Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Coffee Hour Doesn't Count

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It's phenomenal!
These days I'm working with four churches to coordinate their youth ministry programs. In various ways they are all working together, but in various ways they are all maintaining their own identities. My Sunday morning time is split among the churches: two Sundays a month at one church, one Sunday a month at two of the churches, and if there's a fifth Sunday I wander over to the other church. It's complicated.

Sometimes I preach, and sometimes I'm just in church. Each of the churches is distinctly Presbyterian in in their liturgies, and yet they each have their own traditions and habits that distinguish them from one another. I'm learning names, but I have to admit I'm learning faces faster. It's going to take me a while to sort everyone out.

One commonality is the coffee hour. Coffee hour is like a church cocktail party without the booze--which is probably a good thing: coffee hour would be pretty wild if we were spiking the joe. Every church has its habits about coffee hour--half n half vs. creamer, muffins or no muffins, juice for the kids, tables and chairs variously set up--they all have their ways.

At every coffee hour, and especially if I've preached that morning, I greet between 40 and 100 people in the course of 20 or 30 minutes. Some people are brief, others follow me about the room with extended conversation. Sometimes I seek certain people out.

It's a bit dizzying, actually, all these people with their stories, lives, situations, wants, and and needs.
Three people can be talking to me at once and not even notice one another. Sometimes I introduce people to one another to make sure they know each other. Sometimes I introduce people to one another to try and move on to another conversation or group.

Coffee hour is really important--it's a very visible half hour, which people in the church use to gauge whether or not the pastor is actually working. If the pastor is present and interacting, then the pastor is working. If the pastor ducks out of coffee hour, then the pastor is slacking--never mind that pastor may have worked 90 hours that week before Sunday came around. We all know coffee hour matters, so we hang out and mingle, even though our post-sermon snooze is calling to us from the couch back home.

But I hope you can hear this: 

Coffee hour doesn't count.

People slip me tiny pieces of paper with phone numbers, names, and notes randomly arranged.  Always there's a story behind those tiny notes, but 2 hours later when I pull the wadded bundle of the backs of envelopes, receipts, and business cards, I can't sort out which note goes with which conversation--and remember, I had 40 to 100 conversations this morning!

The napkin you gave me with an address to mail youth group news to a family friend? I probably wiped chocolate icing off my son's face with it.

People give me cash: "Here's the money for next month's miniature golf!" Half the time I don't even recognize the person giving me cash. I'm reduced at times to writing people's names on the dollar bills themselves. Most often I try not to accept money at coffee hour, but people sometimes give it to me while I'm talking to two other people.

In the middle of this, there are serious life stories being shared. Coffee hour is sometimes the first time I hear about someone's illness, divorce, or mental health issue. Many times people will say, "Could you call me?" And I swear, I have the best of intentions to do so. But hours later, as I try to sort through what I heard and who needs to hear from me, I don't always get it right--people fall through the cracks.

Folks have suggested to me that I carry pen and paper about with me and an envelope to store notes, receipts, cash, business cards, and spare napkins with addresses. This makes sense, but coffee hour already pushes the limit of my ADD coping skills.

Over the years, I have developed a defense system that pushes the responsibility back on other people for contacting me outside of coffee hour. And this is because:

Coffee hour doesn't count.

A few recommendations to church folk--if we could do this, you would be happier. You'd be happier, because you would get a better response from me to your wants and needs. You'd be happier, because I would be more relaxed during coffee hour, and therefore able to give you more attention. Here goes:

1. Coffee hour doesn't count.

2. Avoid giving money to the pastor during coffee hour. We lose checks--I KNOW I'm not the only one. Cash is just setting us up for problems and accusations of mismanagement. If you have money to turn in, put it in a well labeled envelope and drop it in the church office. Then send me an email telling me you did that. I love people who do that.

3. Remind me your name unless you are POSITIVE I remember it. Better yet, wear the nametags churches make in a fit of hospitality but never wear.

4. If you want to get information to me, email is the bestest. If you must give me a note, stick it in my box in the church office. Be specific and detailed. Put your name on it. And date it. Totally fine to tell me about the note and what is in it during coffee hour. But put the note in my box. Don't let me stick it in my pocket along with everyone else's note. My pocket is actually an interdimensional vortex of doom, and what goes in doesn't always come out. 

5. If you want me to call or email you, best thing is for you to call or email me. This isn't because I'm on some superiority complex, it's because if you call me, you'll get a timely response. If you say, "call me!" at coffee hour, you might never hear from me. 

6. If you have a serious life concern or prayer request, get in touch with me outside of coffee hour. you can bring it up during coffee hour, but I may not be able to give your illness or situation the attention it deserves. Not because I'm a cold, callous, unfeeling, waste of a seminary education, but because coffee hour is a cocktail party without the booze and there are 39 to 99 other people circling like sharks on chum.

I love coffee hour. It brings us together in a giant, collective passing of the peace. I see you, you see me. It's a good good thing. It's just that when it comes to getting business done and retaining information, coffee hour doesn't count.


  1. nicely said - good luck changing it ... :-)

  2. Awesome! Just found your blog. I'll definitely be back. I always say, ”call or email me” in these circumstances. Another trick that's worked very well for me is that I have a strict, ”never hand me money” policy. Instead we have a locked, secured drop box for all church-related payments that is collected twice a week.

  3. "Thanks for this. I'll try to remember to....but if you notice I haven't me or call me." is my standard mantra at coffee hour. That is if I make it past the people who scarf me up at the door and engage me in the same stuff until, by the time I make it to coffee hour the coffee is cold and the muffins are just crumbs.

  4. Like Terri, I rarely get to the coffee. There's a big "gathering space" between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall, and I spent most of coffee hour yesterday hearing people's personal concerns there. When I got to the place where the coffee had been, it was being cleaned up.
    I've heard it said that for most people, it's the only time they see the pastor, which is true, and I'm glad to talk with them, but I always put the onus on the other person to make further contact. Otherwise I'm going to disappoint them and feel bad about myself. "I'll be in on Tuesday; I hope you'll call me then. Or email anytime."

  5. Catherine MacDonaldAugust 27, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    I often share the 11th commandment with the congregation during announcement time: Thou shalt not tell anything to the minister before or after worship and expect her to remember.

    Said with a smile and takes care of things for a while.

  6. I certainly can't disagree with you on the substance of your post. As a former Clerk of Session and de facto "Assistant Pastor" of a tiny church, I've had my share of these experiences - I once lost a check for $2700. But I also think there's more to it. In the same way that symptoms sometimes indicate a more serious underlying cause, coffee hour behavior such as you describe seems to me to show that people in the church have a deep need for interaction, for something beyond passively sitting in the pews. I see the coffee hour as a missed opportunity for a different kind of ministry in most cases. Church is alien, while many of us are comfortable in a coffeehouse or a pub...

  7. I do not mind the behavior at all. I love coffee hour! It's just not a place to get business done. Pub church wouldn't be a place to hand me money either.

  8. Great post! I have had all of these exact same experiences...though I would add one more. Don't hand an anonymous note of complaint to my husband and ask him to give it to me while he is drinking his coffee.

  9. Thanks, Katie, I'm passing that along to my congregation.

  10. As a church secretary, I'm considering making and wearing a button that says, "I'm off the clock today. Please put a note in my mailbox." Good luck!

  11. So good to read this! I am at the stage where I still try to make Coffee Hour count - but am beginning to realise that it just isn't all possible during that time! Just too many things to do and people to chat to - that I end up not being able to give it all the time and attention it deserves. Maybe a lesson to be learnt here for me! Thanks :)


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