IMG_2622Today we gather around the church coffee pot and ponder with our RevGal colleague: What is the role of fresh brewed coffee in a congregation’s ministry! That is this week’s question:

Dear Matriarchs:

Here’s what’s going on where I am the pastor:

We serve coffee at church. They bought fancy new coffee pots, more than one flavor of coffee, creamer in two flavors, cups with travel lids. Clearly the message is “Come to church and drink coffee.” The travel lid tells me that you can take the coffee with you, but is it okay to take coffee into the sanctuary during worship? If it isn’t than why do we keep serving the stuff? If it is okay, how do we respond to the comment in the “Council Questions” box saying that we need to have an Adult Forum to discuss how to behave appropriately in worship.

Recognizing that there are probably many good ways to resolve this, I hope the Matriarchs can suggest some options for a welcoming coffee ministry that supports a meaningful worship ministry — and vice versa.

* * * * * *

Let’s hear from our Matriarchs:

Sharon Mack Temple
I wonder if it would be helpful for you to gently nudge your congregation to clarify — be intentional about — the message/meaning of having a coffee time, when it takes place and the beneficial outcome that is anticipated from offering coffee. This could be part of a bigger exploration of “what are we saying?” from the moment someone sees our sign out front, to parking lot, to door . . . etc. . . . Practically speaking, hospitality would make a great sermon or teaching series &/or you could begin with the leadership team.

Before they jump to a solution to the problem, it might be a good idea to lead them to get very clear about what the problem actually is. What are their expectations for communal behavior and how will those “family rules” be communicated to new people? They may also begin to wonder if those rules will change when new people change the faith community.

Julia Seymour
Is it clear that the Adult Forum request is connected to coffee? Unless I knew that, I would feel confused about the request- is it about texting/ social media during sermons, chatting, sleeping, too big a slug from the chalice? As for the coffee, I don’t have a good reason for why it’s not okay to drink during the service. If it is actually a concern (for carpet or sensibilities), can’t the specialty coffee wait until after the service? If there’s coffee available prior to church, then there is limited control as to whether or not people take it into the sanctuary. You could post signs asking for water only in the sanctuary, but enforcing that is a tricky line to walk. “Coffee police” is not a grace-filled altar guild duty or council role. It’s hard to know from your letter, but is the “coffee ministry” bearing the tension of other change in the church? Too many people thinking, “I don’t know who’s here anymore” or “the new people aren’t stepping up like they should” or “we never sing the good hymns anymore” or whatever. As the pastor, I’d do a little casual polling of members of different ages and duration in the congregation. What’s the general perception of the coffee, of the sacramental need for caffeine in the sanctuary, and if people know what to do and when during church? Maybe then you can find some information that you could bring to your council or board to be applied with grace.

Martha Spong
I take it from the dilemma that coffee is served before worship, as opposed to after. The church I most often attend has coffee after each service, which means they also serve coffee just before Sunday School. I have definitely taken coffee into class, but the problem you name is avoided by closing the coffee station down in the timeframe between Sunday School and the second service. The counter/window from the kitchen into the fellowship space has a pulldown door, so it’s pretty obvious when it’s not coffee time. 

All that being said, unless there is a priceless and unclean-able carpet in the sanctuary, I’m not a stickler for leaving coffee outside. This might be a good time to have a chat with the leadership about a collective vision for hospitality (including and beyond coffee) so y’all can avoid the mixed messages to each other and to newcomers. I would recommend something short of an adult forum on behavior! Perhaps start with whatever board or committee handles making the coffee. When you have a sense of what they intend, make it an agenda item at a council/session/board meeting. If your leadership folk are all on the same page, they can interpret coffee matters to the rest of the worshipping community.

Dee Eisenhauer
Here in the Pacific Northwest coffee is practically a sacrament; so bringing it into the sanctuary doesn’t seem sacrilegious, ha ha. We neither encourage nor discourage bringing it in, and one of our valued employees is the one who spills her beverage more often than anyone. We do, apparently, value people over our carpet and just have to live with the less-than-pristine appearance of our church. Which seems ok most of the time. The real question I would have here would be about differences in expectations about whether the sanctuary is sacred space that requires different behavior than that which we expect or find acceptable outside the sanctuary. We have had more clashing of cultures or expectations regarding whether it is appropriate to chit chat as we gather for worship than whether we may bring something to drink into the room. If you end up having a forum, ask about people’s growing up years and whether they treated the sanctuary differently from every other room in their lives. Some people do bring that attitude to the sanctuary based on their history and theology.

Martha Spong
I am reminded of an elderly gentlemen who used to go all the way around the sanctuary to get to his accustomed seat. He had been told as a boy never to walk in front of the altar (not that this particular church had one). As a child he thought breaking that rule would mean he was going to Hell! As an older person, it was a habit he did not want to break.

* * * * *

Thank you, Matriarchs, for your wisdom! You also raised some thoughtful questions:

  • Is the congregation’s anxiety actually about coffee? 
  • How do we make expectations clear?
  • Can we get to a common set of behavior expectations? Is that important?
  • What is being protected? Carpet? Property? Tradition?
  • And always: How do we make decisions about congregational life?

Join the conversation by sharing your own experience in the comments below.

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

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One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: Coffee Pot Hospitality

  1. In our context, this is a cultural difference that needed to be named. Those who were very “churched” feel that worship as sacred space does not allow for consumption of any beverage (although most of them understand medical needs for water). Those who did not grow up in the church, who bring coffee everywhere else in their lives, don’t understand why worship should be any different. I thought it would be about the carpet, but it is really about sacred space and time. Great discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

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