The leaders at my church – Missoula Alliance Church – are incredibly awesome in the exact ways the Bible tells them to be awesome: They do not lead with a whip but with gentleness; they shepherd and do not yell; they love but do not coddle; they are not afraid of speaking the truth, but they speak the truth in love. Indeed, our church leadership has rarely given me a single reason to question their judgment…until now. For they have done something that, while not demonstrating anything like evil intent, at the very least shows a complete and utter lack of wisdom [cue ominous music]:
They asked me to be a Church Usher.
Egad! What were they thinking? I mean, you’re talking about me. Let’s evaluate the skill set required to be an usher for a second, shall we, and see how I stack up? First, ushers are supposed to be friendly. They are the first face many newcomers see when they walk in the door. And I…well, I have the social skills of an angry porcupine taking illegal stimulants. I once cried at the thought of having to go to a party. I have been known to clear out an entire wing of a dorm room by talking about epistemology. I am the only person on earth that, with a single look, can frighten a Kirby Vacuum Salesperson into ending a conversation. This is not a good match.
Second, ushers are supposed to look like a normal person. I have a pony-tail and a mullet. A mullet, I say! This is not a normal church hairstyle. The only reason I don’t have an earring is because I’m afraid of pain. (Did you know they actually stick a hole in your ear when you get your ear pierced? I am not making this up. And they don’t even put you completely under with anesthetic!). I dress like Billy Ray Cyrus trying out for a part in The Man From Snowy River. I almost never shave because it hurts. To say my appearance is scruffy would be kind of euphemistic; something more in the vagabond caveman range is probably closer to the mark. Usher match? Trending down.
Third, ushers are supposed to be organized. One of the ushers’ primary duties is to pass around the plates for the offering. Let’s face it, there is a lot of money at stake here; no one wants those plates to get lost. Me? I once lost my ticket to a movie in between the time I bought it and the time I handed it to the ticket-person. Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Well, I bought the ticket at the counter and lost it on the trip up an escalator. I didn’t drop it; I never even found out what happened to it; it was just gone. (My wife Kathrene was with me, and as a result, I don’t get to hold the tickets at the movie theater anymore). And this is the person you want handling a plate full of money?
Yet, in spite of all these obvious reasons for bypassing yours truly as an usher candidate, my church decided to ask me anyway. And for some reason that could only be described as God made me do it, I agreed. And I thought, in some way, how hard could it be anyway? All I have to do is pass around a little plate, right?
Well, after doing this a few times now, I can say with absolute certainty that I am the world’s worst usher ever. I mean, I thought I was going to be really bad at this; and I am, in fact, really bad at this. So if you ever come to Missoula Alliance Church, and you have a hankering for some high quality ushering – don’t sit down the aisle that I’m on. It ain’t gonna happen.
However, ushering being the mostly-boring occupation that it is, I also had some time to make a few observations while I was ushering this past week. So here they are, for your enlightenment: A morning from the viewpoint of the World’s Most Incompetent Usher.
10:37. The day starts out by putting on the Usher nametag. Donning the Usher nametag is a glorious moment in the life of an usher. It’s almost like when Darth Vader puts on the mask in Episode III…only less evil-feeling. I mean, putting on that tag means that I’m not just your average church member anymore – I’m an usher. It says so right on my tag. It means that if you do something I don’t like, I can ush you (yes, “ush” is official usher-speak) right out of the building. It means you better treat me with respect! Ah, life is good.
This particular morning, though, the nametag clip I was given seems turned the wrong way, and as a result it sticks almost sideways – like it is a weapon pointing at my to-be-ushered people. I’m taking a wild guess here, but I’m imagining that probably my church does not want me to convey an angry militant with a weapon look to its members. So I boldly go back to the drawer where they are kept to find a less-awkward one. (Actually, because I always forget to return them, I have a collection of more-congenial tags at home as well; but no time to go get them. I pause to reflect, however, that this might explain the increase in its nametag budget my church experienced over the last two months).
10: 41. I try four of them, but they all have the same problem. I begin to slightly panic. I wonder if other ushers ever have this kind of problem? I mean, you never hear of this sort of thing; none of my fellow ushers ever say oh my gosh, I’m going to look like an idiot because I can’t get my nametag to lay flat properly.
