The message of canceled church services

Sorry We're ClosedToday lots of my friends in New England are grappling with the aftermath of a giant snowstorm. As an aside, it was named “Nemo” by the Weather Channel, not the National Weather Service, which does not name winter storms. But if you’re going to hype people into a fear-filled panic, you need to name your storms, so the commercial weather channels and websites have begun to do so. Now, this storm was massive (and killed people), and I don’t want to make light of that in any way. That said, I also want to call out the weather channels and local news, who profit when people tune into their media for days before every weather event. But, as I often do, I have digressed.

Anyway, on a couple of Facebook pages, there was vigorous discussion about whether or not to cancel church this morning. One of my friends said he wasn’t canceling church and never would. On this one, I agree whole-heartedly. Some others were biting in their criticism. For my part, I suspect there is a strong inverse correlation between congregational vitality/growth and the ease with which they cancel Sunday services.

When we cancel, what messages do we send? What we hold services in adversity, what are we saying? Are there times it’s right to cancel services on the Lord’s Day?

When I was a rector, I used to tell the congregation that only a state-declared emergency order would cause us to cancel services. Otherwise, Sunday in and Sunday out, we’d be there at our usual service times. (In this blog post I will not go down the rabbit hole into my thoughts about changing service times for the summer or annual meeting or whatever. Don’t like it.) Anyway, we had several snowstorms at the church I served. When it looked like a big one, I would go over to the church on Saturday so I could spend the night there. On Sunday morning, I’d wake up, grab a shovel, and make a path to the sidewalk or street. Usually our sexton would be there too (he was already in the habit of staying the night of major storms before I arrived). And in the morning some others would show up to help get the church ready and then to offer our thanks and praise.

On Sunday morning, I’d email the parish advising them of the condition of the parking lot and entry ways, and suggesting that people should come to church only if they could do it safely. I’d include a link to some places to join in worship online. Trinity Wall Street and Washington National Cathedral live stream every Sunday, which is great when you can’t get to church. In every case, we had an inspiring gathering for those who could safely make it. These are some of my treasured memories of church. We managed with whoever was there — usually gathering in the chancel.

Offering worship on the Lord’s Day is something I take very seriously as a priest. In fact, I can’t think of anything more important for a parish priest. In the wake of a storm, if the mall is open and the church is closed, I think it sends a terrible message. Why should the temple of commerce open up when God’s house is closed? What are we proclaiming about our values? For me, I will stand with the message that church goes on (almost no matter what).

There are other views. Some denominations don’t hold worship at the center of their tradition the way Anglicans do. When they cancel it means something different. One common objection to holding services in adverse conditions is that people will somehow risk life and limb to come to church if it’s open. This astounds me. It didn’t take me very long in parish ministry to learn that people don’t make life decisions around my preferences as their priest. Heck, if I had that kind of influence, I’d start by getting everyone to tithe. Just because church is offered doesn’t mean people will feel obligated to come, and it’s easy enough to communicate that before and during a weather or other event.

I’ve heard priests talk about what a hardship it is to hold services. This is one that I struggle with. Speaking for myself, I didn’t enter the vocation of priestly ministry for my own preferences or convenience. Sleeping in the church and picking up a shovel isn’t that hard. The message it sends is invaluable, not because the priest is seen as someone with a martyr-complex, but because the priest models someone who believes that there is nothing in this earthly life more important than the worship of Almighty God.

When congregations are led by clergy with health problems or other challenges, I would encourage them to have someone ready to lead Morning Prayer. That way, prayers can be offered even without the priest present. Here’s another opportunity for a great message to be sent. It’s not all about the priest, after all.

Lastly, some will offer the “hard case” in which lives are threatened by hurricane force winds or other danger. In these cases, the authorities will usually have declared a travel ban or evacuation, in which case it simply isn’t legally possible to hold services. This is a good reason to cancel church.

