Under what circumstances does one cancel Sunday worship

The Rev. Scott Gunn touched off some lively conversation this weekend with an essay suggesting to his clergy colleagues to clergy colleagues in the snow-shrouded northeast and elsewhere that there were almost no circumstances in which a priest should cancel Sunday services:

Offering worship on the Lord’s Day is something I take very seriously as a priest. In fact, I can’t think of anything more important for a parish priest. In the wake of a storm, if the mall is open and the church is closed, I think it sends a terrible message. Why should the temple of commerce open up when God’s house is closed? What are we proclaiming about our values? For me, I will stand with the message that church goes on (almost no matter what).

There are other views. Some denominations don’t hold worship at the center of their tradition the way Anglicans do. When they cancel it means something different. One common objection to holding services in adverse conditions is that people will somehow risk life and limb to come to church if it’s open. This astounds me. It didn’t take me very long in parish ministry to learn that people don’t make life decisions around my preferences as their priest. Heck, if I had that kind of influence, I’d start by getting everyone to tithe. Just because church is offered doesn’t mean people will feel obligated to come, and it’s easy enough to communicate that before and during a weather or other event.

I’ve heard priests talk about what a hardship it is to hold services. This is one that I struggle with. Speaking for myself, I didn’t enter the vocation of priestly ministry for my own preferences or convenience. Sleeping in the church and picking up a shovel isn’t that hard. The message it sends is invaluable, not because the priest is seen as someone with a martyr-complex, but because the priest models someone who believes that there is nothing in this earthly life more important than the worship of Almighty God.


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  1. jmwhite1

    I agree wholeheartedly with Scott. My first Sunday was the day after a significant storm swept through the area and I let folks know (through Facebook) that we would have services. Though though many weren’t able to make it, many did and were thankful. Short of the Eschaton or a governmental ban on travel, church will happen, even if we do it on the lawn.

    Jon White

  2. Clint Davis

    Just don’t expect a Choral Eucharist.

  3. grace for all

    There is a touch of arrogance in this article. Years ago I served three rural churches in an area with lots of bad weather and very bad roads. The people who would be showing up for church were frail old people who would indanger their life rather than miss a service. My own great-grandmother had not missed a service in 50 years,when told my my grandmother that it was too dangerous to go to church went out the back door, feel on ice on the way to church, broke her hip, and spent the last five years of her life in a bed with not one coherent thought.

    [thanks grace for all – but please sign your name next time you comment at the Café ~ed.]

  4. Bill Dilworth

    Our former bishop had very strong thoughts on the subject; I understand that she said something along the lines that if priests have to sleep at the parish the night before, there ought to be services the next morning, hurricane/blizzard or not.

    The only time I think the Sunday service ought to be cancelled is if there’s a mandatory evacuation in effect, personally.

    (Full disclosure: Didn’t go to Mass on Sunday…car stuck under a snowdrift, driveway not plowed/shoveled, and couldn’t find my boots)

  5. Bob McCloskey

    I have taken the time to read all of the comments as well as the related blog site article. My first reaction is that there is a common sense answer to the question: Under what circumstances does one cancel Sunday worship? My answer is “Whenever the weather circumstances pose a potential or probable risk to the safety of parishioners and clergy.”

    I live in the mountains of the Diocese of Western North Carolina. Frequently at least in this part of the country storm conditions commence the day or night before Sunday or earlier, which dictate an easy if not desirable decision. So in response to stalwart clergy spending the prior night at the church – what if you can’t get there even then? [This has to be a local decision and I don’t wish to suggest that churches in this diocese have a uniform set of conditions to deal with, nor frequent situations where cancelling worship is necessary – but it does happen.]

    I have experienced a near death-defying auto accident on a black ice spot less than a half mile from church, bordering a drop off of a couple of thousand feet plummet to the valley below. I will never, ever, in any way place myself nor my parishioners and others I love, at risk of endangering themselves, by encouraging them to ignore common sense for the sake of alleged devotion. I have been rector of parishes in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Long Island and Miami. The topography differs from place to place, but having lived through hurricane Andrew in Miami, the same dictum applies IMHO. If folk can safely walk to church, that is a different matter.

    Sounds like I am in the minority, but I fail to see anything noble in the positions of several commentators. All of the theological and sacramental arguments to the contrary, common sense carries the day for me.

