A Review of Thomas L. Clark’s “A Guide for the Church Usher”
I am called of God to be a church usher. I have been ushering, greeting, and taking up the offering since I was in Jr. High School in the early 1970s- about 40 years. I became a deacon and began helping serve the Lord’s Supper in my twenties, almost 30 years ago. I also have a Masters of Divinity and have served as a bivocational pastor for 15 years and can truthfully say that serving as a church usher is a joy and one of my most meaningful forms of service to the Lord and His people, the Church.
In my current church I am not on staff, but I am a Deacon, and one of my areas of responsibility is Church Security. This job gives me some responsibilities in the ushering area, but we have another Deacon, Evan, who is directly responsible for the seating ushers, the greeters, the offering ushers and the servers of the Lord’s Supper. My area of responsibility is called the Special Greeters, who serve as exterior ushers looking for those who need help outside of the sanctuary and inside after the other ushers are finished greeting and seating. Besides organizing and leading my Special Ushers, I serve under Evan as a regular seating usher, offering usher and Lord’s Supper server. Obviously we are organized somewhat differently from most churches.
Recently I have become interested in improving how I serve, so I began searching for information on ushering and found several small books on the subject. I hope to read through several of these resources, do a few reviews like this one, and ultimately, work with Evan in training our ushers, greeters, etc. The first book I want to review is “A Guide for the Church Usher”, by Thomas L. Clark, Broadman&Holman Publishers: Nashville, TN 1984 (125pp.)
This is a well organized, well written, practical help for those who are serious about serving the Lord as an usher. Using real life situations sprinkled throughout the text, both humorous and embarassing, Clark takes the reader from selection by the church to a training program for ushers. He covers some of the biblical material pertinent to ushers, the qualities needed in an usher, how to prepare for the task, how to conduct the tasks of ushering and he gives help for the Head Usher. In short, this book is an excellent place to begin preparing to being an usher, or, if you are like me and have been ushering for a while, it is an excellent resource to renew and reinvigorate your calling and service as an usher.
In Chapter 1: “A Place To Serve”, Clark takes us through the selection process for the usher, but he begins with a very brief biblical background for the position of usher, or “doorkeeper”. Likely the most popular Bible reference for “doorkeepers”/ushers is Psalm 84:10 “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand, I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
It is here that Clark and his editors made a crucial mistake, twice. An entire paragraph on page 13 is directed at the question of women ushers using 2Samuel 4:6, TWICE, yet that verse has nothing to do with doorkeepers. He writes, “The same Hebrew word is used for doorkeeper in both Psalm 84:10 and 2 Samuel 4:6.” I do not know to what he was referring, but he may have meant to use 1Chron. 15:23-24 which mentions doorkeepers in proximity to the Ark of the Covenant as the Ark is being brought into Jerusalem.
He refers to three New Testament texts (Mark 13:34; John 10:3; and 18:15-17) and the “porter” but does not expound on these at all.
Besides Psalm 84:10, the other main verse used to support the usher ministries is 1Cor.14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Clark rightly points out that the context of this verse is the worship service but again fails to expound on the significance of this verse for ushers.
This is the most disappointing aspect of the book, Clark uses only about one page to discuss the biblical background of the usher, and one paragraph of that discussion is badly garbled due to citing the wrong text. “Other phrases, verses, and passages related to love, kindness, helpfulness, and hospitality are too numerous to list but should be remembered” (p.14).
Clark discusses the Role Expectations for the usher and uses a neat 3 word mnemonic: the usher is expected to be a “greeter”, a “meeter”, and a “seater” and adds a fourth expectation of being a “helper”. He then discusses the various functions of the usher, such as: greet all visitors with a smile, hand out visitors’ cards, seat worshipers at the appropriate points in the services, aid the pastor and staff…as needed, distribute church bulletins, be prepared to handle emergencies, etc. Clark gives a couple of scenarios to illustrate some of these expectations and I found these very helpful.
Clark urges the ushers to consider the responsibilities of being an usher, “Saying yes to the church’s invitation to serve as an usher is a major commitment. Don’t take the opportunity lightly”, (p.21). He urges ushers to take time to study the responsibilities of ushering, take time to train, and set aside the time to perform the duties, and set aside time to evaluate.
Clark stresses training for the new ushers, saying, “Another part of the initial stage may involve you in a series of training sessions…You may spend time in practice sessions and learn all you can…” (p.25). It has been my experince over the past 40 years of ushering that most of the time no training is the norm. I have never participated in any kind of usher training. I hope to fix this deficiency and hence, the reading of Clark’s book and the writing of this review!
