What happens when church gets interrupted?
March 20, 2019 1:34 PM   Subscribe

What happens if someone has a heart attack during a church service?

I recognize that all churches operate differently, but this has to happen at least somewhat often. What is the general procedure of events? Does the entire congregation sit and wait for the paramedics to arrive, give CPR, and take the person to the hospital?

Does the service continue where it left off, or do parts get skipped?
posted by amicamentis to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Something similar happened last summer at a church I was visiting (a run-of-the-mill liberal-leaning upper-middle-class mostly-white Episcopal church in the Boston area, during the course of their normal Sunday morning communion service). An elderly man fell to the floor (unclear whether it was that he passed out from the heat, or had a heart attack, or what. A few medical professionals present (fellow worshippers) rushed to him to try to help. Someone else called 911. The entire service halted while we waited for paramedics to arrive. A small crowd was around the man, but mostly people kept their seats and waited (the priest waited up front). EMTs arrived, carried the man away on a stretcher (no one went with him except a woman who I assume was his wife), and then the priest resumed the service right where we left off. He made a quick comment on what had happened (something like "let's say a brief prayer for the man on his way to the Emergency Room, and for the medical professionals caring for him"); then the service carried on as normal, starting from where we had stopped before, without skipping anything.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:47 PM on March 20 [10 favorites]

This happened at my childhood church while I was in high school (two decades ago). Catholic service and the priest was offering his homily. Either someone in the same pew or the priest realized that a woman didn't seem right. She was still seated and hadn't fallen over, but was unresponsive. The priest asked for one of the altar servers/lay people helping with mass to call an ambulance and asked for silent prayer for the woman. Once the EMTs loaded her onto the stretcher (they did little if any medical work in the church), he carried on with his homily. I had the impression that she simply passed away and was no longer alive by the time the EMTs arrived.
posted by icaicaer at 1:52 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

I don't remember any specific events, but ClaireBear's experience tracks with how I recall interruptions being handled in my former congregation growing up. The service would be paused and resumed after the situation was handled. The sermon may have been compressed depending on the duration of the interruption.
posted by Aleyn at 1:56 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Planning for a Medical Emergency - this describes an event at what sounds like a megachurch with a plan and a team in place for medical emergencies - sounds like the team assisted the sick individual without pausing the service.

Here's a relevant Q&A re Catholic practices.

When I was young my parents took me to a small evangelical church. I remember someone getting sick enough for the sermon to halt so everyone could pray for the sick congregant. If I recall correctly, 911 was called and the minister briefly wrapped up the sermon in a few sentences and led the congregation in a final prayer once the congregant was on the way to the ER.
posted by bunderful at 2:06 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Yeah, ClaireBear's experience is in line with mine as well; I was very surprised that the pastor went on with his sermon with basically no changes/references to the event at all.
posted by mskyle at 2:07 PM on March 20

A few medical professionals present

Churches I've attended have typically had a "medical team" available during services that could jump in while waiting for EMTs or other help.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 2:10 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

My experience is the same as icaicaer but in a black Baptist Church. I'm almost certain she passed before EMTs arrived. They announced her passing near the end of Church service (about 20 minute wrap up after the sermon). She had a pre-teen daughter (I can't recall if the daughter was there that day or not) who was later adopted by another church member as her mother was a single mom.
posted by Aranquis at 2:12 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]

At a Catholic Mass when I was young, an elderly woman passed out and fell onto the person next to her, who began shouting for assistance. The priest stopped, came over to the woman, and generally handled the scene, ensuring that people didn't crowd around too closely, and asking that the congregation pray for the woman. I assume someone went to the office to call the ambulance, and any medically trained parishioners assisted, but I don't recall specifically. When the paramedics arrived, they took the woman out on a stretcher, and the priest resumed from where he'd been interrupted.
posted by yuwtze at 2:59 PM on March 20

Some churches have multiple services scheduled, so if there's a half-hour delay due to the emergency response, it seems likely some parts of the service would be cut in order to not trample the next service, allow some time for necessary reset in between services, and so on.