Sanctuary LampAnother rule of thumb is this: if the mall is open, the church should be open too. If we have to make some sacrifices to make that happen, so be it. When people drive past an empty church to a full parking lot at the store, I think it suggests that we Christians are not very committed to what we do. And, sadly, I think that’s probably right. For now, I don’t have to worry about this problem, but if I ever go back to parish ministry, I’l have my sleeping bag and shovel ready. Church must go on. We should burn brightly as a symbol of Christ’s presence in the world, much like the lamp that burns in our churches. That is a good message, a Gospel message.

Oh, and my friend who decided to hold services today — despite a bit of criticism — welcomed 90 people. Good thing he didn’t cancel.

34 Comments so far

  1. Chris Arnold on February 10th, 2013

    I love this. I agree with this. Fortunately, my rectory is right next to the church. Even when we had a little snow and ice here last weekend I didn’t cancel. The worship goes on as it does in heaven, whether it snows or not.

    I am stealing your idea of referring people to Trinity and the National Cathedral. I’ll remember that for next time.

  2. Eric Funston on February 10th, 2013

    When one does not live in a rectory right next to the church building but at a remove of miles, and the roads are impassible (and perhaps closed by municipal or state order), one does not have a choice but to cancel services. This was the situation I found myself in a few years ago on the one and only occasion when I have canceled services, and was the situation many clergy found themselves in in this most recent storm. Otherwise, I agree with you. On the Lord’s Day, if it can be opened for worship, the church should be and worship should be offered.

  3. Susan on February 10th, 2013

    Connecticut had a travel ban. New Haven is still under a travel ban. A few churches held services today–those where either clergy or laity could walk to church. A couple of churches went with alternatives–call in services for a bunch of the evangelical churches–I had no idea how many of them had that technology. One had a skype service. St. PJs did a service via facebook–I have no idea how that one worked out. A few of the churches that had a handful come were going to post the videos later.

    I see your point, but I also see that when, for the safety of the community, all cars have been ordered idle, and there is 3 feet of snow on the roads, there really is no choice.

  4. Rev. Emily C. Heath on February 10th, 2013

    Well, I canceled church services once (church services, not worship). It was the Sunday that Hurricane Irene flooded my town. It was a public safety risk to drive that day. And, in fact, a woman died on the road my church is on right as church would have been letting out. She was washed away from her car. So, yes, sometimes it’s legitimate to cancel services and encourage folks to use the sense God gave them and worship God at home.

  5. Scott Gunn on February 10th, 2013

    Susan and Emily, when there is a travel ban, as I say in the post, there is no way to have services. But apart from that, I see no reason to cancel.

    Eric, I should have mentioned in my post: when I was rector, I lived eight miles from the church. That’s why whenever there was a big storm coming, I went over to the church ahead of it to sleep there. We never canceled, and we always had a congregation of grateful worshipers.

  6. Willo Fuhr on February 10th, 2013

    Thanks for the information regarding the National Cathedral services when you can’t get to church.

  7. Jean on February 10th, 2013

    Hi,

    This was my first test as a new priest in a town experiencing a blizzard. After receiving a phone call saying that most of the people were staying home (we are a small congregation) I decided to go in anyway since it wasn’t too bad yet and we have all wheel drive. I’m very glad I did! We had six people and we had a great time! It taught me a very valuable lesson, that’s for sure, to trust the whispering of the Spirit over the yelling of the news and weather agencies. That having been said, I’m glad we didn’t have a service scheduled now. We are in total whiteout conditions and I’m very glad to be safe at home.

  8. Cori Olson on February 10th, 2013

    I agree with your thoughts and think that cancelling services should only be done in the most extreme of circumstances. That, however, is not the NEVER your friend said in his FB post. Of course, I live in Miami so snow storms are not a problem for us. We would only cancel in the case of a hurricane if the state had told us to stay off the roads. In that case, walking does not make you safer. Still, you hit the real nail on the head with the comments regarding the Weather Station naming winter storms and whipping us all into a frenzy. They do a good job at that!!

