used to work in the Children's Room at the public library, so small children and their activities distress me less than they might some people. But the breaking point is when the child is actually unhappy and really, really needs to leave. I have advised every couple I have worked with, where young children (4 and under) were concerned: have an adult ready to take the child out if need be, and be sure the adult is someone whose feelings will not be hurt by missing part of all of the ceremony. Too many couples where there is already a child on the ground, so to speak, have said to me cheerily, "Oh, Bride's Mom will take care of him!" Um, no. Bride's Mom might be a bit distressed to miss her daughter's wedding.
    (And no, this is not just because I spent my brother-in-law's wedding in a church basement with my toddler after spending the previous evening's in a hotel room with my toddler and missing the rehearsal dinner, because the bride promised childcare for both events in that far-off state and did not follow through...)

  9. By the way, that was twenty years ago, so I'm over the hurt feelings! But I learned, and I put those learnings into practice in my work.

  10. To start with, the pastor was a schmuck!

    As for children in weddings, I have the following to add:

    1. There should be a catcher and a receiver. Someone who cares for the kids before they head down the chute in the procession and someone up front who has no other job than to take the children under their wing after their official duties are completed. This should be someone they trust totally and it should NOT be the MOB or the MOG.

    2. There is a great episode of "Arthur" when DW wants to be the flower girl but isn't asked. Meanwhile, Arthur, the ring bearer drops the ring. (Of course, DW saves the day and gets the ring with her little skinny arms.) This is a great way to explain to ring bearers the importance of what they are doing.

    3. Hold the ring bearer pillow like you would a softball glove when catching a pop fly.

    4. If children are invited to a wedding, they are guests in worship. So if they are noisy or throw up on the bride's train or scatter stuff everywhere. Well, them's the breaks.

  11. A 20 minute wedding sermon and asking the kids to be taken out...I have to wonder who was asking for all the attention anyway??? yeesh!

    I give a 5 minute homily. I invite families to be comfortable with wiggly children but I stress that the wedding is about the couple and the vows they are making to each other, in front of God and this gathered community. The children should not become the center of attention. If that begins to happen then someone needs to take care of it. That usually works.

  12. revhrod --

    A catcher and a receiver. Love it!

    The one technique I've seen for a minister in regular worship to handle crying babies is for the minister to work it into the service; statements to let people know that children are the future of our church; that Jesus said to "suffer the little children unto me" and so forth and that unless we become as a child and so forth...

    A service that never hears the voices of children is a sad service, indeed.

    We my LH and I were married, I made sure there was a place for the flower girls to sit on the front row with a responsible person and coloring books. It just should be a part of the standard planning for a wedding.

    (20 minutes! The mind boggles.)

  13. 20 minute wedding sermon...holy cow what is there to say at a wedding that takes twenty minutes. I mean really...even my Sunday sermons are a lot less then 20 minutes.

    Frankly, I just want to say to the bride and groom is this: love eachother, love God and what ever you do, please don't kill each other.

  14. we had a 45 minute sermon at our wedding (everyone but pastor sat down) and it was incredible!!!!!!!(However, I do understand length of sermon does not equal spirituality or Christ-centeredness)


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