    Bob McCloskey

  6. Rod Gillis

    I’m sure if the desert fathers offered up acceptable prayers from their soliatry arrid perch, offering up solitary morning prayer from a snow packed power outaged bungalow during a nor easter is just as acceptable. Perhaps the voice of the local Emergency Measures authority, the voice of common sense, and the voice of The Spirit are all the same voice.

    Sometimes God gives the people of God a snow day–be thankful and take it.

    “O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord:/praise and magnify him for ever.”

  7. I have only cancelled twice in a year of being here, but have always held a service somewhere –but most of my congregations are 10-20 miles down a dirt road –I have 11 congregations in an area the size of the State of Connecticut –the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Three of the churches I serve have no power, seven have no running water or indoor plumbing, four have no adequate heat source –and this is South Dakota….

    –and church is always good.

    Margaret Watson

  8. tgflux

    I live in Sunny California now, but a few years ago I was in Michigan, and my priest cancelled (via email) the Ash Wednesday liturgy due to snow (i.e., he thought it would be unsafe for people to get to church—I don’t think it was going to be impossible for he himself to get there). I felt bereft of my AW spiritual house-cleaning.

    Lay people, of all ages, are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves whether the conditions are personally impassable. Don’t decide for us.

    JC Fisher

  9. Bede

    Greetings Margaret in South Dakota,

    I am also in South Dakota and live next door to the church I serve. I have only had to cancel church services once in my over 20 years here, and that was because I was stuck in a blizzard about 200 miles from home. I am always amazed about the number of people who show up for church even when “it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” I do feel that it’s important to be there even if no one else shows up.


    Bunker Hill+

    Spearfish, SD

  10. Mark Preece

    I’m generally with the people who don’t cancel worship, and who trust the congregation to decide whether it’s safe, but I also hope we’re evolving toward an understanding of church in which worship can happen even if the clergy person doesn’t show up!

  11. Ann Fontaine

    I doubt we ever need to cancel church if 2 or 3 are gathered even if the priest can’t show up. I agree clergy don’t need to infantalize the baptized – they can show up or not as they determine. Those gathered can “do church” – even if they have never led prayers or been licensed — the BCP is easy to follow.

  12. Bill Ghrist

    Three years ago when we had our “snowmageddon” here in Pittsburgh our rector was stuck in Texas, our deacon couldn’t get out of her driveway, but about half the choir showed up for the main service (about 12-14 of us). Many of us live close enough to walk, but some of our university students actually came several miles to get here. There was about an equal number of people in the congregation, so we put them in the other half of the choir stalls and had choral Morning Prayer.

    One mildly negative fallout was that we had to count that Sunday in our Average Sunday Attendance, while the parishes that cancelled didn’t take that hit in their ASA–no regrets on that score however.

  13. clare fischer-davies

    I don’t know anyone who made the decision to cancel last Sunday without prayer, soul searching and consultation with lay leaders. To suggest this was just about “picking up a shovel” and implying that those of us who did cancel are less faithful to our ordination vows is neither helpful nor fair. It was a hard decision. I don’t expect I’ll do it again in my ministry. I wish we were kinder to each other when we have to wrestle with things like this.

  14. Rod Gillis

    The post by Clare Fisher Davies is very inisghtful. Context and local circumstances matter. I’m a native Nova Scotian who served two years in Western Newfoundland, where summer was defined as “bad skiing weather.” Local snow conditions that would have shut things down in my home province were greeted as unremarkable in NF where people and the city were equiped to deal with them.

    Like wise, when serving up in the Highlands of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the mission point layleadership would sometimes call and tell me that church was off becuase of blizzard condtions. When I served in towns and in the city, I took the stance that I would be at church, but usually our telephone greeting advised our parishioners to use prudence when deciding if they should come out to church.

    Watching the massive string of church cancellations on WLBZ Boston last weekend, during the nor easter, I would say if a church cancelled services, that is their call to make. And don’t be too lofty in judging “protestants”. Don’t kid yourself, protestant worship is as important to them as ours is to us. Piety is fine, but being a responsible corporate citizen means taking the advice of the EMO during foul weather.

    “…implying that those of us who did cancel are less faithful to our ordination vows is neither helpful nor fair.” Right on!