If it's not up against another service, it seems likely that the service would continue where it stopped; the only obstacle is the forbearance of the congregation, who could potentially have to leave early to attend some other scheduled thing, or maybe just get the better booth at whatever restaurant they always hit after church.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:12 PM on March 20

I've had this happen a couple times! (because I've gone to a lot of church) And I went to seminary where they deal with this in your liturgy classes.

So in the general case there is church staff available who are NOT actively leading the service -- it might be a church secretary, or a nun, or a deacon, or an associate pastor, or a youth pastor, or a building manager, depending on the situation. Generally, if the service is larger than say 50 people, that authority figure will come to assist and leave the religious leader free to continue the service or lead prayers for the affected person. If it's possible you generally want to continue the service (in Christianity, anyway), both because the activity of prayer/worship is considered helpful to the person suffering medically, and on a more practical level because people are fucking mortified if you stop the church service to deal with their medical issue and then everyone is staring. So if it seems adequately under control and it's possible to continue the service, they probably will.

When I was about 6, in a Catholic church, the elderly lady next to my mom and I suddenly keeled over. My mom shouted, "We need help here" (my mom never interrupts church) and the deacon came running over along with an usher; the usher went to call 911 and the deacon helped my mom make the woman comfortable and keep her calm. The priest paused for a moment to pray for her, and then continued with the Mass. The paramedics came a couple of minutes later, the usher bringing them in the door closest to us, and the priest paused Mass again and asked everyone to pray for her while they put her on a stretcher and took her to the ambulance, with my mom holding her hand and reassuring her all the way there, and me trotting behind with her purse. The deacon thanked my mom, and my mom thanked the deacon, and then my mom made the executive decision not to go back into Mass because she was super-rattled. A friend of hers told us they prayed for the lady at the end of Mass and the final hymn was a bit subdued, and then later we heard the lady was okay (I forget if it was a stroke or a heart attack) and my mom got a nice note from the lady.

I've had it happen a couple of times since -- a young woman fainting from the heat, an older person taken ill -- and in the era of cell phones the person who's right there can immediately call and usually a deacon or nun or someone comes over to see what's happening and coordinate help. Once I saw the deacon interrupt Father, and Father paused the Mass and asked, "If there are any doctors or nurses present, we could use your help by the East door."

My roommate was at midnight Christmas Mass at a small town in the Alps, which had only one ambulance. A man had a heart attack, they paused the Mass briefly to while the paramedics came in, and he was taken by the paramedics down the mountain to the hospital, which was apparently a 45-minute trip each way. About 30 minutes later, during the same Mass, a woman had a heart attack and my roommate ran over to help (she was a paramedic), and as they realized she wasn't going to survive and there was no ambulance available, one of the local women stood up and said, "Father, excuse me, we need you down here for Last Rites." And they stopped the Mass and he anointed the dying lady and she died, and they took her body to a side room to wait for the undertaker, and then continued a very subdued, depressing Mass.

Churches in retirement communities may have an EMT at services specifically because people are going to die during the service sometimes. Megachurches too often have a medical response team. Lots of times these are just members of the church who may work as EMTs or nurses and commit to attend a particular service every week, just in case.

" I was very surprised that the pastor went on with his sermon with basically no changes/references to the event at all."

Writing a sermon is hard work that takes several days, and most pastors don't have a lot of practice being improvisational about it. Some can handle this kind of situation with grace, but a lot of them are really rattled and thrown by it, and are trying to continue the service while something terrible is happening to one of their congregants, and it's just really tough and feels terrible and they're probably MORE likely to stick to their prepared text because they're fairly freaked out.

"Some churches have multiple services scheduled, so if there's a half-hour delay due to the emergency response, it seems likely some parts of the service would be cut in order to not trample the next service, allow some time for necessary reset in between services, and so on. "

Because it takes time to empty and reload the church -- and possibly more importantly, the parking lot -- and to set up again for the next service, and because services run to variable lengths (based on how many people take communion, etc.), it's really unusual for services to have a gap of less than 45 minutes (60 minutes is more common) between when one ends and the next begins. So when I've seen the situation there's always been enough time before the next service that you don't have to leave anything out, but the first thing to go would be verses of hymns, because those are trivial to cut out.

