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“Excuse Me For A Moment”: When The Minister Is Indisposed

It depends on your set-up and your level of formality, but what do you do when you realize you forgot the sermon/reading/important thing in the sacristy or your study?

If you’re me, you simply say, “Pardon me, I left the reading in my study… David?” And your marvelous pianist does what I call “noodling,” which is to gently play variations on the musical meditation you all just sang while you swiftly but calmly walk to your study, get the reading off your desk, catch the door before it makes a clicking-shut noise, and return in a reverent and not-at-all-rushing way to the pulpit or lectern. Let the phrase of music finish before you start again so as not to disrupt the flow of worship a second time.

Please do not babble anything beyond, “Excuse me for a moment.” Do not betray with a facial expression or verbal indication that you screwed up. It is never a problem for worshipers to sit for a few moments in silent prayer, and you must be prepared for this eventuality. It happens!

“Excuse me for a moment” can be used for lots of fun developments: an asthma attack, a wheelchair malfunction, a sudden bout of diarrhea. You and your worship team, ushers and music folks may want to work out a kind of drill in the event that you use this phrase, which is a calm SOS that you’re going to need coverage. Its utterance may set in motion an usher approaching for your whispered instructions (eg, “I left my sermon in the sacristy, could you go look for it?” “I am about to barf, could you ask Marina to come up here and cover the rest of the service?” Or “I’m having a heart attack, call 911 and I’ll meet you in a second.”)

True story: my own father, the late Carl Davis Weinstein, was addressing a large gathering of cable advertising executives in 1982 when he did this exact thing. He excused himself, beckoned to his secretary Mona Kay, told her to call 911, returned to his speech, finished it with aplomb (and probably lots of humor, knowing my dad), and died at the hospital shortly thereafter.

When these exigencies arise (and God forbid they should be so serious as the one that laid low my pa), let people behind the scenes rush and freak out, but do not reveal that you’re thrown.

If the iPad goes dead, the projector doesn’t go on, your reading glasses break and render you unable to see the readings, the pages of the prayer book appear completely out of order, or the name of the couple are ineligible on the page, keep it together. Better to smile kindly and take a moment or two of RELAXED silence while you gather your materials or your thoughts than to devolve into nervous riffing.

Remember that God gathers us as a people in worship. God calls us to ministry as individuals, yes, but never in a solitary context, else you’d be chaplain to the squirrels and ferns. The community at worship is capable of covering – emotionally, spiritually and technically – when the clergy is indisposed.

That said, do not allow this to become a frequent event. Should your physical ability change, work with your team to make appropriate accommodations that allow you to confidently preside. If your health prevents you from being able to lead worship, please plan to take a hiatus from that role rather than put yourself and the congregation through an anxious weekly ordeal that becomes the primary focus of the community. We are out there without a net, and although it is to be expected that we will have occasional seasons of vulnerability when our faculties are compromised, we should not expect our congregations to live with long-term insecurity as to our ability to fulfill these sacred obligations.

Call in colleagues. Hire a seminarian and coach them, making the crisis into an opportunity. Adapt your worship service to be less minister-centric.

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