I have a parishioner who is so sensitive to scents, perfumes, fragrances, etc. that if anybody is wearing very much of a certain scent, she has to move to an entirely different part of the sanctuary before breathing becomes difficult for her.
And of course, there are two other women who tend to wear a heavy scent and/or wear it in mass quantities, usually because they have a decreased sense of smell due to past cancer treatments or simply advanced age. The sensitive parishioner has approached them both, explained her difficulty with scent, and asked them to not wear as much perfume--but it doesn't seem to be making any difference. She's now playing musical pews in order to find a place that will allow her to breathe properly. (This becomes more of a problem during church meetings, or when we are meeting in a smaller space like the chapel.)
I take perfume allergies seriously, to the point where I wear nothing stronger than deodorant on Sundays to avoid setting off someone's allergies. But I can't seem to think of a way to ask these women to back off on the perfume without causing offense. I've considered putting something about it in the bulletin as a way to enhancing hospitality to guests, but I'm sure these two women will realize that they are the primary targets of such a request. To complicate matters further, the allergic woman has a reputation for being a bit demanding, so everyone's tension levels are a bit elevated just because it's HER.
Any suggestions on how we might create an atmosphere of hospitality for all without targeting a few individuals?
We have lots of tips from the matriarchs. You can start by acting as a mediator of sorts.
Ann sympathizes with those who cringe at having to play mediator. "These situations call up all my conflict avoidance traits. The first line I would encourage is for the injured party to approach the others and say something like 'when you wear perfume, I have an allergic reaction' in a non-accusatory way." Offer to practice the "intervention," and encourage her to talk about her specific health issue (does it trigger daylong headaches? asthma?) with the offending party so that it doesn't come across as "griping."
If that doesn't work, says Peripatetic Polar Bear, you might want to delegate this to your vestry/session/board of deacons, etc. "I think when you have individual personalities involved in the situation, it's harder to be sensitive." No pun intended. "A scent-free zone could help ameliorate this—my childhood church had a scent-free zone in the balcony, due initially to a child that had a severe allergy," she continues. "If your congregational governing body agrees to try a scent-free zone, it may raise awareness as to how many people in the congregation have an issue with it."
It's important to note that this isn't a perfect solution, PPB adds. "Nobody wants to feel like they are relegated to a certain corner of the sanctuary, but it worked."
Ann also suggests bringing the governing body in, but goes a little bit further in terms of what guidelines you set. "Take the issue to your vestry or parish council. Have them talk over the issues and make a decision that will apply to all equally. Somewhere along the line smoking was probably banned from your church; how did that decision get made?"
Ann talked to her daughter, Kristin, who is also sensitive to scents, and got an interesting piece of feedback. "As someone who is allergic to most perfumes, I know that I feel very awkward asking someone directly not to wear perfume," Kristin writes. "I will stop going to an event rather than talk to someone about my needs."
PPB agrees that you don't know who else feels the same way that your squeaky wheel does. "I think you may be surprised how many people are allergic or sensitive, and just not able/willing to talk about it."
If you do create a rule that no perfume is allowed in a particular setting, be sure to explain why. "Create the rule, and make clear that the reason you have the rule is that scent allergies make people just as sick as food allergies," says Kristin. "It doesn't create a welcoming space if you make people sick."
Karen worked in a church where there was a sign in the narthex that said something along the lines of:
It didn't always work, but it at least cut down on the offending scents.
In order to welcome members of our community who have severe allergies to certain perfumes, we respectfully request that worshippers refrain from wearing heavy aftershave, cologne or scented lotions.
Have you had to handle this problem in your parish? If so, please share with us in the comments!