10:45. I finally give up, attach the original nametag awkwardly to my collar, and hope no one notices how incompetent I am.
10:46. The Head Usher, who is a super nice guy (and I’m not just saying that because this is a public blog), gives me the usual run-down of my duties for the week. Most important is for me to remember which song will be playing during the service when I am supposed to head to the back and get the plates for the offering. Almost every week I forget, so I’m focused and determined this week. Be the song…be the song. I will remember that song. He says it is At Your Name…and I’m on it.
He also reminds me that after coming to the front with the plates, we should start passing them out once the offering song starts. Last week, we had a bit of a fiasco as none of us knew when we were supposed to start, and it was about half-way through the song before we awkwardly began. In the ushering world, this kind of behavior is really frowned upon. This week, I resolve to take the initiative and be the first usher to start passing stuff out.
Mostly, though, I just need to remember that song – the one that is the initial cue – and I have a laser-like focus on that. The song was…was it How Great Thou Art? No, I think it was Blessed Be Your Name. No…oh, fiddlesticks! This could be trouble.
10:47. Now I stand at the one of the doors to the main sanctuary with a stack of Church Bulletins in my hand. My job is to hand them to people as they walk in and say something happy-ish. This will last until about 11:05 – if form holds, it’ll be the worst 18 minute stretch of my day. I’m not exactly a people-person.
10:52. Almost no one comes in during the first five minutes, so I have lots of time to think. I observe that the Head Usher has put me on the last sanctuary entrance, farthest from the main entrance and thus the least likely to get traffic. My faith in church leadership starts to be restored.
10:53. That said, I really hate this entrance. First, it is the only one that has two doors, one on each side of me. There simply is not a good place to stand. There is a chair with some extra bulletins right in the middle. If I stand in front of it I stick out way too far into the corridor where people walk; if I stand completely to one side of the whole entrance, I can’t reach people who walk in the door farthest from me; if I stand in front of either door, I partially block it. Fortunately, I am fidgety, and thus it seems natural for me to awkwardly shift around from door to door. Maybe I was cut out for ushering after all!
The worst thing about this entrance, though, is the fact that it is right at the top of the stairs where people walk up from Sunday School. That means that people consistently come from two totally separate directions! This may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was identified by Sigmund Freud as the most common nightmare for an usher. I am not making this up. [Apologetic Professor Editorial Staff: Yes, he is.] And here I am, living this nightmare! I mean, I keep having to turn my head, turn my head, turn my head, to be sure I don’t miss anyone.
10:54. The hardest thing about being an usher, though, is something no one ever talks about. It’s like a severe disease that is too painful to discuss. That problem is this: The in-and-outers. Those folks who come in, grab a bulletin, go back out, and then come back in. Well, it’s natural for them to expect me to remember that they already have a bulletin, all snug back in their seat – but for crying out loud, I have no memory for names and faces and there are hundreds of them! I routinely experience the horror of offering a bulletin to people who say “already have one” and then give me a look that says I guess I’m not valuable enough for you to remember that you’ve already ushered me, huh? You’ve cheapened the whole ushering experience for me – thanks, you incompetent usher!
Since I have no chance of remembering who has a bulletin, I try to read their faces and body language as they walk in instead. A knowing smile, lack of eye contact…signs of an in-and-outer. An extended hand…signs of a regular person. My percentage correct has improved with this technique.
But don’t even ask me about the people who get their bulletins from another usher and then come in at my entrance! I won’t use the term “ushering infidelity”…but really, it makes me feel…used.
10:55. For all that, today my first real check comes five minutes prior to the service starting. One of our pastoral staff is clearly heading towards my door! Oh, the stress! I mean, I don’t want to provide incompetent ushering to a pastor, for crying out loud. I’m quite sure this adds quite a bit of red ink to your moral ledger on Judgment Day.
But it gets worse. As he approaches, I realize I don’t actually know proper ushering protocol for a pastor. Am I supposed to offer him a bulletin or not? He probably wrote the bulletin, so I’m guessing he doesn’t need it, and I don’t want to be insulting. Here he comes! Maybe his kids need one? To offer it…not to offer it…why don’t they teach me this stuff in some kind of ushering class?
