Stewarding Hidden Talents

Uncovering the crucial gifts of those behind the scenes

Published

The call came on Friday evening. Our church custodian had COVID-19. “Take care of yourself,” I said, sympathetically, “and don’t worry about the church. We’ll handle it until you’re feeling better.”

I set down my phone and considered what, exactly, “handling it” meant. First, we needed to get through Sunday morning. Then we could worry about next week. Back when I was in high school, I had worked as a church custodian, so I did have some first-hand job experience and no qualms about performing any janitorial task. But I also knew that I couldn’t–and shouldn’t—do it all myself. Not only would it involve several hours of my time, but, more importantly, it would deprive the congregation of an opportunity to “rise to the occasion” and help with tasks that usually are done for us.

Ask For Help

I called the altar guild leader, knowing she would be going to the church on Saturday to set up for communion. I filled her in. Could she and her family help out? The fellowship hall needed to be converted from its weekday use as a pre-school classroom into its Sunday configuration with rows of tables and chairs for coffee fellowship and a potluck meal. Child-size chairs, area rugs, and various room dividers all needed to be moved out, and standard-height chairs and tables moved in. “If you can do that,” I said, “I’ll take care of the restrooms and wastebaskets.”

Make A Plan

“We’re on it!” she replied, adding that she would also ask their adult son to assist. We decided to skip mopping the fellowship hall floor, since it would need a lot of time to dry before the tables and chairs could be set up. Instead, we would just look for any obvious areas that needed to be spot-cleaned. She also volunteered to vacuum and dust the sanctuary. We had a plan. They did their part on Saturday morning. I did mine on Saturday evening. The church was clean enough, tables and chairs set up, and errant goldfish cracker crumbs were swept off the fellowship hall floor. We were ready for Sunday morning.

During the Sunday worship announcements, I shared the news that our custodian was sick. I asked the congregation for their understanding if anyone noticed some areas that weren’t as clean as usual. I also asked, “Could some of you stay after the potluck to help put tables and chairs away?” I hoped that perhaps three or four people would; I was thrilled when a dozen did. They enthusiastically wiped everything down, cleaned the kitchen, put tables and chairs away, took out the trash, swept the floor, and looked around, asking, “What else do we need to do?”

Absence Helps Us See More Clearly

Most of the ministry of custodians happens during “off hours”—when buildings are otherwise vacant. The weekend that our custodian got sick gave church members a vantage point to notice –and appreciate—all he does. As we were putting stacks of chairs away, one person commented, “I usually just show up to church on Sunday. I never really thought about any of this stuff until today.” Another said, “Wow. I had no idea how much work this is! Are we paying our custodian enough?” (Yes, we are.) It was during his absence that our custodian was truly seen. And, although our volunteer efforts had “handled it,” we were grateful when he became able to resume his job.

Janitorial work is a form of hospitality, even though it may not be appreciated as such. Whether they are church employees, volunteers, or workers from a professional cleaning company, custodians provide an essential, yet often invisible, ministry. While you might take for granted when you arrive for worship that the building will be clean and ready — floors not grimy, door handles not sticky, wastebaskets not overflowing, restrooms not dirty, and windowsills not coated in dust–you would definitely notice if that were not the case. For a first time visitor, attending worship in a messy or unsanitary building may turn them into a last-time visitor. If “cleanliness is next to godliness,” then custodial work is next to hospitality, and is a vital part of stewardship, even when hidden from view. Have you thanked your custodial team lately? And… are you paying them enough?

  • Julie Kanarr

    The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Belfair, Washington. She is a 1990 graduate of Luther Northwestern Seminary. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and enjoys sea kayaking, bicycling, and taking her nephew-dog Riley for long walks.

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