(The one exception to this is downtown Catholic churches with no parking lots sometimes have all-day, on-the-hour weekday Masses that tend to last about 40 minutes, and there's 20 minute gaps. But that's a different thing, they're providing an hourly service for people working in the dense, walkable downtown during the workday, with like 10 people at each Mass, not a once-a-week Sunday service with 300+ at each Mass. They're affectionately called "The 40-Minute Miracle.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:26 PM on March 20 [22 favorites]

Eyebrows, that explains who a particular person was in my childhood church.

On a smaller scale:
I was an altar server during high school, and during one Mass, my fellow altar server got up, went behind the "wall" (the altar and lectern were on a dais, and there was a wall behind that where the crucifix was, and behind the wall was an old entrance/exit to the church), threw up quietly, and left. I don't even think we told anyone, but someone was there in the next 5 minutes to clean up the vomit, and the rest of us just ... continued on. I think the priest made a comment to me later making sure he was ok.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:35 PM on March 20

"but someone was there in the next 5 minutes to clean up the vomit"

Yeah, a lot of it is common sense, but larger denominations offer classes and trainings for people whose job is "manage the practical parts of the church building and make things run smoothly" so the religious staff can focus on their ministry. At a good-sized church, there's definitely someone there, maybe "backstage," maybe in the front pews, maybe near the altar, whose job is to take care of those kinds of problems as they arise. You can take a whole day-long seminar on "what to do if a crisis happens during Mass/services" and address such interesting topics as "what if there's a tornado warning during the consecration?" "what if the priest is taken ill during the service?" "what if a light fixture falls?" "what if the power goes out?" "what if someone collapses?" "what if someone tries to serve a warrant during the service?" and so on. They cover practical and safety considerations, and human considerations (people do not like to become the center of attention of the whole congregation), but also theological considerations -- interrupting the sermon is whatever, but interrupting the consecration is a hecking big deal; if someone dies, it's appropriate to continue with the Mass because Masses are also used for funerals and will be of theological benefit to the dead person's soul, but it wouldn't be appropriate to continue with a blessing service in most cases. Etc. Plus you get to hear lots of hair-raising and hilarious stories of things going wrong during church services. But yeah, the job really just calls for common sense, empathy, and a cool head during unexpected situations, which arise with some regularity when you're filling a church up with people on the regular.

(Also they often suggest borrowing the teen youth group and using them to practice evacuating the church and things like that, teenagers are totally up for that kind of thing and it lets you gets a handle on how to manage a crisis in that particular space.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:10 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]

There is some importance in continuing mass or events after a medical emergency. Usually there isn't going to be any updates for awhile (medical evaluation even in emergencies can take hours to get a clear idea of prognosis) and getting updates likely isn't possible on the time frame of a church service. Sometimes it's clear like from the above stories someone has passed, but most of the cases that just isn't true.

Carrying on the service allows for 1) emotional and spiritual support of the injuried 2) provides a distraction for people that may sit around waiting for information and not talking about much else 3) brings normalacy back to the service. 4) in larger chrurches most people likely have no idea what's actually happening anyway . The leader can provide brief context and reassurance in the context of the service. Actually Stopping the service will cause more worry, anxiety and the impression of greater a event regardless of what happened.

In addition, it's useful for crowd control. This way there is a clear ending, people know when to leave, what to do and there is less confusion.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:12 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Not a medical emergency, per se, but one morning during service one of my infant daughters became ill. I stood up to carry her out and she vomited forcefully all over before I could get to the aisle.

The preacher stopped preaching, some members stood and helped escort me and my daughter out of the auditorium, while other members went and grabbed paper towels and water and cleaned up the puke. When they finished cleaning it up, the preacher made a joke about the interruption and picked up where he had left off.

I was slightly embarrassed, but not too much. Overall everyone was supportive and loving.
posted by tacodave at 4:31 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

At my Catholic church in New England this has happened a number of times. Nurses and doctors in the congregation just get up to help when they notice someone in distress but Mass continues: “The show must go on” and all that.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:05 AM on March 21

Thank you all so much for your answers! This is exactly what I was looking for.
posted by amicamentis at 7:54 AM on March 22

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