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Worshipers at Easter fill Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta where attendance has been on a steady rise. Photo by Joseph McBrayer.

Photo by Joseph McBrayer

Churches are filled with both those who are familiar with pew etiquette and those who are not. Will you respond to an annoying neighbor with grace or a glare?

Woman sitting alone in church. Photo by Jamie Carter, courtesy of Flickr.

Photo by Jamie Carter, courtesy of Flickr

We don't go to church alone, but are instead surrounded by sinners just like us. “If we are not in church to sit beside the unwashed ... then why are we there?” wonders author Amy Dickinson.

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A faux pas in the pew: What to do?

A UMC.org Feature by Susan Passi-Klaus

Amy Dickinson and a friend in a choir robes.

'Ask Amy' author Amy Dickinson, pictured here with lifelong friend Kirk Read, is an active member of Freeville United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Amy Dickinson.

Amy Dickinson has heard it all. In her syndicated advice column that appears across the U.S., “Ask Amy,” she throws in her two cents about everything from cheating spouses and bad etiquette to nasty neighbors and embarrassing family members.

The common sense expert also gets her fair share of emails from church members fed-up with the behavior of certain pew neighbors. Don’t we all know one or two of those annoying members—the mother who changes her baby’s diaper in the back pew or the old-timer who takes a nap during the sermon…and then snores until the organist hits the first note of “Just As I Am, Without One Plea”?

Which is worse…the annoying or the annoyed?

Amy, a very active member of Freeville United Methodist Church in Freeville, New York, may draw the line at texting during sermons and singing barefoot in the choir—but those misbehaviors are on a very short list of manners bad enough to make her eyes roll. For the most part she comes from a long line of Sunday school teachers who imparted that Amy and her classmates treat ALL people with love—even the ones who smack their chewing gum during prayers.

“Often it’s not the people accused of misbehaving that need to learn a lesson,” Amy said. “Maybe it’s not the annoying, but the annoyed who need to lighten up. Maybe the question they need to ask themselves is ‘What is this person here to teach me?’”

When Amy gets quizzed about things that drive some church people to curse, often her first word of advice is “forgive.” Walk a mile in someone else’s socks (if their shoes are under the pew, that is). Think differently. Think what Jesus would do about late arrivers and interrupted sermons.

Nuisance neighbors in church? "Think what Jesus would do about late arrivers and interrupted sermons." #UMCTWEET THISTWEET THIS
Top 10 Annoyances in church

A pastor posted a question on Facebook. “How have you observed pew neighbors behaving rudely in church?” People shared their shock over those who remove their shoes (especially if they have smelly feet) and others who double-dip the bread during Communion.

Here's the pastor's list of the top 10:

  1. Excessive talking.

  2. Texting, surfing the web and playing video games.

  3. Sleeping or snoring. Note to my own father—this includes you!

  4. Clipping fingernails.

  5. Answering a ringing phone and having a conversation!

  6. Excessive antsyness—getting up and down and going in and out of the sanctuary.

  7. Leaving the service early—especially during a prayer.

  8. Letting babies cry and kids play in the aisles.

  9. Snacking, especially cracking gum or crunching chips.

  10. Too much lovey-doveyness such as back rubbing, thigh patting and pecks on the cheek that last more than a half-a-second.

Well, what would Jesus do?

What would Jesus do if babies cried and children sat at his feet coloring Bible story printouts while he was in the middle of miracle making? What if he caught a disciple snoring or a prophet blowing his nose loudly?

“Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” (Matthew 19:14 CEB)

Amy admits: Church is not a Norman Rockwell painting

Quite frankly, Amy said, some personality clashes, misperceptions or “unchristian-like” behavior issues are clergy matters. The pastor may need to do some coaching if a member is continually disruptive.

For example, those who share a bit too much or pray a tad too long. Outspoken members who distract others by adding something other than an “Amen” to the pastor’s sermon. Those who treat holy ground like they own it by hogging the right side of the second pew every Sunday—it’s the same pew warmed by six generations of their family—and have asked visitors sitting in “their pew” to move.

In those kinds of divisive and disruptive circumstances, Amy suggests a pastor sit the offenders down for a good pastor to pew-sitter talk.

But when it’s just feathers ruffling, Amy believes annoyances can be used as teachable moments.

“For me, it’s about extracting humility, exercising kindness and stretching myself,” she said. “Those of us who are strong enough to tolerate certain annoyances should. I try to catch people using their gifts—a good organizer, an excellent lay leader, a welcoming person, a good cook, a consistent volunteer.”

“Sometimes I have to get in touch with my inner safety zone,” she said. “There have been times I’ve kept a distance between myself and others, but later I ended up feeling glad I was exposed to them. Yes, it was disruptive, but it softened my heart."

“Isn’t getting uncomfortable what we’re called to do? If we are not in church to sit beside the unwashed [and the ill-mannered], then why are we there?”

Discomfort is good for the soul

Perhaps Daniel Parsley, Worship Arts Coordinator and Director of Chancel Music at Faith United Methodist Church, North Canton, Ohio, should also write an advice column. When someone whispers a judgmental thought into his ear, his reaction is to take the high road. His message to both the annoyed and the annoying is to treat others the way you want to be treated.

Like Amy, Daniel believes that some discomfort is good for the soul.

“Distractions can be good because they disarm us,” he said. “They allow us to see people as real. They teach us that people don’t have to be perfect—especially in church.”

Daniel Parsley conducting an orchestra.

Daniel Parsley serves as the Worship Arts Coordinator and Director of Chancel Music at Faith United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Daniel Parsely. 

As someone who admits to tripping and spilling coffee on the sanctuary carpet, in addition to forgetting to turn-off his cell phone ringer during a poignant sermon, Daniel believes that impromptu laughing, teasing and echoes of “I’ve done that too,” often draw people closer.

 “If you judge someone, maybe you’re getting it wrong,” he explained. “For instance, if someone is texting during the service, maybe they’re sending a message saying, ‘I love you.’ A dad who carried his coffee to the pew might just be trying to stay awake. A sick child kept him up all night, yet somehow he managed to get the rest of the kids to church. You never know what’s going on with people.”

“Focus on the big picture,” Daniel said. “We’re all here for the same purpose to be welcoming, understanding, open, loving, and forgiving people.”

“It’s not about standing at the correct time, not hearing enough of your favorite hymns, or giving a thumbs up or down to videos being shown during worship,” he said. “It’s about putting less importance on you and on your personal preferences.  It’s about doing what’s best for the community of worshippers—the body of Christ.”

*Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn. News media contact: Joe Iovino, UMC.org content manager for United Methodist Communications, 615-312-3733.

This story was first posted April 6, 2015.