Clark finishes Chapter 1 by saying your willingness to serve is the third step in becoming an usher. Here he stresses not your initial agreement to being selected and trained, but your committment to being faithful and dependable to showing up when and where you are supposed to show up. Clark stresses that ushering is an Opportunity to Learn, an Opportunity to Encourage and an Opportunity to Witness.
Clark’s second chapter, “What Every Usher Needs” is all about the qualities that make for an excellent usher. There are Qualities You Can’t Do Without- such as “A Good Self-Image”, “A Sense of Humor”, “A Good Appearance”, “Good Personal Hygiene”, “A Love for People”, and “A Sense of Reverence.” Clark peppers these discussions with some entertaining and realistic scenarios to emphasize his points. His discussion of Appearance and Hygiene is blunt and, frankly, needed. His discussion on Reverence was refreshing and convicting. In our more laid back day I wish this portion was longer.
Clark next discusses “Qualities You May Need to Develop”. This section of chapter 2 is encouraging because he points out that serving as an usher can and SHOULD lead to devloping a deeper character. He begins with “A Willingness to Learn” and immediately dives into a common problem in ushering. He writes, “Too often folk accept the position of usher by reasoning, ‘i don’t want to teach a class at church because that requires a lot of study time. But I’ll be glad to usher once a month because anyone can do that” (p.42). That sentence was worth the price of the book! Clark continues, “Ushers are leaders of the first order and not just ‘anyone can do’ the work of an usher. It takes years of dedication, training, and practice to master all that is required of an usher. Therefore, an usher, new or experienced, must be willing to learn”, (ibid.)
To illustrate his emphasis on ushers being willing to learn he refers to a “large downtown church” that, for safety reasons, installed a surveillance system complete with a control system and an usher to montor the cameras. The ushers had to learn how to operate this moderately complex system, “Extensive training was required for each usher to properly perform the task” (ibid.) This reference would have been helped by the addition of a footnote/endnote explaining the church’s security measures and giving the church’s name and location.
This passage is especially pertinent for me as the Deacon of Security. In my professional life I have been a Security Officer for over 25 years and monitor cameras every day at work. One of the shortcomings of Clark’s book is that it only mentions security a few times and there is no devoted chapter to the subject as it pertains to the ushers. The book was published in 1984, before the terrorism of the 1990’s and the attack of 9/11. If this book is to be revised any time soon I would highly recommend more about the security role of the church ushers.
The next quality the usher may need to develop is A Good Memory. Clark stresses that this can be developed and practiced. Remembering names and relationships are particularly important for the usher. He recommends that we ushers Concentrate, Associate and Practice.
We need to develop Tact, Timing and a Helpful Attitude. In the area of developing a helpful attitude, Clark refers to Matt. 5:41 “Whoesoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” He writes, “Don’t develop this quality to receive praise of men. Helpfulness is an attitude you seek to develop because you recognize people are important, and you can have a part in their lives through positive action”, (p.47).
Chapter 2 finishes with a discussion of Qualities Others Expect You to Have, like a Dedication to the Task, A Positive Attitude, A Courteous Manner, A Personal Calmness and A Christian Witness.
“At Work Before the Worship Service”, Chapter 3 of Clark’s book, points out that usher duties may very well entail some jobs prior to the worship service. He first discusses the preparations the usher himself should perform prior to serving Sunday morning. This includes being Prepared Physically by getting proper rest. “Yawns come at most inappropriate times- like when you’re greeting a visitor,” (p.53). The usher should be Prepared Mentally. Clark mentions physical pain, being in a rush or suffering from emotional strain as causes for ushers to lose their sharpness and concentration.
The usher should be prepared Socially and Spiritually as well. Clark recommends that the ushering team meet ahead of the morning service for prayer and an inspection. Praying over the user duties prior to the worship service should be cultivated.
The ushers should prepare the sanctuary for worship and Clark recommends a checklist. Ensuring everything from visitors’ cards to the air-conditioning should be taken care of by the ushers.
Clark finishes chapter 3 with a discussion on Greeting the People. Ushers should choose their greeting words with care. He urges that ushers should strive to never embarrass people and gives some classic examples: “Good morning, Mr. Knight. Where have you been hiding the last few months?” (p.66). “A basic principle for greeting is, greet others as you want to be greeted” (ibid.) in a take off from the Golden Rule.
This section is especially approriate because he covers some basic rules of good manners which are increasingly forgotten in this present crude age. He gives excellent instructions for shaking hands including a paragraph on shaking hands with an amputee. This is especially appropriate in our day with so many soldiers and marines coming home from the war with horrible wounds. He tells the ushers to Guard Against Undue Familiarity and Favoritism to finish the chapter.