  9. Raewynne on February 10th, 2013

    I cancelled. Only the main road in our area was plowed; everything else was virgin snow or hardpacked ice. And only some of our parking was plowed. Half our parishioners were in areas where there was a driving ban, and most of the rest of us were in areas that advised only to drive in emergencies. My neighbors tried to get to their church, only to turn back after about 100yds (took them 10 mins to get that far) – it simply wasn’t safely passable. And I was there – I walked over. I agree that we shouldn’t cancel lightly, but I also think that sometimes by not canceling when it really isn’t safe to be out, we give the message that worship is only valid when it’s in a church building.

  10. Amy McCreath on February 10th, 2013

    We forged ahead this morning in Watertown, MA. You’ll be glad to know that our “Prayerbook 101″ discussion after worship ended with us deciding to start getting copies of “Forward Day by Day” for people. Good thing we held church, huh?!

  11. Mariclaire Buckley on February 10th, 2013

    Wonderful piece-spot on. I was one of the ninety this morning and it was well worth the effort of shoveling out

  12. Scott Gunn on February 10th, 2013

    Amy, that’s awesome — mostly that you had both worship and formation. Wanting Forward Day by Day is a bonus. By the way, we publish (on our website) a free “reader’s guide” every month with info about the author, discussion questions, and more.

  13. Lisa Hamilton on February 10th, 2013

    Matt Lincoln, rector in North Haven, CT, held church for 5 and streamed worship to pre-allerted parishioners. Yay Matt! Yay technology! He opted for Morning Prayer due to complications with e-communion

  14. Scott Gunn on February 10th, 2013

    Oh, and as I said in the blog post, I’m completely OK with closing the church when conditions warrant. I just have trouble thinking of times when stores can be open and the church should be closed. That’s the rub for me — we seem less committed to our worship as a culture than we are to commerce.

  15. Darrell on February 10th, 2013

    Good judgement is the rule of thumb for all matters great and small. Let us pray for good judgement. I stayed home this morning. Instead of following my normal Sunday routine of attending the 10 am worship service. It was wonderful. I lounged in bed and ate what I wanted to. I drank white wine from New Zealand. I had a one on one with the Holy One and it brought me to tears. They were tears of renewal and cleansing. It was a moment which could not have occurred in the formal confines of public worship. Sometimes we need to just steal away. I see storms of this nature as an opportunity for so doing. Everyday is the Lord’s day. We have decided to d our formal celebrating on Sunday morning. However, everyday God is waiting to hear from us as we praise and worship God in spirit and in truth with our all. “Sunshine or rain, heartaches and pain; He’s my friend.” Coming from the maternal grandparents household I grew up in, all that I have shared about skipping church would be considered a sacrilege. Guess What? It’s not. And yes I am familiar with “Do not Forsake the assembling of yourselves.” I didn’t forsake it. I took a much needed break and had a one on one with my Father who is in heaven and it has made for an absolutely wonderful Sunday and awesome week start. Understand that where ever you are and whatever you are going through, the doors of the Church are open. Come on in. Come on in. pax Christi

  16. Hank on February 10th, 2013

    OK I’ll play the walked uphill to school game. Many years ago I walked to church through two feet of snow to lead worship w/ the organist and a father and son who came on skis and it was great! As a minister in a non-creedal church where we trust folks to make the right choice on their theology, then we should be able to trust them to figure out of its safe to come to church.

    Also if I ever entertain the idea of closing for bad weather I know I will be haunted by the ghosts of the Puritan ministers .

  17. Richard Yudin on February 10th, 2013

    Greetings from Florida

    “In time of danger, not before, God and the soldier we alike adore…”

    Nothing more comforting in the wake of a disaster than reuniting with the shreds of one’s community. One of the most memorable services I have attended in my life was right after a hurricane, when I had to wade knee-deep though floodwater to reach the church several blocks from where I was living at the time.

