St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia has a thriving acolyte program. I recently sat down with Heidi Schneble, the verger who helps coordinate the entire process.
What is the acolyte program like at St. Paul’s, Alexandria VA?
The acolyte program at St. Paul’s is open to all willing parishioners ages 10 to 18. The acolyte roles varying depending on age and seniority but play a crucial role in the flow and execution of the service. With such a large percentage of our parishioners under the age of 18 it is great to see them finding a way to serve at St. Paul’s.
The program could not run without the service of Judith Proctor or Rebecca Wetherly. Judith oversees the program from a clergy standpoint. She also writes thank you notes to each participant every Sunday. Rebecca oversees the scheduling which with this many participants can get very hectic!
What are the ages of the kids involved?
Children at St. Paul’s are invited to be acolytes at 5th grade or 10 years of age whichever comes first!
How often they are scheduled?
We have three scheduling cycles (Jan-Memorial Day); Summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day); Fall (September to Epiphany)
We try for about once every six weeks. There are sub requests that go out frequently as schedules change so children often find additional times to serve depending on their schedules.
How many acolytes are severing each Sunday?
8-10 acolytes (depending on banners) at each service. Acolytes serve at the 9am and 11am services. During the services we just have acolytes at the 10am service. So during the fall we can expect 16 to 20 each Sunday between the two services.
What does your adult participation look like?
The acolytes are school aged only. At the Acolyte commissioning in the spring we present a token of thanks to graduating seniors as well as special recognition to those acolytes who have served for five years. We have a handful of dedicated adults who serve as acolyte mentors for each service. They help with training and guidance for the acolytes during the service.
What are the different tasks of the acolytes?
The acolyte position at St. Paul’s include:
1. First Crucifier
2. Second Crucifier (focus on Children’s Chapel assistance)
3. Gospel Bearer
5. 1st Torches (2)
6. 2nd Torches (2)
7. Banner Bearers (Church Banner and Baptismal Banner)
8. Flag Bearer (Episcopal and American Flags – usually only at Easter and Christmas)
What is YOUR role within the acolyte program?
As verger I view my role as a liturgical stage manager. Making sure everyone is in their place and has their cues and that we have a full roster of participants. This includes not only the acolytes but readers, choir, etc. I also feel it is important to give encouragement to the acolytes. Some of them want to serve but get very nervous so it is good to be reinforcement, encouragement and a calming force. I also work with making sure everyone is properly trained which sometimes can happen on the fly!
What are the strongest aspects of the program? In other words, why do you think the program has been so successful?
In part the success comes from the children enjoying being a part of the service with ownership of their role and trust from the adults. I think it helps them feel a part of the service and they take responsibility in that role and ultimately become more engaged in the service. Also siblings are a great source of recruitment.
How do you use the program as an educational opportunity? How do the kids learn about the Christian faith? Or, in other words, how are they becoming more mature Christians through the acolyte program?
They learn responsibility and commitment are two key items in my opinion. I think they also come more familiar with church liturgics. They also seem to want to be more engaged in readings and Gospel.
What are the main challenges?
The main challenges is scheduling. We want to give children the opportunity to serve when we have such a large crew of willing participants. We also have children who are involved in several other activities (i.e. soccer, lacrosse) which often have games on Sunday morning which can throw a wrench in the scheduling!
What advice would you give to a church that wants to start or expand an acolyte program for kids and/or adults?
Acolyte programs can be all different size. Alter the program and position to your needs and resources.
If the kids continue to show up to serve you are on the right path! You also have to make sure that you have investment and commitment from the parents as that is crucial to the success of the program.