In the end, I awkwardly hold it out in a way that is unclear whether or not I intend for him to take it. He shakes my hand kindly but bypasses the bulletin, then I say something awkward which I don’t remember, and then he changes his mind and takes it. And I still don’t know whether or not I’m supposed to offer it!
[The good news is he clearly did not care whether I offered it or not. Having a really kind and laid-back group of pastors is a real boon. Whew!]
10:56. Most people file in during the last five minutes prior to church, so things start to pick up. Ushering makes me think a lot about religion, what we are doing, really, and why we come to church at all. I mean, I wonder about all the faces I see – I smile at them, they smile at me, almost always politely, but I imagine that many of those people are really hurting inside. Yet here I am, putting on a churchy smile, giving them a churchy welcome, wondering how much faith any of us really has in an Eternal God? This is why I’m not a good usher.
10:58. Egad, another pastor! This one goes smoother, though. He’s upon me almost before I noticed him, clearly doesn’t want a bulletin, and stops to chat with me politely about my work for a minute. Whew!
10:59. Now, suddenly, two ushering problems appear in the same person: A pastoral in-and-outer! The first pastor has stepped out and is coming back in through my entrance. Fortunately, thanks to how awkward the first interaction was, I actually remember that he has a bulletin. Whew! (I say “whew!” a lot to myself on a good ushering day. On a bad day, my whew to [insert internal curse word] ratio is much lower).
11:00. One of my good friends stops by my entrance to chat. This is awesome because it makes me feel like less of a loner and I enjoy killing the boredom with conversation. On the other hand, it also provides a cognitive challenge to the multi-tasking-incompetent, because now I have to chat and to be sure all the people who walk by in the interim get their bulletin and cheesy welcome. Fortunately, only one other person came by during that time, and I must say that, although I forgot the cheesy welcome, they did get their bulletin. In the world of incompetent ushering, that’s a clean win.
11:02. The service has started and I like the opening song. I sing a little bit in my entrance while holding my bulletins, hoping that this does not violate any ushering-related-norms.
11:04. I think again about religion. I mean, I don’t want to be fake, but doesn’t everyone on earth want to (quoting the old Cheers song) go where everybody knows your name – and they’re always glad you came? And, although I only know some of the names who come in, isn’t it still meaningful to try to welcome them genuinely, from the heart, to make them feel that way just a little bit? I mean, I hate ushering, but I really am glad these people are here to worship with me. So I think what I’m doing has some value. Or maybe I’m just experiencing that weird cognitive dissonance people tell me about, where you start to think things you suffer for must be good things?
11:05. The Head Usher comes by and tells me I can sit down. I try (and fail) not to audibly say “I’m really, really glad to sit down now.”
11:17. Now the worship music is in full swing, and I begin to panic. We are half-way through the song At Your Name and I cannot remember if that is my cue song or not? I look around as discreetly as I can (we sit down front so this is difficult to do) and do not see any other ushers moving to the back. I weigh the pros and cons in my mind and decide it would be better to awkwardly stand at the back for an extra song than to awkwardly run to the back to pick up my plates and bizarrely run down front to catch the other – competent – ushers.
11:18. I always hate the moment where I pick up the plates, because they are literally underneath one of the member’s pews. I mean, I’d feel a little creepy if someone reached underneath my seat during a worship song – wouldn’t you? But hey, look, I’m just the usher – and that’s where we keep the plates, pal.
11:20. I’m at the back now, plates in hand, and see no signs of the other ushers, so I feel like an idiot. I mean, a total idiot. Making matters worse, two people (who are not ushers) are standing where I would normally stand. I don’t know why. I try not to look at them so they don’t think I’m overstepping my usher authority. I give a half-hearted effort at singing the song – not one of my favorites anyway – with little luck. Standing out of place at the back, I feel very conscious that pretty much everyone in front can hear me. I try mouthing the words instead, but I actually don’t like the words to that song much, anyway, so then I just give up.
11:22. Something glorious has happened: I see the other ushers! Actually, I did pick the right song – the other ushers were just standing a little closer to the back so I could not see them at first. Whew! (Translation: Good ushering day).
11:23. The song ends. A prayer starts. We are supposed to wait for the pastor to say “ushers come down.” He seems momentarily to have forgotten, so our head usher at the back nods for us to head down anyway. As we begin, the pastor says “ushers come down.” Hopefully no one else notices that we botched the timing.