  18. Katie Bennett on February 11th, 2013

    I was also one of the 90 who showed up. Really glad that church was open. Being a single mom stuck in a blizzard with 4 kids would make anyone a little stir crazy. And i was grateful for the congregation, and the simple comforts of ritual and the passing of the peace. It made me a better mom for the rest of the day.
    I agree with this post 100%. There’s no reason why everyone has to go to church every week out of some sort of legalistic duty. But it’s a nice reflection of a message we repeatedly hear in the pulpit- that God will never leave us or forsake us.

  19. Catherine on February 11th, 2013

    My husband is an Anglican Priest. He was ordained 37 yrs ago and has reached his Parosh and taken services by boat, ski-doo, bus, train, and car. We live on Vancouver Island Canada and it never gets below – 6 where we live. A couple of years ago we were walloped by a huge snow storm on Christmas Eve morning. The snow continued throughout the day. There is NO snow removal equipment in our small city. There was around 4 ft. of snow out there. After several phone calls with wardens, and a treacherous drive down the hill to shovel for hours; the decision was to cancel Christmas Eve Services. There was nowhere to put the shoveled snow and nowhere to park as well as the roads being impassable. When he got home we began to call everyone. People were relieved; bit the saddest response came from a woman who burst into tears. Not because the service was cancelled , but because she was so grateful that she wasn’t going to be someone who missed the service because she couldn’t get out of her driveway!

  20. Catherine on February 11th, 2013

    I meant to add that my husband has never before this one time … Ever cancelled a service in 37 yrs. of ordination. He has served in all different parishes in all parts of the Country including Canada’s North.

  21. Larry Britt on February 11th, 2013

    In 20 plus years in the parish, I cancelled Sunday services exactly once – because there was a live power line down across the front entrance. It seemed the prudent thing to do.

  22. Rev. Aaron Payson on February 11th, 2013

    So. . .as one of those New England Ministers, who also works with congregations that have been traumatized. We were open yesterday. 35 hearty souls should up for church. As I drove to the church and watched a number of cars slide through intersections, slide sideways around corners (I did this once), and slide down hills. Here’s my question: Is it true that God requires us to sacrifice our vehicles, and potentially our lives, in order to keep the church open on a day when everything else, including almost ever restaurant, mini-mart, college, and other public facility is closed? Is a church more healthy to have to grieve the loss of a member who dies trying to get to church in really bad weather? Does one get to heaven faster when you die attempting such an act? Just wondering?

  23. Gary Goldacker on February 11th, 2013

    I am in complete agreement and have experienced many of the circumstances you mention. Don’t I remember a time when we were in RI that some churches cancelled services due to a predicted weather-related issue and the bishop issued a “decree” on the Monday after that services should never be cancelled unless there was a state declared emergency order to stay off the roads?

  24. Lou Florio on February 11th, 2013

    Thanks for the post. I’ll be sharing it with my intern as this type of decision is always difficult. I mostly agree, but I would like to comment on one thing though. As a former police officer and now a pastor, I suggest that a person not just look for an official ban on driving. Governments are prone to avoid the economic consequences of such official bans, and malls tend to like to open when they shouldn’t. So instead, the “recommend” or “request” people stay off the roads. Many states and provinces have websites indicating the number of road closures, hazards, etc., which might prove a better aid in discernment. You can also contact your local law enforcement or the agency that handles weather emergencies for their input on road safety and travel. If they or other government agents suggest no travel or request that people stay off the roads to help with snow or tree removal, or due to risk, etc., it might just be best to listen to them. I remember well people in my way during weather emergencies. My law enforcement and fire bretheren didn’t always see them in a Christian light, as it increased our duties (responding to accidents and injuries) or they got in our way during emergency responses. After our last hurricane, our county law enforcement had the entire force mobilized with most watching all the stop lights that were still out to direct traffic. This was during a time when state and county authorities asked people to restrict driving to that which was necessary. Many stores and churches still opened, many blew off the request to see the damage, accidents went up, and response times went down. In addition, some people are indeed prone to miscalculate the risks and their abilities, such as one 80 year old man I know who went out, slipped on ice getting out of his car, broke his hip and never recovered. Every congregation and region responds to weather and other emergency events differently (some better than others), but as we seek to love and worship God, I always caution that we should seek to love our neighbors as part of any decision making process to have worship or not. Just because roads are open after a weather (i.e. no ban) emergency doesn’t mean people should be driving. Encourage everyone to make the best decision for themselves but also listen to the recommendations of authorities. This helps them restore services and better meet the safety needs of our communities.

