Church Manners

Not too long ago, I was sitting with a friend at a social gathering, when he said to me, “You know, Laurie, you really look tired.  Are you feeling okay?”  “Other than the normal challenges of life, I’m fine,” I replied.  He looked me in the eye and said, “Are you sure?”  “Yes, I’m sure.”  I didn’t think anything of it, but later that afternoon he called to apologize profusely for his breach of etiquette.

His phone call set me to thinking about manners, so much so that I bought Peggy Post’s latest book, Excuse Me, But I Was Next …; How to Handle the Top 100 Manners Dilemmas (2006).  Etiquette expert Peggy Post is the great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, whose 1922 book, Etiquette, topped the best-seller list. 

Imagine my surprise when I saw the title of chapter 2, “Top Ten Nosy Questions – And Quick Retorts.”  The 8th question is, “Are you feeling okay?  You look tired!”  The retort is, “Actually, I’m great!”  Ironically, what most likely led to my looking tired in the first place was dealing with the fallout from occasional poor manners in our churches. 

So, here goes!  The following is a sneak preview of my new book, Excuse Me, But You’re Sitting in My Pew; How to Handle the Top 25 Church Manners Dilemmas.

1.         You arrive at church on Sunday morning to discover that someone you don’t know is sitting in “your” pew. 

Whose house is this, anyway?  Get a life.  Sit somewhere else, but first introduce yourself and invite the new folks to coffee hour.

2.         You are in line to greet the pastor after the worship service and can’t think of one positive thing to say about the sermon.

Smile and say, “I really like your shoes, pastor.”  (It happened to me.)

3.         A fellow member of Disciple Bible study has a habit of getting too personal in the sharing and prayer time.

Be a gracious listener, even when you’re receiving “too much information.” 

4.         Someone takes down the United Methodist Women display from “your” bulletin board and replaces it with a missions display. 

Rejoice and be glad that your church has other ministries to celebrate as well as yours.

5.         Someone cuts in front of you in line at the church potluck.

Be kind.  Don’t forget to point out your husband’s venison loaf and remember the loaves and the fish: there’s always more than enough.

6.         The Lay Leadership Committee selected someone else to be chair of the Finance Committee when you thought you were next in line.

Talk to your pastor about where your gifts might best be used for the good of the church.

7.         The pastor ignores you at coffee hour.

Don’t take it personally.  A pastor’s head is spinning with all the information that’s given to her/him at coffee hour.  She/he’s probably totally disoriented!

8.         Someone loses it at a meeting and exhibits bad behavior. 

If you are leading the meeting, treat the person with respect but do not allow the behavior to continue.  For everyone, make sure to touch base with the person afterward, knowing that the outburst might reflect something else going on in his/her life.

9.         You observe children yelling and running up and down the sanctuary aisles.


Thank God that you have children in the church!  You might gently explain what it means to be respectful of holy space.

10.       A reference in the sermon hurts you and is insensitive of your experience.

Don’t nurse your anger or presume that harm was intended.  Make an appointment to share your perspective with the pastor: he/she needs to know what you’re thinking. 

11.       You feel less valued in the church because you don’t have a lot of money.

We are called to give only according to what we have.  Find other ways to contribute: by your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

12.       You hear destructive gossip while working in the kitchen.

John Wesley had harsh and direct words to say about gossip.  Insist that the gossip stop and that people talk directly to those with whom they disagree.

13.       You agree to chair a committee, but most members never bother to show up for meetings. 

Personally contact each member.  If this particular committee is not a good fit for their gifts and interests, offer to help them find their place of service. 

14.       You are incensed because your pastor failed to mention Veteran’s Day/Mother’s Day/Memorial Day during worship.

Pastors tend to focus on the Christian year.  Consider that it is not possible or even appropriate to recognize every secular holiday in church. 

15.       You’ve decided to attend another church and don’t know the proper etiquette.

Don’t just fade away.  Make an appointment to share this news with your pastor.  We won’t be hurt because all pastors want is for you to find the right spiritual home.  We also appreciate feedback on how we might better up our ministries. 

16.    You enter the holy of holies (the church kitchen) to cook and discover that the previous group left dirty counters, sticky floors and food remains in the sink.

First, take a deep breath.  Second, if someone is designated to oversee the kitchen, contact him/her with your concerns.  Third, encourage your church council to develop a kitchen use policy to ensure that the kitchen is always left spotless for the next group.   

17.       Someone greets you in worship, but you’re not sure of his name.  What should you do?

Fess up.  It’s better to say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name,” rather than guess and say, “Hi Butch,” when it was really “Sam”.   

18.       You are confronted by a fellow church member whose theological beliefs differ from yours.

Don’t attack, defend or withdraw.  Listen, seek to understand and agree to disagree.  Then invite her/him to join the Christian Believer class you plan to start!

19.       You are asked to do something for which you have no time or interest.

Just say “no.”  It’s always best to be honest, but do it politely and with a reason.

20.       A painful encounter happens at church, and you want to email the person who hurt you.

Never hide behind email.  There is no substitute for a face to face meeting when discussing important and sensitive issues. 

21.       Should I call the pastor “Rev. Jackson”, “Pastor Jane” or just “Jane”?

Ask.  She’ll tell you.  (Just call me Laurie.)

22.       Can I tell the pastor about my dog’s surgery while going through the line after church?

There are many other people who want to briefly greet the pastor.  Save the lengthy stories until later. 

23.       My friend was just diagnosed with cancer.  What do I say or do?

Don’t ignore her.  Keep in touch with cards, visits, phone calls or meals.  Don’t try to explain her illness.  Simply listen and be fully present to her. 

24.       Should I send flowers when there is a funeral?

Flowers are fine unless the family specifically requests charitable contributions in lieu of flowers.  In this case, it is polite to follow the family’s wishes. 

25.       You forgot to turn your clock ahead yesterday and arrived at church an hour late.

Tell people that at least you arrived in time for the offering!

I agree with Peggy Post that almost all manners dilemmas, especially in the church, can be resolved by practicing good listening skills, communicating face to face,  showing respect at all times and moving on to perfection ourselves.

Good manners reflect something from inside –
an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.  (Emily Post)



One thought on “Church Manners

  1. I grew up in a Roman Catholic girls school and was told not to cross my legs during mass at church. Is that rule the same for protestant churches. I asked around and people seems to agree with me but I have relatives that cross their legs during services and bothers me. I go to a bible church now. thanks for your input!

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