Bring Your Heart to the Altar

Acolytes at Trinity Church, Staunton, Virginia
Courtesy of Trinity Church

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In theory, lay roles in liturgical worship are veritable ministries, performed with joy in loving service to God and the church. No one knows that better than Timothy O’Malley, director of the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.

“This is essential to renewal of the life of the church,” O’Malley said. “They come to see their work not merely as a task to perform or something to do to stay busy, but a deeper participation in the liturgy itself. … It’s actually one of the key ways that the liturgy can be involved in the renewal of adult catechesis or formation.”

But in practice on any given Sunday, assigned tasks can at times feel more like chores than sanctification. A teenaged acolyte might don vestments solely because mom insists. A member of the altar guild might feel stressed by having to stay late on an otherwise busy day. A lector whose role is to proclaim Scripture might not feel much connection to the text.

“Some do kind of get in a little bit of a rut,” said Donna Barthle, a member of All Saints Church in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where she helps laypeople embrace liturgical roles as ministries. She is the author of Parish Acolyte Guide and Acolyte Leader’s Resource Guide (both published by Morehouse, 2003)

The challenge for priests and lay ministry coordinators goes beyond making sure all is done to a particular standard. It involves helping volunteers experience worship roles as meaningful ministries. It is not enough to say that what they do matters. Participants need to know in their hearts that it makes a difference.

As the fall season arrives and brings church rhythms back into full swing, people with decades of experience in motivating lay ministers are sharing insights into what works to rekindle passion and stave off spiritual dryness. It turns out that making a liturgical role one’s own, reveling in its symbolism, and delighting in its community aspects help keep the wellspring fresh.

Veterans of this arena agree: a role will feel empty if the rest of one’s spiritual life is empty. Conversely, polishing silver for Communion or lighting torches can feel richly meaningful if they express a discipleship hewn in the other six days of the week. Thus it makes sense to renew devotional practices, such as daily prayer, daily office, or Lectio Divina (“divine reading” of Scripture), as gardens where a liturgical role can take root and grow.

“A lector isn’t just someone who reads the Bible during Mass,” O’Malley said. “They should actually sort of pray with this Bible all the time. They should actually be catechists in parish contexts, educators in faith who invite people into the Word, so that when they read the text during Mass they’re not just performing a role. They’re living some deep part of their lives.”

Devotions can be tailored to a particular ministry role, thus bringing to mind what is special and meaningful about it. An altar guild member, for instance, tracks the liturgical calendar and sets the Communion table with seasonal colors, linens, and flatware. In Lent, ceramic pottery and muslin replace silver and linen on Communion tables as tactile reminders of the season’s themes of humility and repentance.

Altar guild is a housekeeping ministry, said Nancy Gregory, who served on the altar guild at Trinity Church in Staunton, Virginia, for many years. Doing it with joy involves delighting in the details, even laundering and ironing.

Ironing has never been a favorite activity for altar guild member Caroline Conklin, she admits, but doing it for St. Stephen’s Church in Seattle is joyful work, never a chore. That is partly because she consciously appreciates what is easy about it: no tricky angles like ironing a shirt. Another reason: she lets it become a physical, meditative practice that guides her heart toward her redeemer, one flattened crease at a time.

When Conklin writes about ironing in her book Meditations for Altar Guild Members, she bases her reflection on Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.”

“As I push the heavy, hot implement over the steaming cloths, I do it in quiet,” she writes. “At the same time, prayerfully I smooth out some of the wrinkles in my own life. An obsessive worry over my son: can I do anything about it at the moment? No. Smooth it away. Give it to God.”

As important as private devotions are, Conklin said they are no substitute for community. Altar guild should be a team enterprise, she said, not an individual activity, even in an age when busy schedules tempt individuals to do all things efficiently and independently. Five-member teams divide the schedule so that each serves one week per month. Dividing the labor keeps the calendar manageable, Conklin said, while serving side-by-side keeps it meaningful.

A role’s deepest meaning is not always top-of-mind during worship. Someone with liturgical duties is apt to be occupied and thinking about mechanics, according to O’Malley. The time for deeper reflection is in advance.

One hour before Eucharist at All Saints in Hanover, acolytes gather with Barthle for a time of reflection. They discuss the liturgy, how acolytes fit into it, and how they serve God through it. Fr. Douglas Smith comes in to pray with and for them in their service.

“This is important because it brings us into the space,” Barthle said. “This is not the mall. We’re here to serve God and his church. So we are part of it. We’re part of the worship experience of others, and it brings us fully and completely into our own worship.”

The format allows acolytes as young as 8 and as old as adults to ask questions, unpack symbolism, and ponder the ancient history of the role they are about to fulfill.

“Why is a big motivator,” Barthle said. “Why do we handle the elements the way we do? Why do we bow at the altar? We in churches today are not very good at giving them some ownership. … We need to give people ‘the secret handshake’ that explains why you are doing it this way.”

At Trinity in Staunton, acolytes find meaning by working their way up through four ranks. For each new role, they receive a distinctly colored cord to wear around their necks. Children begin by carrying a small cross ahead of the choir in the processional and recessional (green cord). Those who can handle matches become torch bearers (blue or black cord), strong ones become crucifers who carry a large heavy cross (red cord). Some go on to assist the priest at the altar (gold cord). Those who have served for years wear four colored cords at once, and parishioners know exactly what that means.

“It is an outward and visible sign of their service to the church and the Lord,” Gregory said. “They all take pride in it, to greater or lesser degrees. Many of them come in to check the bulletin to see who’s serving. If that person is not in evidence, they will take up the slack, put on the vestment, and fill in.”

For those who become preoccupied by the mechanics in worship, O’Malley has a message: fear not. Just being there is pleasing to God.

“Within our sacramental traditions, this idea that we must always intentionally be aware of what we’re doing is impossible,” O’Malley said. “The grace of the sacraments works in the context that we don’t have to be aware of everything.”

Still, Barthle said, mindfulness is a blessing as well, and keeping the mind from wandering too much is a worthy pursuit. For that purpose, she teaches children to discreetly pull out prayer beads if necessary during worship. She coaches them to pray the Trisagion or the Kyrie in silence or say simply, “Thank you, God, for bringing me here today.”

“You touch each bead and you say that until your concentration reconnects,” Barthle said.

Of course, as Barthle noted, lectors and others can land in an uninspired rut. At those times, a new role can prove beneficial. Switching from altar guild member to lector or lay Eucharistic minister can set in motion a new journey of learning the history of a liturgical position and embracing it with excitement. Lectors at All Saints are encouraged to research the historical context for the passage they will read and draw on that research to introduce their readings during worship.

“You’re not just vocalizing,” Bartle said. “You’re helping the congregation to understand a particular reading and what the Bible is saying. It’s not just words.”

To keep the bigger meaning in focus, O’Malley recommends regular gatherings for a congregation’s liturgical volunteers, such as a quarterly get-together or annual retreat. Such an event can convey appreciation and provide opportunities to ask questions or hone skills. It can also create an environment in which volunteers recall the broad mission and how their ministries fit into it. And congregations do not have to create their own events. They can join forces with other congregations or diocesan events to do it on a regional level.

“Loving your neighbor can be that you’re a lector, opening up the Word,” Barthle said. “It can be that you’re the host of the congregation, so you’re an usher. It can be that you’re there administering the chalice. … It’s taking care of your neighbor. That’s your ministry.”

Contact | Covenant | Facebook | RSS | Subscribe | Twitter


Online Archives