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The Rt. Rev. Dan T. Edwards, Bishop of Nevada

I have known and been blessed by a lot of altar guilds over the years. Of course, they all do the behind the scenes work necessary to make worship happen for the rest of us. For that good ministry, most of us are grateful, and should probably be more grateful than we are. Altar guild service is an underappreciated ministry.

But your altar guild is far more of a force in the parish than the holy housekeeping tasks they perform. It is a spiritual community — the spirit in which it lives ripples out to affect the feel of the whole congregation — for better or worse, depending on its spirit.

Some altar guilds are dominated by over functioning perfectionists surrounded by a cluster of nervous assistants. That model may get the work done but it does not build up the members of the guild. It does not grow their competence and confidence so that they experience the dignity of Christian service.

Other altar guilds become real teams. The senior members are neither rulers giving orders nor doers taking care of everything themselves. Instead they are leaders and teachers, bringing along others and valuing their formation more than perfection.

Another spiritual issue is hospitality. Some are closed groups. If they have the services covered, there is no room for new members. That keeps new people at the edge of the congregation. But others welcome new members and use altar guild service as a way to build relationships. Those altar guilds make the mood of the church considerably warmer.

Some altar guilds are fretful, burdened, or resentful. But others make service a spiritual discipline much as Brother Lawrence found God in the Carmelite kitchen in Practicing the Presence of God. When such altar guilds do their work, they instill a spirit of prayer in the very fair linens and the vessels. One can feel the difference at the altar.

A certain spirit floats out of every sacristy the way an aroma floats out of the kitchen. It sets the tone of the worship and more than that it sets the tone of congregational life. I have known vestries that were strong leaders for good or for ill. But I have also known vestries that were not really the leaders of the congregation. They were mere placeholders. However, I have never known an altar guild that was not at the heart of the parish.

My hope is that altar guilds grasp the depth and complexity of their role as spiritual facilitators of the parish. A well-set service with the corporal and lavabo bowl in just the right place is a good thing. But there are more important intangibles in this ministry — care for each other, building up another’s competence and confidence, welcoming and including new members, and above all prayer.

by The Rt. Rev. Dan T. Edwards, Bishop of Nevada

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