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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ask The Matriarch: preaching dilemma edition

I had an experience during my sermon the other day, and I'm wondering if I handled it correctly? sensitively? carefully? enough.

In the middle of the sermon, a woman in the congregation bent down to pick up a baby bottle and hand it to the grandmother behind her. But, she got stuck between the pews and couldn't get back up. She had heart bypass surgery about six months ago, so of course everyone thought she was having a heart attack. People got up and went across the room to assist her.

And I? I just kept on preaching. No one was listening, of course. So what to do? Stop and inquire from the pulpit if she is ok? Keep going and appear insensitive to her plight? Trust that someone else can take care of it?

I routinely preach through all kinds of disturbances (babies, kids, coughing fits, cell phones) and have experience leading worship at a mental institution (a whole different level of distractions). So, I CAN keep going, but SHOULD I?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Distracted preacher

Jan responds that preaching in the 21st century is a whole new world:
These are difficult situations that probably result in every kind of "should have/shouldn't have" scenario. I think, though, that 21st C. preaching needs to be - more than ever - all about context (i.e. use biker language if you are preaching to bikers). And this is also true in terms of other things that happen in the course of the preaching. I have been known to stop in the middle of whatever if sirens outside are so loud that it's clear everybody's wondering what's going on with the sirens and not listening to the sermon. I might even pause mid-sentence and say something as plain as, "Let's just stop for a moment. Somebody somewhere is in trouble and we need to pray for whomever is getting that ambulance or fire truck." To me this is the most basic example of connecting what we are preaching about to what's going on the world.

If there is a disruption within the walls of the sanctuary, again, it seems best to stop whether it's for an adult having a heart attack or a baby (really, really) crying or someone who stands up and responds verbally to the sermon. This is sort of Postmodern Preaching 101. I've known preachers to stop everything in the middle of leading worship to ask everyone to listen to the baby wail - not to embarrass the parents at all, but to point out that babies need to be heard too. And often the baby calms down and the sermon continues.

Preaching in the 21st C. is less about holding forth and more about being in conversation, IMHO. Too often we preach about things while the building around us in on fire (the whole elephant in the room thing) and it's really okay to say, "Let's stop here. Can someone help ____?" And relax. Be real. Everyone in the room - unless the room is filled with insensitive people chalking up points against you - is hoping that the person stuck in the pew will be okay. It was a tough one because you didn't want to embarrass her. But it sounds like you did the best you could. (Give her a call and be sure she's okay.)

And repeat after me: I did what I thought was right.

Jacque encourages a case by case response
This is one of those dilemmas that I believe has a case-by-case response. Indeed, I've had some people with mental/emotional challenges who spoke out in a disruptive way in worship. In most of these cases, I find it best to keep on preaching. On the other hand, one day, I gentleman in the congregation who was mentally challenged came bursting in the sanctuary late for worship because he had missed the bus. He was so upset that it frightened some in the congregation. I simply stepped down to meet him in the aisle, laid my hand on his arm, assured him that everything was alright and he could sit down and be a part of worship. It helped to calm him and it allowed the congregation a moment to process was what was going on.

I was in a congregation when someone became sick during worship and there was so much concern that it was clear that we could not just "go on as normal." So I stopped, invited the congregation into silent prayer, and went down to check on the situation. Then as it was handled, I returned to continue the service.

Sometimes you can see that it is a kind of mishap that would be even more embarrassing for the individual involved if you were to stop the service and draw attention to it.

All to say, that I cannot imagine a "one response fits all" policy. We go with our gut, look to other leaders, and in all cases attempt to respond with sensitivity.

RevAbi looks to St. Francis and Jesus for what to do:
What a great question, because we all experience a variety of distractions.
I think you have to first be comfortable with yourself and clear what you will do. You seem comfortable enough to keep going. But what if she was having a heart attack, stroke, etc?

Perhaps this is a good question to discuss with your worship team, worship leader, hospitality people and/or ushers. Include it in your training of them. Sometimes stopping is called for in order to deal with the situation, and then you can go on.
I had to stop in my sermon the other day to say something to my own kids about their acting out in church. It fit smoothly into my sermon and we were able to pick up and go on.

