On Being an Acolyte: Some Step-by-Step Directions

At the start of each worship service at St. Paul United Church of Christ, candles are lit on the altar. The person lighting the candles is called an “acolyte” which means one who attends or helps. The acolyte may also assist the presiding pastor or minister in other ways too. The following step-by-guide explains how an acolyte serves the church and its ministry during worship services.

Directions for Acolyting

Getting Ready:

1. You should arrive at the pastor’s office at least fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the service. If you are going to be late or cannot serve as acolyte for the day as you promised, let the pastor know as far in advance as possible to that arrangements for another acolyte can be made.

2. To acolyte you need to be dressed appropriately. Dark slacks, white shirt, and dress shoes are required for young men. A white blouse and dress shoes are required for young women. (Dark slacks are also required for young women if slacks are worn instead of a skirt or dress-no jeans or athletic shoes are permitted.)

3. Upon arriving at the pastor’s office, retrieve the candlelight from the wall peg in the hallway sacristry between the pastor’s office and the chancel. Please check the candle-lighter wick to make sure that it is long enough for your use: you can do by simply extending the wick with the lever on the candle-lighter pole. The wick should be at least four to five inches long. Short wicks need to be replaced. A box of additional wicks can be found in the sacristry wall cabinet. If you have trouble replacing the wick, seek help from a deacon or usher.

4. From the acolyte robes that hang in the closet of the pastor’s office, find one that best fits you. Also, make sure that you dress with a collar that can be found with the robes.

5. After you have robed up, please check with the pastor (or whoever else may be leading worship that morning) for special instructions. Your help may be needed if there is a baptism that morning. On special occasions such as Easter the pastor may ask you to enter the sanctuary with him or her from the narthex of the church, rather than through the side chancel door. In these instances you will be processing with him or her up the center aisle to the chancel.

As the Worship Service Begins:

6. After the organist has begun the prelude music for the service, check with the pastor for a signal to proceed. A lighter, as well as matches, to ignite the taper of the candle-lighter pole can be found in the sacristry cabinet. After lighting the taper return the lighter to the sacristry cabinet or blow out the match. Extinguished matches should be placed in the sacristry ashtray.
Do not throw any extinguished matches into the waste-basket!

7. Unless instructed to enter with the pastor down the center aisle from the narthex, step into the chancel from the sacristry hallway. Walk in an unhurried and dignified way to the front and center of the altar.

8. As you arrive in front of the altar, pause for a moment. (You may wish to offer a brief, silent prayer.) Then step up to the semicircular altar platform. If you are acolyting with another person, both of you should pause together and then step up to the altar platform at the same time.

9. When there are two altar candles and only one acolyte, light the candle on your right side (as you face the altar) first. Then light the other candle on the left. If there are two acolytes, each should light one altar candle at the same time. Afterwards, unless there are other candles to light in the chancel, pull the lever on the candlelight pole to extinguish the flame. Then step back and down from the altar platform, pause for another moment of reverence, and, finally, turn and exit through the side chancel door.

10. During the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent there are usually additional candles on a candelabra just below the chancel steps which must also be lit. In this case, after stepping down from the altar platform, turn and walk over to the chancel rail overlooking the candelabra stand. Light the appropriate candles. You may then extinguish your candlelight before walking back towards the altar and exiting through the side chancel door.

11. After exiting from the chancel, return the candlelight to the wall peg to the sacristry hallway.

12. If you are going to be attending a Christian education class upstairs, please remove your robe and leave it in the pastor’s office. Otherwise, you are expected to attend the worship service. You may enter the sanctuary through the arched doorway leading from the sacristry hallway. Quietly close the door behind you. If you prefer, you may remain robed for the worship service. Please sit with your family or in one of the front pews.

As the Worship Service Ends:

13. Approximately five minutes prior to the scheduled end of the service, or at the start of the final hymn of the service, you should return to the pastor’s office to robe and retrieve the candle-lighter from the sacristry hallway.

14. Following the pastor’s benediction or blessings, enter the chancel through the side door, holding the candle-lighter with the snuffer bell pointed away from you.

15. In front of the altar brief pause in another moment of reverence. Then step up onto the altar platform and lean forward to extinguish the altar candles with the snuffer bell, starting with the candle on the left (facing the altar) and moving towards the candle on the right. Before extinguishing the candle on the right, use it to ignite the taper or waxed wick of your candle-lighter. After you have lit your taper and extinguished the right side altar candle, step back and down from the altar platform. Turn and exit past the organ through the chancel door. The lit taper symbolizing the “light of Christ” going out into the world. You may extinguish the candle-lighter flame once you are in the sacristry hallway before returning the candle-lighter poll to its peg.