11:24. The offering song begins and, as I had previously determined, I immediately and boldly start passing my plate. But drat! What’s this? The other ushers clearly had the same idea, and one of them beat me to it! Now I look like a follower.
11:25. You might think the passing of the plates is a simple matter. Oh, no, my friend! You are mistaken. Maybe if the church were full with a symmetrical number of people in each row, it would be simple. But in a half-full church (our church has two services – if I joined an usher’s union, I would oppose this abhorrent usher-hating practice), there are different numbers of people on each row.
What this means is: The plates do not move at the same speed. As an usher on a single aisle, I’m actually responsible for the pew sections both to my left and to my right. That’s worth a solid Heaven Save Me!
I once took one of those tests of spatial reasoning ability. I thought when I finished that I had nailed it – but it turns out that I got one, and only one, out of twenty-five correct. That’s 4 percent correct – meaning I was 21 percent below chance levels.
I bring this up at this awkward moment for this reason: For the spatially-challenged such as myself, handing out these plates is like a nightmare. Forget an ushering class – I need a class in quantum physics. All the plates arrive at different places at different times; I can never remember which rows have already gotten a plate and which haven’t; each section of pews is supposed to have two sets of plates, but often they end up at the wrong place; add to this the fact that some rows consist only of one person who hands the plate back to you (instead of passing it across to the other usher’s aisle) and the fact that sometimes helpful people hand the plates to the next row when you aren’t looking (which happens more to me than to the average usher, as it is obvious that I’m in need of some help), and you can see why I’m not the right man for this job. Once when I did this, we ended up with all four plates that I was responsible for on one set of pews, with the other set actually having no plates to pass! I probably cost the church seven hundred dollars that day.
Today, things go more smoothly. While I do end up somehow with four plates at the very end – I’m not sure how, because I’m supposed to end up with two – the actual passing of the plates goes mostly without incident, and I think every row had their shot to give money.
11:34. Mercifully, I get to sit down. One of the great things about ushering is that it makes you more appreciative of listening to a 20-minute sermon.
What’s the point of this little exercise? What can I learn by ushering? I would say this: Ushering feels very superficial to me in one way…but there is the potential for everything that is welcoming and good to be only superficial. Even Jesus said to greet our enemies warmly – a possibly superficial behavior. I don’t think he meant that this was all we were supposed to do…but surely He also didn’t mean that we should do less than that? Surely he didn’t mean that a warm greeting was bad?
Ushering may not be totally necessary; but there is a sense in which it necessarily flows out of other decent things. I mean, there is nothing wrong with having a church bulletin. And if we have a bulletin, there is nothing wrong with having a greeter who hands out bulletins. There is nothing wrong with asking for money for God’s uses; and if we’re going to pass out plates in church, probably someone is going to have to actually pass them out.
Also, I wonder what my options are here? It would obviously be more than a little weird for me to say to people at my entrance: Hey, here’s your bulletin…and while you said you were fine, odds are you are just saying that as a matter of social fluff and are really hurting deeply today. So why don’t you tell me all about your intensely private pain right here in this public place as I hand out bulletins to the other passers-by who will no doubt be eavesdropping on us? Don’t worry – even though you’ve never met me before, you can trust me, and I can vouch for at least 5, maybe 10, percent of the people who will also hear all about your private life as they walk by.
That’s the very definition of creepy. Each thing has its proper place: A time for war, a time for peace, and a time for…a warm smile and welcome. The other stuff happens (or should happen) later.
And there is this: In any context, religious or irreligious, you will have seemingly-superficial activities like ushering. Ushers are ushers everywhere – they do the same thing, think roughly the same thoughts, offer the same smiles and the same services. The difference between Christianity and other things is not the superficial structure. There are only so many ways to play a guitar, and I’ve always imagined that guitar-playing is pretty much the same whether you are a Christian or not. Same with ushering. The difference ought to lie, not in the structure, but in the spirit and heart behind it. Christianity teaches us, not to be (or to avoid being) ushers, but rather: If we are going to usher, to be ushers for God – to do whatever we have to do, what is necessary to do, with love and kindness and compassion and sincerity.
And that leads us back where we started: Even by that standard, I’m the world’s worst usher. I don’t hold that standard up as something that I am, but something that I think I should be.