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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ask The Matriarch: chaos at coffee hour edition

Our question for the Matriarchs is from a pastor who finds her growing church is making Sunday a time of chaos instead of worship for her:
[In the past] While preparing for [worship], there [were] a relatively small number of people at Coffee Hour. I would have multiple requests for things, but usually they were not so overwhelming that I could not remember them. I joyously find myself serving a larger congregation than I had thought, but Coffee Hour has become a challenge because of the number of people bringing different things to me during this time. I can no longer remember them all, and find myself exhausted and stressed at the end of the time. How do I gracefully handle this (pleasant) challenge? (I don't want to discourage people from approaching me, just from thinking I have the memory of an elephant.)

Perplexed and caring pastor

Matriarch Jan offers the idea of setting Sunday aside for worship and avoiding the business of church on that day:
Because you are not an elephant, nor their "ecclesiastical honey do-er" let them know - first via your leadership boards and then via the newsletter or announcements to all others - that it would be helpful for them to write down any messages they wish you to have following or before worship. If they don't write it down then you can't ensure they'll be addressed.

Some congregations have a deacon or other assistant stand beside the pastor after worship with a pad and pencil to write down what people say. This hasn't worked in our congregation because it felt strange and frankly made me feel like I was trying to be all that.

I simply say, "I really want to remember what you're telling me, so please write it down or email me on Monday." It is a wonderful problem to have so many people around with things to say.

Another issue to address involves a more serious shift in your congregation's culture. Sunday is set apart for worship. Yes, the pastor and other leaders are standing there and it's incredibly tempting to do ask the pastor if she's free for lunch Tuesday or to ask the deacon if he could order more communion cups. But it's the leaders' worship time too. We have tried to set a rule that there is "no church business" before, during, or after worship if at all possible. Using Sunday mornings (if that's when you worship) to touch base with the Building & Grounds coordinator to talk about new lighting ideas or to schedule things with the pastor distracts from everybody's worship. (We sometimes have to have official meetings before worship but it's not easy. Last Sunday I was finished with that meeting exactly 3 minutes before worship started. Not exactly the way you want to prepare to lead prayer, etc.)

It sounds like your congregation is growing - which is good. But growth means things also have to change - which is also good, but not everyone will see it that way.

St. Casserole writes:
Carry a small notebook with you to write down information. I use this method to remember the variety of things I'm told "in passing" by my congregation.

As you greet people after worship, you may find it useful to have a member stand behind you with paper and pen to record any information you wish to remember. You'll be careful with private information and so choose a trustworthy person for this job.

Jacque comments;
I certainly know that challenge of being told or asked things that I cannot always remember. A number of years ago, I concluded that I could let people know how important their concerns are to me by making sure I receive them in a workable form. Two primary practices come to mind:

First, I let people know that I want and need to be able to visit with a wide number of people on Sunday mornings -- before worship, after worship, and in the Community time ('coffee hour'). To that end, if someone begins a conversation that clearly deserves and/or requires more time and focus than I can give it and still move on to talk with others, then I suggest that this person set a time for a visit with me. The person will not feel brushed off, if I say something like "I really want to talk more with you; let's set a time to get together."

Second (more directly to your point) -- I simply say to people, "Oh, I want to be able to check on that, would you please write that down so that I won't forget it." They can hand it to me and I put it in my pocket -- and then empty my pocket of notes onto my desk after the coffee hour. Or when, as of happens, someone wants to give me something during that time that they want me to read, comment on, etc., I just say, "Oh, thank you, I don't want to lose track of that - Would you please put that on the desk in the office for me?!"

I find that if people know that I am asking them to help with communication in this way because what they are telling me is important to me then they are happy to do so.

Rector in Hawai’i suggests that if notes end up in the wash instead of her desk:
I've finally learned to ask them to email me the next day because I can't remember everything in the controlled chaos of a Sunday morning. Or I ask them to write down whatever it is and slip it under the office door. (I tried putting those slips in a pocket but they ended up going through the wash.)

It's also a good idea to put short notices in the newsletter and Sunday leaflet asking for their 'help' in helping you to remember their needs. This way they all know that it's really difficult to remember everything and you're not picking on one or two in particular. I've found parishioners are more than willing to 'help' me remember. Just don't forget to acknowledge their need first.

Wise layperson offers the member's point of view:
Be up-front with folks about your desire to remember their requests. I would suggest any of the following (depending on your comfort level):

-- Let folks know that coffee hour is not the best time to come to you with requests (especially if it is between services). Ask them to contact you during office hours or by email with details of their concerns/ ideas

-- Carry a small notebook or PDA with you and make a note as the request is being made.

