Helping Your Sons Serve in the Altar

by Subdeacon Sam Slimak

What should parents of altar servers expect when their sons serve?

When your son serves for the first time, you should expect him to be nervous, apprehensive, excited, and perhaps even a little dismayed. The boys are learning many new things. Usually if a boy is dismayed, it is because he has been given directions he was unprepared to receive, or he didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. This is normal. If a parent has any concerns, the rector (priest in charge) should be made aware. I have seen a reluctance on the part of altar servers and parents to ask the priest questions. Remember, there are no dumb questions.

Often directions are given to altar servers in a non-verbal manner. A tug on the robe, a nudge to move or stand, a hand signal, and direction given through eye contact may be used in place of verbal direction. Larger parishes use may microphones. I mention microphones because priests with microphones cannot give a lot of verbal direction, without those directions being heard by the whole assembly. The most difficult thing for some boys to adjust to is that hierarchical authority is the norm. Serving is not governed by “bottom up” organization, but rather, top down: bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, and finally the acolyte (altar boy).

You should expect your sons to make mistakes. Rest assured, the nature of the mistake may vary from child to child and parish to parish, but one thing is certain: they will make mistakes. The error might be something as simple as going the wrong way or standing in the wrong spot for the younger ones. In the case of misbehavior, the corrective action will depend on the priest and the type of misbehavior. If you feel somewhat embarrassed as a parent, remember that somewhere in history, the same thing has occurred.

Prayer in the Orthodox Church is physical. The word ‘worship’ means to bend one’s whole being to the will of God. Our whole being is made up of our bodies (the physical) and our souls (the spiritual). Therefore, we use our bodies when we worship. We make the sign of the Cross, we bow both shallowly (metania) and deeply (full metania), we prostrate, and of course we stand. Worship is not a spectator sport. The standing is difficult for young and old alike. When boys stand at attention in their robes for extended periods without squirming or fidgeting, they can become sick to their stomachs or even dizzy and light-headed, especially if they hold a candle too close and focus their eyes on the flame.

Please keep in mind that children are encouraged to participate in many physical sports today. While worship is not a “sport”, it should be prepared for in a similar manner. No responsible coach would send a player out onto the field if the player was not properly conditioned. This is always important, but especially so during Great Lent. Frequent attendance at all the services throughout Lent prepares the boys for the rigorous demands of Pascha.

The Orthodox Church is a school for saints and sinners, and sometimes the acolytes are saints and sinners. What can parents do to help? Parents should be prepared to serve. How can parents serve? Parents can serve by preparing their son to serve. Most of the things that help a boy prepare to serve are things that all Orthodox Christians are encouraged to do. A living, breathing example is always best. That is one reason why God gave us parents. Remember, the altar server — along with all of us — is called to the very same level of Christian life as the bishop. The following represent a goal that we strive for in preparing for service:

Prepare to receive Communion. Aid younger children by helping them to abstain. (This is for those who are of age for Holy Confession.)*

Say the prayers in preparation for Communion with your children (at least one, and ideally all the ones in your prayer book).

Read the Scriptures — at least the Epistle and Gospel — for the Liturgy that morning. Often the boys are occupied during the readings and may be somewhat distracted if they are younger. Reading the Scripture passages beforehand helps them retain their focus.

Go to Vespers if possible. In a very practical way, Vespers prepares children (both boys and girls) for the Liturgy. I have long noted the positive difference in the children’s behavior when they attend Liturgy if they have attended Vespers the night before. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself!

Can an a boy serve if these things aren’t done? Yes, he can. Did I do all these things when I was younger? No, but I have found the above to be very helpful and developmental, and I highly recommend them.

As Orthodox Christians we are called to do the good things that a priest/bishop does to prepare for Liturgy. All the things the priest or bishop does to prepare are nothing more than what we are all called to do. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. The standard for the altar servers is no different. The difference for the boys is that now they are engaged in a task that is an obligation, a privilege and a responsibility clearly delineated in the eyes of the young men for the service of God.

This is the boys’ first exposure to a “ministry” presented in a hands-on fashion. This is an opportunity for the young men to learn by doing. What they are learning are the basic functions of being a bishop (or his representative, the priest) in the Orthodox Church parish.

If your parish has subdeacons or responsible older altar servers, then a measure of discipline will always be present for the altar servers. Discipline is always in force, but one priest and a large group of altar servers may be a bit of a challenge. Some young boys can be very impetuous when they first start to serve. Generally they know what they want to do and when they want to do it. This may be the first place they learn about serious order and discipline within the Church apart from their parents. Sometimes tasks need to be performed by someone more experienced or have already been assigned. This presents a problem for those boys who insist on doing certain tasks. These young men — while often very capable — need to learn patience.

I have heard of altar servers being asked not to serve, however I have never seen that happen even from the “worst misbehavior”. I believe that this is in recognition that God is merciful and is quick to forgive. Allowing those with the greatest difficulties to continue to serve may bring them to a better understanding of God’s grace. The forgiveness that comes with repentance God makes available to us all.

The teen years present a unique challenge for parents and altar servers. For some parents the teens may be acting inappropriately at home in some way, and the first notion might be to limit Communion or serving. Remember, serving is an obligation, a responsibility, and a privilege all at once, and if you have doubts the parish priest should be consulted. Remember, the discipline of the Church would then dictate that the priest’s advice be followed.

Generally, even the teen boys who are willing to serve have a need/desire to express displeasure or show a lackadaisical attitude towards serving. This is the age that they may stop serving, start standing in the back of the Church, and disappear during the Gospel and homily. A good parental example, especially in a boy’s younger years, is especially important in preventing this separation.

Why do I mention the teen years? Because I believe this is the point at which the relevance of the Orthodox Church worship is being challenged and usually these young men may fail to see the worship of the Church as relevant to them. I know I did.

While this period of life is unique for each teenager, I would suggest that parents continue as best they can to encourage their teens to serve. If children took Communion regularly when younger, they may discontinue regular Communion during their teen years even though they are in Church for Liturgy. Of course the early Orthodox Christian Church found infrequent Communion an aberration, as witnessed by the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Communion is the means by which our relationship with God is strengthened and deepened. The reality of the Eucharist is the very reality Jesus Christ promised and the most needful thing during the teen years.

The solution to the teen years becomes the problem of the teen years (i.e., coming to the Eucharist). The only comment I have is you should prepare yourselves for the teen years by teaching your children the relevance of the Liturgy early on by being a living, breathing example of participation in the Orthodox Christian life.

There is one last thing every parent will probably experience when their son begins serving: surprise! Surprise that they can stand so long without squirming! Surprise that they can behave so well!

The altar server of today may be the bishop of tomorrow!

* Editor’s Note: This custom of abstaining after first Confession is seen mostly in the Slavic tradition. Other traditions recommend much earlier pre-Communion abstinence for children, e.g., as soon as they are able.

Subdeacon Sam Slimak, a graduate of the OCA Cleveland Deanery Late Vocations program, serves, leads a weeknight adult study class, and shepherds young altar boys at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mogadore, Ohio. He and his wife, Bonnie live in Canton, Ohio, with their three daughters.

© 2000 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).