The Lost Art of Ushering

… Obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.  Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

  • Colossians 3:22-25

I left the word “Slave” off, because this applies to all of us.  If we do something, we need to do our best.  Maybe some of us have not been well trained, but, if that is the case, we need to learn.

I thought of this when I was at a funeral yesterday.  We have lost the art of ushering.  I sit about halfway down the center aisle on the right side, the side with the pulpit.  I know our pew.  The electrical outlet for the vacuum cleaner is in the floor underneath the pew in front, and I close the outlet covers to prevent anyone cutting a shoe on the brass cover for the outlet.

(If the custodian is reading this, I confess and apologize.  I prefer an un-scuffed shoe, but it may mean you getting down on your hands and knees to open the cover each week when cleaning.  You have to get down there to pull in the vacuum cleaner anyway.)

And to the blogger who hates “assigned” seats / pews, that is where we usually sit, but if someone gets there first, we don’t complain.  We absolutely do not tell someone to move, but we have seen that scenario play out.  Don’t worry, I will tie all this together.

I had the best view as the family of the departed came in to take their seats.  Among the more distantly related folks, there were two 80+ year old women who came down the aisle.  Each had a cane in one hand and a son (assuming here, because they did not sit together) ushering them to a pew across the aisle.

The first man basically shoved the elderly lady into the pew.  If it were not in a church, I would have guessed that he was mugging her instead of helping her.  I am sure that in his mind, he was helping, and he knew that she was frail and should not fall.  But really, he probably does not ‘help’ her that much at home.  In my view, he did more harm shoving her than he helped in keeping her from falling.

The second lady was even more frail.  She had two people ‘helping.’  One was pulling her onto the pew while the other was shoving.  An even worse example of ushering than the first.  Oddly, when the service was over, both ladies got up and walked out on their own with no need for any assistance – and probably glad of it.

My excuses for the ill-prepared ushers started racing through my head as the immediate family filed in along with the casket.  They may have never been trained as an usher.  They may have never had practice.  Does anyone ever usher anymore anyway?

At our church, the person in charge of the ushers has a horrible time trying to get volunteers, but all they do is hand out bulletins, collect the offering, and count everyone for the attendance records.  They do no ushering.

That brought me back to my Boy Scout days in Tupelo, MS.  The church where we attended, and the sponsor of the scout troop, had two services, 8:30am and 11:00am, with Sunday school between.  My parents preferred the early service.  Two problems arose in a symbiotic fashion.  1) Someone noticed that the first service had no ushers, and ushers were needed.  Not really “needed,” but if the “right” person noticed, it had to be done.  2) I had just joined the Boy Scouts and to advance in rank, I had to do service projects – so many hours for each rank advancement.  I stayed after Sunday school and watched the ushers at the second service.  I then became the only usher for the first service – a service project unto myself.

I ended up with more service hours than was necessary for each rank advancement, all the way to Eagle Scout and beyond.  I once joined a crew that planted pine trees in a forest that had been clear-cut.  We were each given a lunch, a couple hundred tiny pine seedlings, a special tool (with instructions), and a compass direction.  When you consider that there were about 150 scouts in the forest that day, we planted about 3,000 pine trees – all in a day.  We walked in a straight line and every so-many paces, we stopped and planted a tree.  I bring this up because I was climbing into my scoutmaster’s car, instead of the buses, when the director of the project stopped me.  He said that I was leaving without getting a certificate to show how many hours I had worked.  I might need those hours to get my next advancement.  I replied that it was on the house.  I did not need the hours.  My scoutmaster simply laughed a hearty belly laugh and shook his head.

Here is the basic technique for ushering.  You don’t push or pull.  They dictate the pace.  You ask which side of the aisle (if you don’t already know).  You offer the elbow for that side.  You walk at their pace.  If it is a couple, you walk with the lady.  The man walks behind.  After you have gotten the lady to her pew, the man will sit on the aisle after she is seated.

