Bo Frazier knows it’s coming but seems powerless to stop it. He fidgets in the pew, scooting forward to concentrate on what the pastor is saying. He makes notes in his Bible. He chews gum and holds his wife’s hand, hoping she’ll notice if he starts to drift. But pretty soon he’s wiping at his eyes and hiding a yawn behind a clinched fist.
After a few moments of struggle, Frazier’s eyes feel heavier and heavier. His blinks become longer and longer. And despite his best efforts, Bo Frazier is asleep in church, right in the middle of the pastor’s sermon. It only lasts for a couple of minutes before he snaps back awake, guiltily looking around to see if anyone, especially his wife, noticed.
But it’s not long before the fight begins again.
“I just pray I don’t snore,” Frazier says with a laugh. “I don’t mean to. I don’t want to. But sometimes I just can’t help it.”
Frazier can’t say exactly why he gets so sleepy in church — maybe it’s the preacher’s “droning” voice or the fact that it’s usually so warm and still in the sanctuary. Maybe he stayed up a little too late watching the Alabama game the night before or couldn’t sleep due to worrying about all the stuff that comes with raising a family. Maybe it was because they were running late that morning and he didn’t get a chance to chug a second cup of coffee.
No matter what the cause, Frazier gets sleepy in church and always feels guilty afterward, thanks to something his grandmother told him when he was a kid and was struggling with the opposite problem of not being able to sit still during service: “God is watching you, and right now, he’s not too happy.”
Of course, God’s not the only one with his eye on the congregation. Pastors can easily see their members nodding off, and the result is often rather entertaining.
“I don’t really have an issue with folks falling asleep at St. Luke’s,” says Michael Rich, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
Rich recalls one member who had a mild medical condition that caused him to drift off if he sat still for too long. It was something everyone was aware of, so it was no big deal. They sat just a few rows back, right in Rich’s line of sight from the pulpit.
“One Sunday, I look down just at that moment where his head nods forward and her elbow pokes him in the ribs,” Rich says, “And it was all I could do to not burst out laughing in the middle of my sermon. I’m rather proud that I held it together.
“One advantage of having been ordained later in life is that I have many years’ experience of fighting drowsiness during long sermons in overheated churches. It keeps me honest.”
There is something to be said about the environment in the church that can lead to bouts of drowsiness.
Deanna Murphy, who lives in Jacksonville, grew up attending a Congregational Holiness Church in Piedmont back when the preacher would preach all day, making it nearly impossible for the little ones to stay awake.
“There was no rush to end the service so your congregation could beat the others to the restaurants,” she says. “I remember lying in my mother’s lap and falling asleep.”
There was a campground in nearby Possum Trot where veteran members of the congregation had little cabins. They could go to service, then walk to their cabin to take a nap before heading back to service.
“Everyone had a fan because at that time the church services were outside,” Murphy says. “No air conditioning … that was die-hard church then.”
While many church leaders can laugh off a sleepy congregant, feelings may still be hurt when hours and hours of work go into preparing a sermon, only to watch someone doze off.
“My knee-jerk reaction is to be totally offended and take it as a personal statement when someone dozes in church,” says Lee Shafer, priest at Grace Episcopal in Anniston. “On the other hand, I’m glad that they’re there. If they are really tired and made the commitment to come that makes a big statement about the importance of being present in the worshipping community.”
Dontaveous Simmons doesn’t worry about falling asleep in church simply because there’s no time to get sleepy.
“You don’t fall asleep during a black worship service,” he says, laughing. “You just can’t. They don’t give you the chance. It’s such an exciting, enthusiastic service and your body and spirit are always engaged … you might leave exhausted, but not sleepy.”
Vic Minish knows a thing or two about dealing with drowsy crowds. In addition to teaching at Faith Christian School in Anniston, he’s also serving as the Priest in Charge for St. Joseph of Arimathea, a small Anglican Church in Montgomery, where the liturgy keeps its congregation awake and alert.
“It keeps a person moving — kneel, stand, sit, repeat,” he says. “Second, in keeping with our contemporary problem of cultural ADD, I keep my homilies short and to the point, 12-17 minutes. When those two things fail I know they must really be having a hard time.”
Minish believes that it’s not necessarily his job to serve as entertainer — the act of being in church, in the midst of worship, should keep people engaged.
“It’s the frailty of humanity,” he says. “I do have to push back mentally against the temptation to entertain. Homilies are there to encourage and teach, to speak truth, not to provide spectacle. Worship is an offering of praise and thanksgiving. It’s hard work.”
But Minish also concedes the reality that faces everyone in his congregation. It’s not out of disrespect that some get sleepy in church. It’s a natural reaction to one of the rare chances many get to sit still and, in a way, relax.
“No one gives everything they have every moment of the day, and worship is no different,” he says. “Every minister hopes their parishioners are worshipping well every Sunday, but sometimes just being present is all that they have to offer. That’s OK. It’s the rhythm of the Christian life.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.