16. If you are acolyting with another person at the end of the service, both of you should reenter the chancel through the side door. The person who is to extinguish the left altar candle (facing the altar) should enter first, followed by the second acolyte. Before extinguishing the right altar candle, the second acolyte should ignite his or her taper. Together, the two acolytes should step back and down from the altar platform, then turn to exit in single file out the chancel door.

17. In the event that there are also Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, or Lenten candles in use for the service, the acolyte should snuff out both altar candles and then step over to the chancel rail overlooking the candelabra to extinguish the remaining candles. Instead of using the snuffer bell, the acolyte should blow these special candles out with a cupped hand behind the flame. Before extinguishing the last candle, however, the acolyte should ignite the taper on the candle-lighter so that he/she may exist through the side chancel door with the “light of Christ.”

18. Once you have finished extinguishing all candles and exited from the chancel, please return your candle-lighter and robe to their proper places. If the candle-lighter is jammed or not working right, please let the pastor or presiding deacon know. Also, if your robe is ripped or soiled in any way that would make it unusable for another service, a word or note to the pastor would be helpful.

Some Final Words on Acolyting

Thank you for acolyting! Although no one in the congregation may mention it, your part in the service adds much to our worship together. The reverence and dignity with which you do your job can help set the right mood and atmosphere for our worship services. Your reverence in approaching the altar to light and extinguish the candles can encourage the congregation to be more prayerful and reverent too. Being an acolyte is a service to God and the church in which you can and should take both enjoyment and pride! Again, thanks!

Acolite’s Glossary:
Words to Know

Acolyte  A person who assists in worship, especially in the lighting of altar candles.

Altar (also known as “The Lord’s Table”)  A table or platform at the front of the church on which a cross, candlesticks, an open bible, collection plates, and communion elements (bread and grape juice) are often placed.

Baptistry or Baptismal Fount  In most churches an area where people are baptized. At St. Paul United Church of Christ, our baptistery or baptismal fount is movable. The baptismal fount is usually placed just below the chancel steps in the center aisle at the front of the church. During baptisms, the cover to the fount is removed by the minister. An acolyte may be asked to hold the cover or to momentarily lay it on a chancel pew until the end of the baptismal ceremony when the cover is returned to the fount.

Candelabra  A branched holder for more than one candle. At St. Paul United Church of Christ, our candelabras are on tall brass stands used for special ceremonial occasions, such as weddings. A candelabra is also used for the Sundays of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent.

Candlelighter  A brass pole especially designed to help light and extinguish candles. The candle-lighter has a waxed wick that can be extended by a small knob along the underside of its pole. When lit, the candle-lighter wick is used to light the altar candles and any other candles in the chancel. At the end of the candle-lighter is a snuffer “bell” that can be used to extinguish the altar and chancel candles.

Chancel  The area at the front of the church where the altar is located and from which worship is led. At St. Paul United Church of Christ the chancel is separated from the rest of the sanctuary by steps and wooden railings. Our chancel as a side entrance which is located between the organ and choir pews.

Collar and Robe  Like our choir members, acolytes assisting in worship at St. Paul United Church of Christ may be asked to wear a robe and collar. The collar is a short piece of material shaped like a double triangle. It fits over the head and is placed on top of the robe to cover that part of the lower neck area which the robe does not reach. Each collar is reversible with a different color on each side. The color to be used by the acolyte depends upon the season of the Christian year.

Lectern  A podium or speaker’s stand from which Sunday morning announcements are made and from which the Bible is read during worship. The lectern at St. Paul United Church of Christ is on the west side of the chancel.

Narthex  An area at the back of the church, near the vestibule and entrance, where coats hare hung and where steps to our church’s balcony are located. The Narthex is separated from the sanctuary by wooden panels and from the church vestibule by double doors that can be closed.

Nave  The area of our sanctuary between the narthex and the chancel where worshipers are seated for services. Nave comes from the word “naval,” referring to the fact that many church ceilings are designed to look like the bottom of a ship, an allusion to the notion of the church as an “ark of salvation.”

Pulpit  A podium and speaker’s stand, usually upraised, from which the sermon is delivered during worship. The pulpit at St. Paul United Church of Christ is opposite the lectern on the east side of the chancel.

Sacristry  An area adjoining the sanctuary where articles and equipment used for worship are stored. The sacristy area for St. Paul United Church of Christ is located in the hallway between the chancel and the pastor’s office.

Sanctuary  An area of the church in which worship takes place. Sanctuary means “holy place.” The sanctuary of St. Paul United Church of Christ includes both the nave and chancel.

Taper  A small or slender candle often used to light other large candles. The long, wax-coated wick that fits into the candle-lighter is also called a taper.

Wick  A braided string at the center of a candle that is lit and enables the candle to burn.