If you're not welcome at church, where are you welcome? Once just a rhetorical question, it has taken on new import in the wake of the recent events in Bertha, Minn., where the Roman Catholic Church got a restraining order to keep a teenager with autism from disrupting its masses.

In fact, disruptions are not at all unusual during services, especially at downtown Minneapolis churches, where clergy deal with everything from people trying to give their own sermons to a man who recently marched down the main aisle of Central Lutheran Church carrying a suspicious-looking aluminum briefcase.

But the clergy, who feel that it's part of their mission to embrace the local communities, take it all in stride.

"We're an open campus that serves a community with a lot of street people," said the Rev. D. Foy Christopherson of Central Lutheran Church, 333 S. 12th St. "And we welcome them with open arms."

So do the members of these churches. Consider Paul, a homeless man who is a regular visitor at Wesley United Methodist Church, 101 E. Grant St. He has a favorite pew that he makes his way to, after which he promptly falls asleep.

The members talked it over and decided to let him sleep, said the Rev. Suzanne Mades, who recently left Wesley for an assignment at Portland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bloomington. When Paul can't find a shelter for the night, he doesn't get much sleep, so the church members figured that they'd cut him some slack.

"If the snoring gets too loud, someone will go over and nudge him," she said. "But it's just Paul. It's not a big deal."

Keeping it from becoming a big deal is the goal. Some churches have written policies about how to deal with disruptive worshipers, while others take things on a case-by-case basis. Either way, the aim is to minimize the impact.

"The key is not doing anything that escalates the situation," said the Rev. Jeff Sartain of Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Av. S.

"The cases are so varied that you have to decide at the time how to handle each one."

Part of the decision hinges on how long the minister thinks the disturbance will last. If it appears that it's going to be lengthy, ushers or stewards will approach the person and quietly escort him out of the sanctuary. But if it looks as if it's going to be short-lived -- which is what happened recently when a worshiper stood up and started giving his own sermon over that of the Rev. Jim Gertmenian -- the ministers will pause and hope it runs its course quickly.

"Jim just waited for him to finish and then went on with his own message," Sartain said. That was the end of the incident. The man had gotten what he wanted to say off his chest.

In his classes at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the Rev. John Cionca, a professor of ministry leadership, advises his students to try to divert attention away from the diversion.

"If you're not preaching from a pulpit and something happens on the left side of the sanctuary, you can move to the right side," he said. "Or I'll make my hand gestures bigger and say, 'Look at this' or 'Check this out.'"

Ready for anything

There is no such thing as a "normal" disruption, the clergy said.

"Being downtown, we attract all sorts of people," said the Rev. Mark Pavlik of St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 S. 8th St. "Every now and then, someone will come in who is inebriated or [mentally] confused. Or maybe they're wandering through the church looking for the food shelf. You expect everything."

But even so, Christopherson admits, he was taken aback by his recent briefcase-toting visitor. Perhaps the incident wouldn't have stuck out so much in a pre-9/11 world, but the first chance he got, Christopherson "got someone into the pew to make sure there was no risk to the assembly."

Suburban churches aren't immune to disruptions. The bulk of them are medical emergencies, and many ministers find them as difficult or even more so to deal with because appraisals of the situation are trickier to make.

"The question for the clergy is whether the service should go on," said Brian Anderson, communications director at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. "If it's near the back of the sanctuary and the ushers seem to have it in hand, the service will continue and a lot of people [worshiping] won't even know anything is happening. But if it's near the front or it appears more serious, that's different. It's the pastor's discretion how to deal with it."

Sometimes the people with the affected person will indicate how they'd like the situation handled, Cionca said.

"I was giving a sermon when a man had a seizure, and the people with him made a circling motion with their hands, meaning that I should keep going," he said. "Of course, if there are medics coming down the aisle with a gurney, you can't act like nothing is happening."

If it's a one-time occurrence, it can be dealt with and forgotten about. But if it's an continuing condition, it takes a more comprehensive effort, said Mades, who founded Disabilities Awareness Ministries, a Twin Cities organization that consults with congregations to help them accommodate worshipers with disabilities.

"Twenty years ago, Wesley made a conscious decision to become a full-inclusion ministry," she said. "We deal with people whose lives are very different from ours. We want the church to be a safe place for them to be.

"The biggest barrier to inclusion is what's between people's two ears. People jump to conclusions about disabilities. There's never enough dialogue. We can figure this out, but you have to communicate."

And, every now and then, the only thing a minister can do is communicate. Take, for instance, when a bird gets inside the sanctuary.

"In that case, all you can do is warn people," Christopherson said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392