-- Ask people who make requests of you to follow up with you by a certain day if they haven't heard from you (even if you write it down it might drop to the bottom of the pile during the week).

-- Find ways to remind people (without whining) that, they are many and you are one and it may take you a while to get round to everything and that if you forget or are slow to respond it is not that you are intentionally ignoring them.

Since you say your are finding Coffee Hour exhausting as a result of all of the requests I would suggest that you go with the first option on my list. Tell people that coffee hour is just not the best time to give you one more thing to remember.

Other things you can do:

-- Delegate: if your congregation supports a staff, point the person with the need at the correct staff person to handle the issue.

-- Breathe: be intentional about how you approach coffee hour. Think about what you want to get out of that time and stick to your guns.

-- Don't let anyone corner you for more than 3 minutes and don't hang out with the same few people each time. If Coffee Hour is your chance to move among the congregation in an informal way then don't let it turn into a business meeting. Let folks know that you really want to preserve this time as a chance to 'be with them' and not 'work with them'.

Long time rector encourages people to call her during the week:
I ask people to call me on Monday morning to follow up and have a longer time to chat than we can at coffee. I am not embarrassed to tell people "I think I can remember everything, but really I can't - so help me on this and give me a call to remind me during the week"

Great ideas for controlling the chaos and I would add that I tell people to call me or the secretary Monday, email me or write me a note and leave it on my desk. I also refer them to the staff or ministry leader who covers that area if possible. I find this sorts out the priority of the requests for people and starts them on the road to solving their own problems. The person can then take responsibility for whatever the issue is and work with me. if needed, for further resources. It tells them that I think it is important enough to set aside time for them and puts the ball in their court. It discourages dependency and spreads out the responsibilities.


  1. I know that not all of our people are wired -- at least not here in flyover land -- but I'd remind my fellow laypeople that E-Mail Is Our Friend; get e-mails of the key leadership in your church and use that for "bidness"; save coffee hour for fellowship and maybe a "Hey, check your e-mail this week because I have an idea for your committee."

  2. And maybe (to the note idea) have little slips and a few pens handy somewhere in the room where you have coffee hour? so you don't get notes on the back of people's shopping list (or worse).

    Might feel more intentional that way.

    Bringing up the issue is a good reminder for this layperson! Thank you!

  3. We have an interesting problem in that we meet in a movie theater. So I learned early on to have a small pad of paper with me. If I don't have it, someone will tell me something I have no hope of remembering. I am shameless about asking people to email me or leave a message on my voice mail "just in case I lose this note."

    We also have "the three minute rule" that all leaders try to follow. For the first three minutes following the service, we talk to anyone that is new, or we don't know very well. This helps avoid the parishioner-lying-in-wait syndrome outside the door. It helps cut down on the "sidewalk conferences".


  4. P.S. LutheranChik
    LOVE your preemptive idea! :)

  5. I definitely answer nearly everything on Sunday morning with "can you send me an email to remind me? Or leave a note in my box?" Sometimes I even say "I don't remember anything people tell me on Sunday or Wednesday--there's too much swirling in my head at one time!" People sometimes laugh and say I'm too young to forget things, but they also send the email so they can think what they want....

  6. Definitely letting people know that you want to be able to answer/attend/pray for their need, and that is why you need things written down, gives them importance and proper perspective.

    Most of our people think that they are the only ones who are giving us these little tidbits--they simply don't realize that 18 other people did the same thing in the last 20 minutes. It is our responsibility, then, as leaders to let them how we can best serve them. I like the carrying paper and pencil idea. I have worked in a larger congregation where the HOS had a "door deacon" every Sunday charged with writing things down. But that would be cumbersome in my setting.

  7. I agree with all the ideas about asking folk to write it down or email it. I am not ashamed to tell people that my mind on Sunday a.m. is just not focused on anything but worship. The vast majority are very understanding and willing to jot it down.
    I am also shameless about delegation. Sometimes people tell me things that ought to go to someone else in the first place. If someone in passing says, "Oh, did you know the sink in the ladies room is dripping?" I'll immediately say something like, "Mm, you should mention that to (our B & G chair). He'll be able to fix that much better than I will." That way it goes to the right person to begin with and I won't have to worry about forgetting to pass it on. (And ok, so yeah, it's a subtle jab that they should have mentioned it to that person in the first place, duh!)

