My son Nicholas is almost seven years old and is growing up in an Episcopal parish that has very few children or teenagers at the moment. I’ve been going there for 15 years. When we had more kids, during each service a teenager served as crucifer (carrying the cross to lead the procession of worship leaders and choir into and out of the church) and two children about 8-12 years old served as torchbearers (each carrying a candle on a tall candlestick in the procession). Now, our few teens happen to enjoy caring for the babies and toddlers in the nursery during the service, and our two kids of torchbearing size are very shy and don’t like the idea of people looking at them . . . so adults take turns serving as crucifer, and we don’t have torchbearers anymore; the candles stay next to the altar.
Nicholas loves ceremonies and likes to be included in what people are doing. But I thought he was too young to serve in church.
Before Nicholas was born, I used to serve as a lector (reading from the Bible) and chalice-bearer (serving Communion wine), but I paused those ministries while I had a young child; Nicholas has always wanted to be with me in church rather than go to the nursery or Sunday school, but when he was little he sometimes was disruptive at unpredictable moments. I resumed being a lector when he was five and I felt certain that he would behave himself while sitting alone in the pew (his father doesn’t usually attend church) for the few minutes that I was reading. Chalice-bearers walk in the procession and stay near the altar throughout the service, but I was able to return to chalice-bearing earlier this month by arranging for Nicholas to sit with a friend during church on the days I serve.
Meanwhile, we have found a way Nicholas can serve in church that is completely appropriate to his skills, attention span, and shyness level!
To begin the Eucharist (the second half of the service, when we remember the Last Supper and receive Communion), four people walk up the aisle bringing to the altar the bread, the wine, the money from the collection plate, and the food for the hungry (placed in a basket at the back of the church by people as they enter). The two ushers carry the money and the food, and they are in charge of finding people to carry the bread and wine, known as the “elements” of the Eucharist. For whatever reason, carrying the elements is not a scheduled ministry; they just pick two people in the minutes before the service begins or even as they’re taking the collection. I had been an element bearer a few times before parenthood. I was happy to do it, but it never made much of an impression on me.
One day a few months ago, we were chatting with two friends who often serve as ushers. One of them asked if Nicholas aspired to be a torchbearer or crucifer when he’s older, and that led to the idea that he could be an element bearer now. We could do it together! That sold him on the idea because he felt more confident about taking on a precise role in a ritual with everybody looking at him if Mama was right there doing it with him.
Nicholas loves being an element bearer so much that we now do it almost every Sunday! We just stop by before church to ask the ushers if they have volunteers already, and if not we volunteer. It’s a perfect role for Nicholas:
- He really is doing something very important, carrying the bread that will become the Real Presence of Christ. (He prefers to carry the bread, while I carry the wine.)
- It gives him a brief moment of special connection with the priest as he hands up the basket of bread and they bow to one another.
- It reminds him to focus on the Eucharist. Like any six-year-old sitting through nearly an hour of Bible readings, sermon, and hymns, he often doesn’t pay close attention during the first part of the service, and then it is difficult to get him to think about this story of Jesus, which–although it is profound, foundational to our faith, and told in a variety of formats from week to week–he has heard so many times. Now it seems that watching “his” bread on the altar holds his attention more.
- We walk up the aisle side by side, so he does not have the feeling that everyone is staring at him individually, and he can watch me for cues about exactly when to start walking, when to turn around, where to go–although he learned all of this quickly, it is possible to forget.
- We can sit in a pew as usual, go to the back of the church as the collection is finished, spend a few minutes serving, and return to our pew–unlike a crucifer or torchbearer who is “on” throughout the service.
- We don’t have to sign up in advance, so if something goes wrong or Nicholas just doesn’t feel like serving this day, it’s okay.
- It seems to have improved his behavior in church. We haven’t talked about this, but when I was his age, I would have been uncomfortable walking up that aisle if I thought anyone might be thinking, “There goes that kid who was rolling on the floor picking her nose earlier,” and therefore motivated to act more dignified during the rest of the service.
- Several adults in the church have told Nicholas how much they like to see him helping.
- It motivates him to get to church on time! He is pretty good about walking at a reasonable speed, but he does like to look in store windows and walk along the edges of certain planters along the way, and I used to have trouble urging him along. Now, I can just say, “If we’re late, someone else will be element bearers,” and Nicholas starts hurrying!
Serving as an element bearer with my child works for me!