I think there needs to be something said about cell phones in the beginning, in the bulletin, on screen. You go to a movie and there are several reminders to turn them off. People forget easily to do this. Loud crying babies happen. I don't let it bother me, but we do have notices about the cry room and the availability of the nursery on screen and in the bulletin. The hospitality team and ushers are good about mentioning it to people. We are struggling with how to handle "out of control kids" in the contemporary service that are distracting to others. They aren't a distraction to me, but we have heard enough from others that we are working on it.

I am reminded that Jesus did stop to deal with people while teaching; such as in Mark 1:21-28 . It became ministry moments for them and those present. So sometimes it calls for stopping, checking and then calling attention back to the sermon or the ministry moment that happened. Sometimes those become those sermons without words like St. Francis talked about.

RevHoney has a plan in place for events like these:
I lead worship in a setting that is large enough that I do not always immediately see when something like this happens. We have an amazing crew of ushers, who seem to have eyes in the backs and sides of their heads. They are at someone’s side before I know what is going on. We require that at least one person on each team is certified in CPR – not unusual here anymore.

Also, we have 1-2 physicians and nurses who are regular worshippers. If they see something that doesn’t look quite right, they will quietly move over beside an individual and do some assessment.

That being said, when I have become aware of such a situation in worship, I have chosen to stop and invite the congregation into prayer for the distressed person. Then I go to them to be with them until they leave the sanctuary with ushers, doctor, or the emt’s. We pray again, draw worship to a close, and I make whatever arrangements need to be made with associate pastor and/lay leadership so that I or associate can join them at the hospital, if that seems necessary.

Above all, I have learned to remain calm…by the grace of God…for the sake of the stricken individual, his or her family, and the whole congregation.

Rector in Hawai’i responds to “SHOULD I” (keep going)
Absolutely not. Just stop and say we need to take care of whatever is happening first. In this case, a woman's life might have been the issue -- you had no way of knowing.

I've stopped for so many faintings in church just because it does indeed interrupt the service and needs to be attended to. Parishioners are good about waiting until the emergency is dealt with, including the entrance of EMTs and firefighters. Suggest that folks pray for the person who went down even as the rescue workers are attending to the problem. But do not continue the service until the emergency is taken care of. Ask for a doctor or nurse, and get out of the pulpit and into the pew where this is happening so you know what's going on and can reassure the rest of the congregation. Do not continue the service until everything has calmed down. You might even forget about finishing the sermon and just go into the creed. Adrenalin levels are probably too high for the congregation to calm down and listen. The creed will calm them down instead and will help return to a worshipful tone of the liturgy.

When it comes to cell phones, especially loud ones, I'll stop the sermon immediately. After a few seconds, I'll ask whomever it is to take the call on the lanai and then return to us. And then I'll remind others to make sure their phones are on vibrate or turned off. I do this with a slight sense of humor and the parish knows how to read me that way. But as a result it really doesn't happen much anymore.

If the kids are in the front row making noise, I'll lean over the pulpit and softly call the child's name and say, "Brian, it's Rev Liz's turn to talk. Will you wait for your turn?" Mothers take crying babies out of the congregation and return once the kids are calmed down.

I've also talked through kids' noises before. But that's a situational decision....

New Jersey Soprano suggests going with the truth of the moment, stopping to respond and to assure people that she is not having a heart attack since that is what they are thinking about not your words. She also suggests the model of St. Francis that our actions speak louder than our words. "You - your life - might be the only Gospel anyone ever hears."

Postulant pastor (on the ordination path) sees the gears of the mind turning as the event unfolds:
Hmmm - I don't know. On the one hand, if she was really having a heart attack, it would probably seem like a bad thing to keep on preaching. On the other hand, she wasn't having a heart attack, and it was probably embarrassing to the woman who was stuck. It would have really been mortifying to have the preacher stop to point it out to everyone. I suppose a really creative preacher could probably include a reference to it in the sermon, making a critical point that would explain the gospel AND make the stuck woman feel better, but I can't come up with an idea of how that would be done.

And if you took a vote, probably half of the congregation is furious and the other half is happy at the way it was handled.