  15. Huh…. I know I did not intend to say some are less faithful to their ordination vows or etc…. I don’t see it in the comments either. I didn’t see what Rev. Scott Gunn wrote as implying that either.

    What he said was actually a comment in the other direction –that it is a good sign, a necessary sign for the church to offer worship (lay lead or otherwise) –that it is important for a priest to offer worship on a Sunday, even if stranded in a place without a congregation, that is part of the obligation of our baptismal vows –that when the mall is open and the church is closed, there really is something for us to think about…..

    –just sayin’

    margaret watson

  16. Ann Fontaine

    Currently running on Daily Episcopalian is an essay by Alex Dyer who held services on Facebook due to the travel ban in Connecticut.

  17. Bill Dilworth

    “Whenever the weather circumstances pose a potential or probable risk to the safety of parishioners and clergy.”

    Life is full of “potential risk.” I hit a patch of black ice this morning on my commute, and knew that it was a likelihood when I set out at 6:45 AM. I do not think I would be meeting my professional obligations if every time there was a “potential risk” from the weather I stayed home. The idea that people only live their lives and practice their vocations when it’s safe to do so strikes me as a little bizarre.

    If you cancel services, what do you do about the people who don’t get the message and come anyway? Churches don’t exist just for the regular parishioners, and if they do we should probably stop advertising.

    It never occurred to me that an Episcopal parish would cancel services because of the weather until I went back to college in the 1990s. There was an ice storm in Austin, and I walked to the Episcopal parish nearest the UT campus for their regularly scheduled Eucharist. It was cold, and it wasn’t fun. When I got there, there was a sign on the door announcing that services were cancelled because of the weather.

    I had passed the open and fully functioning University Catholic Center on my way. I went back and attended Mass there – and stayed there for the rest of my undergraduate life.

  18. Rod Gillis

    Interesting comment in Bill Dilworth’s post “The idea that people only live their lives and practice their vocations when it’s safe to do so strikes me as a little bizarre.”

    That’s terrific Bill. Can we use that if a priest or a member of the altar guild slides into oncoming traffic or off a mountian road on the way to church?

    If clergy or other folks who live near by can slog through the snow drifts and have some sort of worship, that’s great–hopefully no one gets run down in a white out while walking around.

    But public cancelation notices that inform people that the kind of service they are expecting cannot happen today because of weather, well that is a responsible and sensible community service anouncment to make.

  19. Bill Dilworth

    “That’s terrific Bill. Can we use that if a priest or a member of the altar guild slides into oncoming traffic or off a mountian road on the way to church?”

    Well, sure you can, Rod. Hell, you can even use it when ordinary non-churchy hoi polloi types die on the way to our jobs.

    I stand by what I said. Life is risky, and not doing the jobs they are called to do in the face of “potential risk” is simply not an option for most people.

  20. Rod Gillis

    Correct Bill, life is risky, which is why most responsible organizations are wise and prudent enough to use risk assessemnt and management. For example, the local P.D. at a seminar here for us a number of years ago, warned clergy about charging off to domestic violence calls on their own. They were blunt. Don’t go to a potential crime scene without calling the police.

    So, with regard to blizzards and such, putting someone at risk so they can show up to sing the Te Deum is neither responsible nor pastoral.

  21. Evan D. Garner

    Well put by Scott. I’d go even further. Not only is it the parish priest’s calling to have worship on the Lord’s day, but it’s everyone’s calling as well. If the priest is snowed it, maybe there is a layperson closer to the church who could lead Morning Prayer.

    As a seminarian, I once wrote a sermon to be preached at my placement parish only to get a call early Sunday morning from the rector telling me that the service was cancelled because of snow and ice. It’s a sermon that will never be preached. But that isn’t just a personal issue. That means that no one in that parish had the opportunity to hear God’s word and receive the sacrament of Communion that day.

    When we calculate our ASA, do we divide by 51 when services were cancelled on one Sunday? Sounds pretty dubious to me.

  22. Bill Dilworth

    “So, with regard to blizzards and such, putting someone at risk so they can show up to sing the Te Deum is neither responsible nor pastoral.”

    Your answer suggests that church isn’t really that important, but a nice aesthetic “extra” we engage in.