  8. I usually say -- they catch me at the door, they don't even wait until I get to Coffee Hour -- "when you get home, would you please phone the church and leave that message on the answering machine for Monday? Thanks so much. The Rambler's mind isn't so much a tabula rasa, it's an Etch-a-Sketch -- one shake, and it's ALL GONE, folks..." And usually that works!

  9. CR - I love the Etch-a-Sketch image. It sounds very much like me!

    I've started using the small notepad and golf pencil technique. While people tell me something I need to remember during the week, I explain to them why I'm writing it down (that it is important and I want to be sure not to forget it, etc...)

    Before worship, I pray in my office for at least 15 minutes. Our congregation is really good about letting me have this time alone. If the minister's door is shut, you don't knock unless the building is on fire - that's pretty much the rule, and it's respected quite nicely.

    Now I'm wondering if the same could apply for 5 minutes or so following worship and prior to coffee time....I seem to go from the benediction into sheer chaos in a matter of seconds. We have coffee in the same place where we worship, so no one has to relocate to another room or anything.

    Sometimes I find it delightful (that coffee time is sort of a continuation of our worshiping fellowship) and other times my introverted self wants to scream and run out the front door.

    Hmmm........good thoughts everyone.

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  11. Darn, keep forgetting that my husband is logging in on this computer; I--under his name--am the previously deleted post!

    I use the middle-age excuse, with a rueful smile on my face, and do the same as most of you: request that they e-mail or write it down. What drives me nuts is that my mom, who has heard me complain about this very subject, will still moan to me that her priest didn't call her about such-and-such after she'd told her on Sunday morning...

  12. I do not carry a diary or PDA or mobile(cell) phone- that folk know of with me to worship. So I will listen but always encourage folk to call me or e-mail me on Monday to remind me of the conversation, form that point other appointments can be made, there is too much going on on a Sunday... and as others have said we do not have elephant memories!

  13. Sue- I have that same need for centering time. Sometimes after worship I just feel like staying in the sacristy and not plunging into coffee hour. It is probably not very welcoming but I sure feel it. Afternoon naps are a Sunday routine. Hard to believe how much energy one expends presiding and preaching - or maybe it is just having one's finger in the Light socket for a couple of hours!!

  14. Yikes!

    This issue is universal!
    Sometimes I get so way-laden
    with issues/concerns/info from
    the stream of parishoners, that
    I rarely get to coffee hour.

    I remind them to write things down
    or telephone the office in the morning, and very often I'll jot things down that need remembering..

    but I wonder if this points to a greater problem: many of our folks have no one to listen to them. We have a member who is a stammerer... and its almost painful to try to discern what he's speaking about.. but I give him time every Sunday to speak to me and I listen.

    And... most of our parishes were once patrifocal: led by men who did everything. Not a good thing for ministry, but if the folks are conditioned in the 'pastor needs to know and do everything,' that feeds into "I gotta tell the pastor." That's a tough one to undo. I attempt to delegate, but taking responsibility is hard for people who may have been infantalized by patriarchy.

    Ahhhh.. this is something that isn't easily tamed. We have to keep on growing and moving into whatever the spirit wants us to be.

  15. Thank you all for confirming that my young (not so young, but definitely not old) brain is not going to pot. I'm so relieved to know it's not just me feeling like a space-cadet on Sundays before and after worship with so many people coming up to me with "one quick thing". I run from sunday school teaching with 15 minutes (if I'm lucky) to welcome people to worship, to throw on my robe, to grab the bulletin, glance at the announcements, and hear 5 people tell me more. One day I had flubbed up a few announcements, had to do a children's sermon on the fly, and forgot to serve me and the elders at the end of communion. After worship a woman pulled me aside and asked, excitedly, "you seemed a bit spacy today...are you pregnant?!"
    Thanks for the support in our mutual struggle iwth this, and for the wonderful suggestions. I absolutely love the 15 minute rule on teh closed office. I think I must try that.

  16. I am so terribly grateful to read this post and these comments. I am a congregational administrator and also a member of the church where I work. So on Sundays I am routinely pelted with requests, questions, reminders etc before, DURING and after worship. The pastors are very understanding of my frustration with this (natch), and I've learned to be firm as you all have about requesting a phone call or email on Monday to ensure that whatever the members need gets addressed. I always try to be gracious. Sometimes though I feel not so gracious, and wonder why these people don't seem to need their Sunday the way I do. C'est la vie. Thanks a bundle for your sharing!


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