So I think best handled on case-by-case basis - No answer for all situations.

Looks like all of us have had times like that of Distracted Preacher. Personally, I know that being in the pulpit is often like being a ring master in a 3 ring circus. Trying to preach a meaningful message, trying to assess where the congregation is in hearing the message, thinking about what has gone on before and what is coming up in the service. In the pulpit you often have more information about where everyone is in his or her life journey. You may know that this person would prefer the "pay no attention" treatment from you. Balancing all this requires snap decisions - you probably know what you would do next time - but this one happened and there is no going back. Chalk it up to the many lessons you will learn through the years. We have all been there. ~~Ann


  1. I work in a parish filled with retired folk. On occasion we have to stop worship to tend to someone having a heart attack or stoke...on one occasion the person having the heart attack was able to move outside and wait for the paramedics. It was Easter Day and since he was out of sight, conscious, and being tended too, worship went on. On another occasion the person was laid out on a pew and we had to stop worship until the paramedics came and wheeled her out. I asked us just to pause and hold her in prayer, then followed the paramedics out to see how she was...I had an assisting priest continue with the service and then filled folks in when I returned. In both cases the person was fine.

    So, yes, the response depends upon the context...and it can be difficult to discern what to do. My rule of thumb, when in doubt find a gracious way to pause...

  2. We recently had someone collapse during the final hymn, and only the first few pews (and obviously I) could see. The organist (at the back of the sanctuary) obviously had no idea. The hymn went on, though probably 20% of the congregation was otherwise engaged. The paramedics arrived just after the benediction, and the organist/choir director still didn't know what had happened.

    All of that to say, I guess, that sometimes people aren't as distracted as we think they might be, simply because of building layout. That doesn't mean that we don't address each situation as it arises (and I was definitely standing there wondering if I should do something different besides stand there and try to calmly sing Be Thou My VIsion!), just a little note that depending on location in the room, the layout of the room, and the time within the service, the situation may not be as visible as we think. In this case, the person definitely did NOT want attention drawn to him, so it was better to keep going. I do worry about what happens next time, though...

    Thanks, matriarchs!

  3. Medical emergencies aside...In our church we have the backbenchers in the overflow area of the narthex -- several families with small children, others who self-exile for various reasons -- who kind of do their own thing all during the service; when I'm front and center I just kind of carry on without getting distracted by the action back there. But we've had situations, like with a mentally ill individual who used to stand up in church apropos of nothing and just start holding forth on some topic, or talking to the pastor, where we just had to go with the the latter case, one time the pastor paused in what he was doing to address the man directly, but at other times he'd say, "Well, Sonny, I'd be happy to talk to you about that after the service, so just hang on until we're through here," and that was okay with him.

  4. I'll throw my hat into the case by case ring. Having said that, I have found that atypical distractions like health emergencies, huge crashes of thunder, or the train rumbling through town 200 feet away from the church warrant a response of some kind. I've made facial expressions or gestures (a smirk at thunder with a shake of the head always brings comfortable chuckles), a verbal quip, or an inquiry as to whether or not things are well with a person in distress. Acknowledging interruptions like these seems to make the congregation feel that we are all part of the experience, and it somehow feels like true liturgy.

  5. I forgot to share the time we were in the middle of worship and a tornado came through, we definitly stopped and went into the hall for safety. We were able to go back either,because the power was out by then. We as Pastors were the comforters and helping people remain calm until the all clear.

  6. "We weren't" was what I meant to type instead of we were.

  7. I vote for case by case with so many others. I have a lot of seniors (80+) in my congregation, but it's a small congregation in a fairly open worship space. I can see everyone, which is good and bad. An 82-year-old woman in the front row fell asleep the other week in the middle of the sermon and started snoring. She has sleep apnea, so there would be a BIG inhalation, pause, pause, pause and then she'd exhale. She remained sitting up the whole time. No one wanted to embarrass her, so no one woke her up (until the hymn started) and no one said anything later. It was very distracting to me, so I tried to wrap the sermon up quickly. Sometimes you can say something, sometimes you can't. Sometimes the Spirit inspires and all the time you do the best you can.


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