When is it okay to cancel church on Sunday?

snow covered church steps

Put this in the category of “questions there are no clear answers to,” of which there are many in the church.

When I was young, I don’t remember that church was ever cancelled. (Or school, for that matter.) And I remember some big snowstorms in the Michigan of my childhood.

I think the policy was that, since the pastor lived next to church (and could simply walk over), church would go on no matter what. Members had to decide for themselves whether or not they could manage to walk through the snow. In my memory, just about everybody struggled to get there because most members lived within walking distance.

But that was then.

I was thinking about the question last weekend because several pastor-friends who serve churches in Texas announced on their Facebook pages that they were cancelling services – mainly, due to ice and cold and generally treacherous conditions. And then, after the announcements, there were the inevitable Facebook posts about what to do with sermons no one would get to hear.

One friend posted his sermon online, encouraging family devotions, and another was reminded of the words in the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby”: “Father Mckenzie…writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear; no one comes near.” (Note to Blair: church members do not feel bad about staying home from church, no matter how much time you put into your sermon.)

Something about all of this seemed wimpy to me, to be honest about it. But times have changed.

The church I served right out of seminary had an interesting dilemma on the weekend of March 31-April 1, 1979. Just days earlier, one of the two nuclear reactors on Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown, releasing radioactive gases and iodine into the atmosphere. At the time no one seemed to know how bad the accident was.

On Friday, March 30, then-governor Dick Thornburgh announced a voluntary evacuation for those within a 20-mile radius of the reactor, a distance which easily included my church. The question was, should we cancel services? Remarkably, the answer was no.

So, in worship that fine spring Sunday morning there were a couple of staff members, the organist, and a CBS News crew filming the empty pews from the balcony. Everybody else – wisely – decided to get out of town. And maybe that was around the time that churches began to rethink their policies about cancelling services.

A year or so ago, I was experiencing my first active hurricane season, and a tropical storm was bearing down on South Florida. I asked around the church about our policies for cancelling church. No one seemed to know. I did, however, hear lots of stories about the last hurricane that blew through and how church was open for worship a couple of Sundays after the storm – without air conditioning, which is treated as a necessity in South Florida.

In the wake of that storm, we developed a policy that in the event of a “tropical storm warning” – not watch, but warning – church would be cancelled. Seemed like the prudent thing to do to keep streets clear for emergency vehicles, which is what we were being told to do by local newscasters.

You won’t be surprised to know that I still lean toward the “hold it and see who comes” school of thought. But times have changed on this matter, as with so much else.  No one wants to be responsible for the person who’s injured in the heroic, but foolish decision to go to church in bad weather.

I’m thinking that a growing number of my friends are going to be feeling like Father McKenzie.  No one comes near.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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3 Responses to When is it okay to cancel church on Sunday?

  1. mike December 9, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Hi Doug – –

    It is, of course, easy for me to say but you guys/gals need to deliver that sermon come heck or high water. You guys are our Pony Express.


    So, I’ll take faith over pragmatism – “you can’t turn the light off”. I bet you’ll like the photo at that link above, too.

    • Doug December 10, 2013 at 6:19 am #

      I do like that photo! As you know, I scavenge the Internet for artwork, and that’s the sort of thing I like to use. Thanks, Mike!

  2. Georgia Hamilton December 11, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    A fun read, Doug–it left me smiling at Father Mackenzie!


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