The positioning here dates back to the days of chivalry.  (My wife contends that chivalry is also dead based on how many times I have screwed up.)  The usher, knight, husband, whatever walked on the side of traffic to protect the damsel next to him.  Feminists can go to a different blog and read it, but I do not make up the rules and I do not invent history just to make you feel more liberated.  Actually, I saw a video recently from Europe somewhere.  The boyfriend is seen shoving his girlfriend into the entranceway of a building and trying to follow her.  A split second later, a car, careening out of control, drives up the sidewalk and bumps the boyfriend as he was trying to get out of the way.  Sorry, if I offend you, but the young man is a hero, not a pig.

Now, for the part that the would-be ushers at the funeral screwed up, you stand next to the pew where the woman wants to sit.  She then grabs the edge of the pew or the back of the pew in front and steadies herself.  If you, as an usher, feel that she is not steady or she fails to let go of your arm, you side-step with her until she can safely sit down in the pew.  Again, no shoving or pulling.  She dictates the pace.  You are simply her rock.

Once she lets go of your arm, you can go back to usher the next person.

Most men, back in the 60s when I started ushering, found their own way to their pew.  Letting the lady walk along the edge of the pew and guarding her from the rest of the aisle was necessary due to the men who were rushing past to get where they wanted to go.  I was bumped often, but the lady on my other arm had a smooth walk.

Now let’s get to that old curse, “Assigned or Designated Pews.”  These are traditional, because ‘we always sit there.’  I know of no churches with assigned seats, but do not sit in Aunt Prissy’s pew or…  Some of this seating preference is out of necessity.  The person is hard of hearing.  The person cannot see very well and the lighting is uneven.  The person cannot see the choir director clearly or their spouse who sits in the choir.  Whatever the case may be, the people that go regularly know where the old folks sit, and they avoid those pews.  No harm done.  Once they got used to me ushering, I ushered the ones who had no preference to pews where no one regularly sat.  As a knowledgeable usher, I avoided any conflicts or ruffled feathers.  A few times a visitor would suggest a certain pew, and my response would be, “I think one pew closer would be much better.”  Maybe they understood, but a 13-year-old making a suggestion to an elderly lady was bold.  I just knew who sat where they suggested, and I wanted no problems to arise.

When I started ushering, I had no idea where these people sat.  Before I started, I was not motivated to know.  Besides, we had just moved to that town a few months before; I did not even know these people.  Oddly, my inability to remember people’s names remained a problem, but after a couple of weeks, when I saw the face, I held out the appropriate elbow and I rarely missed the pew.  If I missed it, I was one row in front or one row behind.  The next week, I had made a mental note, looking for a visual cue the distinguish the two pews.

I was the only usher at the early service for about two years.  The church leaders were informed when our family was out of town so that another usher could fill in, but after two years, the early service attendance started growing and more ushers were added.  It then became ‘organized.’

A year later, we moved back to my old home town, 20 miles to the west.  I learned how to sing tenor and joined the choir, but I retained my ushering skills and experience for the next six years.  I did not usher any ladies into the choir loft, but the choir’s only bass singer was blind.  The first week, I protested.  I did not want to screw up and cause this wonderful man to fall, but after they told me the mechanics of what I had to do, I realized I had been doing it for three years already.  I let him know that I was in front of him.  He grabbed my elbow and we went for a walk.  When I stopped, he knew that I had stopped so that he would be at his assigned seat.  He let go and transferred his grip to the arms of the chair.  (Our choir loft had wrought-iron stadium seats while the congregation sat in traditional pews.)  The key is that no talking was necessary – a must when our church was on the radio.

Once, someone else guided him into the choir loft.  After the ‘accident,” I sat next to my blind friend, even if it made no sense musically.  Actually, I was the only tenor who could find his note while standing next to the bass singer’s booming voice.  As for the accident, when they were near the right seats, the unfamiliar guide tried to pull his arm free of the bass singer’s grip.  The bass singer tried to follow the erratic movement of the new guides’ arm and fell into a couple of the altos in the row in front.  Pulling and pushing are not necessary and can lead to accidents.  Being a rock to lean on is the important thing – just enough steadiness for those who are not as steady as they once were.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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