    Interestingly, according to the National Restaurant News, all but 70 Starbucks in the Northeast were back open by Sunday. There were restaurants that stayed open throughout the weekend in Boston, too. http://preview.tinyurl.com/aznu7r8 Providence Place Mall was open during its normal business hours on Sunday, as well.

    I’m not sure why supplying a Quad Venti Nonfat No Foam Latte is an essential service the day after a blizzard, but celebrating the Eucharist isn’t. And so far I haven’t heard any concern among the general public about cafes and malls luring people to their deaths by opening as usual on Sunday.

  23. Joieweiher

    First, I’ve never made this call by myself but yielded to the reasonableness of my wardens who were right to cancel a few years back. But with that said…

    Nothing Starbucks or a mall has to offer is essential. Those companies are open due to the power of the almighty dollar. Almighty God, through the Holy Spirit, gives us abundant opportunities to worship alone, in community, in, silence, or singing praises or any combination of the above. I have grown more and more livid with much of the arrogance, pride, false-piety, machismo, and egocentricism that has come out of this larger conversation in several different places on-line. While not 100%, I have observed that there is a gender, but not generational, divide on the issue. And the characteristics listed above are not limited to the question of church closings, either., but are endemic in our church.

    On a side note, I have not, nor will I ever sleep alone in a freezing church building so I can shovel the snow the next morning. Some of us commute long distances to serve in underserved areas where churches barely have modern plumbing much less an office with a sofa. As Peacebang out it, “A good pastor is an alive pastor.” Really, this isn’t Rome during the persecutions.

    Joie Weiher

  24. Rod Gillis

    Bill, I can’t speak for Starbucks, don’t work for their PR department. Don’t know how much java they sold. I do know that teams of linemen were being deployed from Quebec Hydro to help local crews in New England get electricity back on the grid. (New England has done the same in return).

    I was in southern Virginia summer before last during the heat wave. I went to Yorktown. The Park Rangers anounced that because of the heat alert (across several States)the outdoor battle field tour was cancelled. There would be a talk indoors. I doubt the cancellation was for the benefit of the Rangers–more likley in consideration of the folks who would be outdoors on the tour. I’m sure they were not thinking something dramatic (like not “luring people to their deaths”), just being prudent about conditions.

    The almost superstitious obession with holding worship in the middle of a severe weather event doesn’t really serve the relationship that ought to exist between the worshipping community and the wider community.

    When there is a severe weather event one should stay out of the way of snow clearing ops, out of the hair of lineman trying to get the power returned, and not draw off police and emergency responders with preventable

    pedestrian and vehicle accidents. Just stay off the road, away from coffee shops and malls, and for god’s sake, cancel services.

    A snow related anchorite experience might even be good for the soul.Then, when the weather lifts, open up the parish hall as a hot canteen for the people still working to get things back to normal.

  25. E B

    Having grown up in a rural part of the snow belt prior to the Internet, many in my parish found it important that church would be held regardless of the weather. Besides the fact that it was much more difficult to get word out if a big storm rolled in early Sunday morning, for many it was the only chance there was to check on each other. So I’d encourage people to keep the church open if at all possible–while using good sense in deciding whether or not to attend services. And yes, I’ve slept on the floor the night before in order to get up early and make sure things are dug out, and the lights are on, when people show up in the morning. (I’d add that sleeping in a rural church in the middle of a raging blizzard can be a wonderful experience, if a little unsettling.)

    Eric Bonetti

  26. Bill Dilworth

    “I have grown more and more livid with much of the arrogance, pride, false-piety, machismo, and egocentricism that has come out of this larger conversation in several different places on-line.”

    Well, thank goodness there’s nothing arrogant or prideful about cheap on-line armchair analysis of people’s interior motivations and spiritual defects!

  27. Although I generally side with the church being open, even in bad weather (one never knows who might wander in the door literally seeking sanctuary from the bad weather, frankly) I think there is a balancing act. As one person posted, it is precisely the old and infirm who will risk life and limb, and if church is going to be open, I think there’s a certain degree of pastoral responsibility involved to let those people know they will be served pastorally somehow and going to church is not necessary, and, in their case, discoursged. We love our elderly parishioners and don’t want them to leave us prematurely from broken hips and subdural hematomas. Perhsps the assurance that they will be cared for pastorally even in their absence can help.

