It’s not your Grandmother’s Altar Guild

July 13, 2009
The Episcopal Church

By: Sharon Sheridan

Look behind the red curtain at the front of the worship hall and you won’t find the Wizard of Oz. But you will see altar guild members from around the country, working their behind-the-scenes magic to make the Eucharist run smoothly for thousands of worshipers each day.

The faces behind the ministry also are more diverse than some might expect. Altar guild members serving at the main convention Eucharist on July 12, for example, included a 16-year-old girl from Miami and Dr. George Marks Jr., a cardiologist and director of the altar guild at St. James’ in Los Angeles.

“There are more of us [men] joining the altar guild now,” Marks said. “We have two on our altar guild. I think that’s a growing trend, and I don’t think it’s for the heavy work. I think it’s just something we enjoy doing. Even the going in, doing the preparation when nobody’s around. It’s just very centering … for me, at least.”

The composition of altar guilds in the Diocese of Olympia varies from church to church, said Sherry K. Garman, diocesan altar guild directress. Quite a few have men, some are made up of older women, and some include entire families who serve together, she said. “We have quite a few congregations that are portable,” meeting in schools or other denominations’ churches, with the altar guilds transporting all the worship materials for each service, she added.

At Grace Church in Madison, Wisconsin, five men – mostly former senior wardens – asked to join the altar guild, recounted Jane Henring, president of the Diocese of Milwaukee’s altar guild. “That kind of worried us at first. We thought, ‘Oh dear, they’re going to take over.'”

But an altar guild coup never materialized.

“They’ve been so wonderful and adaptable,” she said. “They’ve been just a tremendous asset.”

Reaching out to potential younger members, some churches also have junior altar guilds, Garman said.

“We never do have enough young people,” Henring said of the Diocese of Lexington. “We’re still pretty long in the tooth.”

But she doesn’t believe the oft-predicted death of altar guilds because of a lack of youth participation will materialize, she said. “I’ve heard it ever since I was a child.”

“There’s nothing the matter with the older people,” she added. “We’ve got a little experience.”

“We do need to let people know that the altar guild is open to everyone, men and women, because it is a ministry,” Marks said. He first joined an altar guild while in medical school in Philadelphia about 30 years ago. “I think it’s a good way to give and serve without having to be up in front of someone” the way other volunteers, such as lectors, are, he said.

“It is a behind-the-scenes ministry,” he said. “A lot of people don’t really realize what it takes to really prepare and do a service.”

At convention, altar guild members arrived at 8:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. July 12 Eucharist, setting up the main altar and 12 Communion stations around the worship hall, said Beth Jett, who serves on the altar guild Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. A rotation of 58 altar guild members handles the daily Eucharists, with extra volunteers helping out where needed.

Cleaning up after the service, the altar guild collects the used wine goblets and pitchers for transport by convention center workers to the building’s dishwashers. This marks a great improvement from the last convention, when altar guild members transported the altarware into the basement of the convention center in Columbus, Ohio, then ran them through the dishwasher themselves and had “ladies standing at the end with terry cloth towels” to dry them before transporting them back to the worship space, Jett noted.

While admitting at the end of a busy morning that they were ready to sit down for awhile, the altar guild members remained smiling and enthusiastic about their ministry.

“It’s a ministry of service with love,” Jett said.

“I don’t figure I need a paycheck,” Garman added. “The blessings are more than enough.”

Worship by the numbers

By Sharon Sheridan

[Episcopal News Service — Anaheim, California] Conducting daily Eucharists at General Convention requires a large crew of people, good communication and lots of bread, wine, baskets and goblets. Preparation began months ago, said worship consultant and seminarian Sandy Webb, now helping convention worship services run smoothly for the third time. “It’s a holy challenge. Every time it’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I absolutely love General Convention worship.”

Here’s a glimpse at what’s involved in providing daily worship at convention:

• 16 cases of wine, selected by the Diocese of Los Angeles
• 300 to 400 pounds of bread
• 70 goblets owned by the church, plus another 50 rented from the convention center
• 12 trays
• 80 smaller baskets
• 10 daily Communion stations (increased from six at the Columbus, Ohio, convention to speed the process)
• 12 Communion stations planned for the main Eucharist; ultimately 11 were used
• One deacon per Communion station, plus one at the main altar. (Deacons also write the daily Prayers of the People.)
• Vergers (four served at the main Eucharist, and one always is at the main altar)
• Radio communication among Webb and various other worship coordinators and supervisors, keeping track of Communion stations in need of more bread or wine or alerting staff to medical emergencies
• An altar 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 4 feet tall, repainted brown for this convention. In Columbus, it was light blue and nicknamed “Babe the blue ox.”
• Wireless headsets allowing access to Spanish and French translations of the worship services
• A gluten-free Communion station.