Post Author: Erica L. Schemper
There’s no way around it: ministry is a career and calling that involves a strange assortment of skills, not the least of which is the logistics of baptism.
Whether your tradition baptizes infants, young children, teens, or adults; whether you sprinkle, pour, or immerse; the practical implications are mind boggling. Even if you had a seminary worship professor who insisted on a full “wet-run” in class, there’s something helpful in this wealth of advice gathered from a group of young clergywomen.
You’ll need water. More than one pastor has whipped the lid off a small font mid-worship to discover that no one bothered to fill it. And it may be easier to tell if a large baptistry is filled, but don’t take anything for granted. Make it a pre-worship habit to check your font. If you pour water into a font from a pitcher as part of the liturgy, practice beforehand, so that you know how much water your font can take. Experiment with water temperature: warm water will be less of a shock to a baby, but how warm the water should be when you put it in the font or pitcher will depend on how long the water will be sitting in the font.
Babies can smell fear. Be confident. You may find a fussy baby trick that works for you: one woman’s mentor taught her to cradle the baby and slip his close arm between your arm and your torso. She swears this makes the baby curious about where his arm went and distracts from any fussiness. Another woman baptizes babies belly down, so the baby can see the water and her reflection. She also recommends bouncing the baby to the rhythm of “Buffalo Soldier.” Don’t be ashamed if a really fussy baby needs to stay with a parent, godparent, or sponsor while you baptize. (Just remember to stand alongside whomever is holding the baby, rather than across the font: cross-font baptism frequently result in a baby craning his neck to look at the pastor, which can result in the poor thing getting a flood of water back into his nose.) And affirm for parents that infant baptism is always a bit chaotic, appropriately so, since the theology of those who practice it reminds us that some of us come to God not so much by our own choice, but perhaps kicking and screaming.
Be ready for the unexpected. Even if you’re an experienced baby-snuggler, fancy baptismal gowns can be voluminous and slippery. And, just as babies can smell fear, they can also smell breast milk. If you happen to be lactating, don’t be taken aback if a baby shows some interest. Whatever happens, as one woman was told, “if someone gets wet and no one gets dropped” the baptism has been a success.
Take younger children into account as well. Older siblings of a baby to be baptized can be given a task (helping with a children’s message; pouring water into the font; reading part of the liturgy); this is also a great opportunity to talk to them about baptism, and doing so before the day of the baptism can make the difference between nervous and confident children.The same goes for older children who are being baptized. Find language that will work for them.
Think through how you’ll hold or memorize or have your liturgy held: Your hands will be full.
Immersion baptisms have a whole different set of logistics. The pastor, too, will be wet. Beyond a robe and even waders, one woman give this gender-specific advice “Wear your hair completely up that day to make sure nothing dips into the water. Even if your chest will not reach the water, depending on depth I wear a padded white bra, a sports bra, a tank top, a T-shirt and the robe over that. No matter how warm the water may plan to be, the VERY LAST thing I want a newly baptized person to see upon rising out of the water is my overly zealous chest.”
If you’ve not had practice immersing, the collective wisdom is to try it. One seminary professor of larger stature insisted that his students immerse him, so that they would always be confident baptizing someone much taller than themselves. Pastors in traditions that practice infant baptism may be most accustomed to springing water on infants and small children, but often have the liturgical option, for adult baptisms, of immersion. If you’re about to do an immersion baptism for the first time, find a colleague with more practice to teach you how.
Women who are experienced at immersion baptisms remind us to get our feet set in a good stance, or use a “side-lunge”, and to use the water’s buoyancy to help bring the person back up.
One woman once witnessed a baptism where someone hit their head on the edge of the baptistry and advises carefully considering the size of your baptistry. Considering asking a taller person to kneel and have their head dunked forward rather than back.
There’s also a trick several women discussed: using a white cloth (plain white handkerchiefs work well) to hold over someone’s mouth and nose as they go under and come back up. This can eliminate the need for nose-plugging.
You are, of course, going to have baptism mishaps. We all have stories. But no matter what happens, baptizing is one of the great joys, privileges, and mysteries of your calling.
Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian minister who recently relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. She's lost count of how many babies she's baptized (which is a lovely thing), but recalls vividly that her own daughter screamed wildly when she baptized her, and didn't calm down until she was handed over from her mama to her mama's minister-colleague to be presented to the congregation.
Image by: Hakan Dahlstrom
Used with permission