    Now, that said, I want to talk about a day in my life that was Ash Wednesday from Hell. We had 3 inches of ice in 24 hours and our priest refused to cancel AND insisted that I as the Junior Warden, “take care of the walk.” Everything was closed and I ended up running risk of being stranded in town while my dogs were at home. It was not lost on me that this priest had to walk 250 feet to go to church and I had to trek in and out 8 miles in the country. I don’t even remember in the end if we had services or not–I sort of think we did but people were encouraged to use caution and discretion.

    I understand the posters here who take their roles seriously, in fact I know and respect some of them greatly. But my one caveat is when others are involved in that process of “keeping the church open, no matter what.”

    I also freely admit “country people find a way to get in and out of town, when town people stay home” (it’s our nature,) but in all things there is balance, ego disguised as the temptation of “duty” should never give way to common sense. I have only been stranded twice in 23 years from being able to attend my duties with the hospital, but I would never drag someone else out to do for me what I can’t do myself. I think there is a wonderful opportunity for ministry by being open when all else is closed, but discretion and balance would be key in these sorts of decisions.

  28. Joieweiher

    Bill- It wasn’t a cheap shot. It is an observation borne over years of observation and experience at the hands of such attitudes. This conversation (much larger than just here at Episcopal Cafe) is simply another example on the type of one upman(woman)ship I’ve experienced among far too many colleages or the completely unreasonable and expectations of parishioners. That said, USUALLY I have found laity to be far more reasonable on this issue as they have been the ones to tell me “Please DO NOT risk your life for this one service or the lives of others you may kill on the road, risk your child growing up without a mother, your parents losing yet another daughter too early, and your husband losing a wife.”

    I, along with many others over the last few days of this larger internet conversation, have been made to feel like we are sub-par clergy by some terribly biting comments because we simply support that there *MIGHT* be more than one way to handle this issue. I certainly do call that arrogance, pride, false-piety, machismo, and egocentricism.

    Joie Weiher+

  29. Joieweiher

    This is a great response to our controversy:


    I also want to remind us (clergy) that we were taught in seminary, CPE, etc. that our priorities should be God, family, job. Too often, we confuse 1 and 3 and leave out family all together. Leading worship certainly has A LOT to do with loving God but loving God might also mean honoring the vows we made to our spouse (in my case BEFORE I was ordained) or the vows we made to our children at baptism.

  30. Jim Pratt

    While my preference would be to hold worship regardless, common sense and a sense of context are needed.

    I spent 7 winters in a 4-point parish in Western Newfoundland; travel to the furthest of my points meant crossing 5km of open coastal marsh; once I had the evening service there, and during the service a storm came in. I drove home through driving horizontal snow at about 20 kmph; the only thing I could see was the white line on the side of the road. Another time, returning from a hospital visit, I crossed the marsh by tailgating a tractor-trailer. If the weather was questionable I always called the warden there before setting out, as conditions could be quite different 20 km away (on one occasion, the bad conditions were closer to home, I set out, hit a white-out between the rectory and the highway, and turned around; when I called the warden to say I would not be coming, he said conditions were fine there.

    On another occasion, at one of my other points, the warden and I pulled up to the church at about the same time. I got out of my car, took one step, and was blown 20 meters across the icy parking lot, my vestment bag acting as a sail. As I crawled back to my car, I told the warden to call everyone and tell them not to come to the church.

    In the community where the rectory was located, I rarely cancelled, but I also made it clear to people that they should make their own decision whether or not to come out. People are responsible enough to evaluate the risks for themselves and decide.

    Now I am in an urban parish; I live next door to the church and (barring downed power lines) can safely get there in any weather. Unlike in a small village, it is impossible to notify everyone (except for my small mid-week Eucharist). So I would never think of cancelling, though I would scale down depending on how many did make it. (and, as Bill’s example points out, you never know when someone might choose that Sunday to visit)

  31. Bill Dilworth

    ” It wasn’t a cheap shot.”

    From where I sit it was absolutely cut-rate.

    I think this is one of those “irregular verbs.” Just as “I have stuff, you have junk, he/she has sh#t,” you have observations based on years of pastoral experience, while others merely have unrealistic expectations and a slew of unflattering character traits.

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