  25. Anisa on February 11th, 2013
  26. Cindy Scott on February 11th, 2013

    We not only had our regular Eucharist yesterday but we had our Annual Meeting! No problem having a quorum here!

  27. Margot Critchfield on February 11th, 2013

    I never thought I’d ever cancel church, but we had no heat, no electricity, and a ban on water use. I think our time was much better spent ministering to our elderly parishioners and those in our parish whose homes were literally below 34 degrees. We opened the church for those who wanted to pray, but only two came. No regrets.

  28. Scott Elliott on February 11th, 2013

    I’m a deacon, so it’s not my call to hold, or not to hold, a service. I know that, unless I am too ill to go, and unless I am *told* not to come for a service for which I am scheduled, I’m there.

    There was one Friday in Lent a few years ago, when one layperson and I were the only ones to show up for Stations and Benediction. We did Stations (unvested), alternating the parts, with a rather modified version of Benediction. It was the most meaningful experience of either service, either of us had ever had.

  29. Rev. Emily C. Heath on February 11th, 2013

    Just for the record, we didn’t have a travel ban with Hurricane Irene. We only had an indication that a strong storm was coming with flooding. Thankfully we didn’t wait for a travel ban. People might have died had we done so.

  30. Alex Marshall on February 12th, 2013

    “When I was a rector, I used to tell the congregation that only a state-declared emergency order would cause us to cancel services.”

    Several states across the Northeast issued such state-declared emergencies and travel bans.

    While I agree with the sentiment that the church “should burn brightly as a symbol of Christ’s presence in the world,” I’m not convinced that closing during a weather emergency sends a signal of not being committed. I think it sends a signal that we are part of our communities, that we are suffering every bit as much as they are, and that we are concerned for their well-being.

    Its a tough balance, to be sure, but I think there’s another perspective that didn’t get included in your thoughts here.

  31. Elizabeth on February 12th, 2013

    In some instances, such as when clergy cannot make it to the building, having a layperson lead Morning Prayer might be an alternative to canceling worship at the church.

  32. Lisa Hamilton on February 12th, 2013

    Interesting that we’re still discussing this! Anyway, I canceled a 6pm service the Sunday Tropical Storm Debbie was coming through Florida last June. I phoned all the regulars for that service, and of those I was able to reach, each one of them said something like, “Are you kidding?! I’m not crazy enough to go out in that!” And with each one of them, I enjoyed a good laugh. Which strikes me as some sort of communion!

  33. Bill Dilworth on February 13th, 2013

    Frankly, Father, I am shocked (shocked!) by your post. Thank goodness there have been so many helpful commenters on other sites who have eagerly reminded you of what you have clearly forgotten – namely, Our Lord’s first and great commandment: “Safety first!” And the second is like unto it: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

    Providence Place was open. The vast majority of Starbucks were open. PPAC seems to have held their Sunday performances of “American Idiot” as planned. Most Episcopal parishes in the Ocean State, though, would seem to have been closed, if the diocesan website is any indication. I disagreed with Bishop Wolf on some issues, but the “Church services are not to be cancelled” policy wasn’t one of them.

  34. Bill Dilworth on February 13th, 2013

    “Several states across the Northeast issued such state-declared emergencies and travel bans.”

    I don’t know about the rest of New England, but the travel bans in Connecticut and Massachusetts were lifted by Saturday evening. Rhode Island’s ban only applied to highways, not surface streets, and it was lifted on Saturday afternoon, as well. Any church cancellations on Sunday, then, were not because of travel bans.