Clark’s 4th chapter deals directly with the ushering tasks during the worship service. He begins by stressing “Meet the People”, “Somewhere between the time you greet a person and seat him is a segment of very valuable time,” (p.70). He gives us a sample conversation between an usher and a visitor where the usher moves from greeting to getting them to sign the guest register. Clark covers in some detail the proper etiquette for making introductions. This is one of the treasures of this book, an emphasis on proper etiquette and manners! He also tells us to look for ways that we can be of special help to people by giving them pertinent information about the church’s ministries and the morning worship service.
In Seating the People Clark urges us to Study the Sanctuary to determine where the empty seats are, but also to know where the cold/warm spots are. While seating preferences are not always practical once the service starts, ushers should be able to help people with special needs. Maintaing seating balance is important also, in order to avoid large open spaces. He gives very helpful advice on How To Seat and When to Seat people.
During the worship service ushers help take up the offering. He even includes a bit on what to do if you drop the offering plate! “(1) pick up the plate and as much of the offering as you can recover quickly, (2) face the embarrassment of the moment, (3) learn from the experience,” (p.82). I have been in the worship service twice that I can recall, when an offering plate was dropped, and once when a Lord’s Supper plate was dropped. On none of these occasions was I close enough to tell exactly what happened. But as a worshiper in the pew, it was upsetting.
Clark mentions some of the security tasks that ushers are called upon to do in this section. He writes, “You may be assigned to monitor the parking lot….The security you provide frees the congregation of one less worry during their worship experience….Some congregations require security during a worship service. This request may be for both inside and outside the building,” (p.84). As a licensed security officer in the state of Texas, I know a bit about the law pertaining security in churches. You have to be VERY careful to not call or imply that your ushers are a Security Force. Their duties need to be sufficiently diverse so that they are not perceived as impersonating a security officer. Again, this book was written well before the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing.
Chapter 5 lets the usher know that his work is not done after the worship service concludes. In the rush to get out of church sometimes the elderly need assistance and the ushers should be there. This is also a good time to greet and meet the visitors as well as the members. Cleaning up the sanctuary can be in the job description of the ushers and special care should be taken to look for personal items that may have been left behind by a worshiper; these can be taken to the lost and found. Clark emphasizes the Usher Reports that, apparently, are used in some churches. These reports cover everything from the morning count to building repairs needed. He concludes with, “Did I seek to be helpful today?…How have I grown as an usher?
Chapter 6 is appropriately titled, “Dealing with the Unexpected”. Unfortunately, I think his opening sentence is a bit inappropriate, “Unless you are skilled at using a crystal ball to look into the future, you will be forced, like other ushers, to deal with unexpected events as they happen,” (p.98). This casual reference to an occultic practice, though perhaps common in our daily conversation, should have been edited out. His main point, however, is- “You must be ready when the emergency occurs,” (ibid.) Clark breaks down this subject into two areas: Things to Do and Things to Know.
He gives us five things we can do in any emergency. Be Prepared to Act is first. He tells us to “develop the skill of distinguishing between the usual and the unusual,” (p.100). “No matter what you are doing at the time, an emergency must take priority,” (p.101), is excellent advice. All too often I have seen people freeze up during an emergency or even continue doing what they were doing thinking, perhaps, that someone else would take care of it. Secondly, Clark tells us, Be Quick in Action. “Each emergency requires someone to take charge to bring the situation under control,” (pp.101-102). Third, Be Thorough in Direction. He gives an illustration of an usher who saw a car fire in the parking lot and gave a woman directions to go get help…but by failing to tell her to also get a fire extinguisher, she came back with help but no fire extinguisher so the fire got worse! Clark continues with Be Directive.
Under Things to Know Clark breaks it down to What? Where? and Who? Do you have a first aid kit? If so where is it? Is there a doctor, fireman, EMT or nurse in the church?
Chapter 7, Ushers for All Seasons, goes through some of the variety of special events in the church year. Things like revivals, funerals, Christmas programs and homecomings all require extra from the ushers.
Chapter 8 finishes his course with a word to The Head Usher. He urges the head usher to Organize the Ushers, Train the Ushers, Plan with the Ushers, Evaluate the Ushers, and Encourage the Ushers. In short, the Head Usher is to be a leader of men. A practical suggestion is to plan an usher Appreciation Banquet.
Clark closes his book with a program for Usher Training. These four training sessions seem easy to do and I believe any church would benefit from them.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend “A Guide for the Church Usher” by Thomas L. Clark. The book is highly readable, very practical, and very “old school” in some ways that I think are important for the younger generation today. I would go so strong as to suggest that a church ought to purchase this book in quantities to ensure that every usher gets a chance to read/study it. While there were a few errors in the book, those in no way should stand in the way of reading this book.