Response 1: Jill Aaron
This is a good question and sooner or later every First Reader confronts it. But, as each situation is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
First and foremost, I would pray, both before the meeting and during the testimonies. I might affirm that divine Love is governing the meeting and, therefore, only good can be communicated. I might also work with Mrs. Eddy’s statement: “Mind measures time according to the good that is unfolded” (Science and Health, p. 584).
Many Readers proactively introduce the testimony period by including a request to keep remarks to a few minutes and focus on healing. However, when a testimony seems to be going too long or getting off track, I would prayerfully consider a few things.
I’d begin by asking myself if the remarks have strayed significantly from the healing purpose of the meeting. I love Hermann Herring's insights and Mrs. Eddy’s guidance on the Wednesday meetings in the new edition of We knew Mary Baker Eddy (see pp. 442 - 446). Herring was the second First Reader of The Mother Church. He tells of having to ask testifiers to stay on topic which, to him, meant "legitimate cases of healing and helpful remarks."
Then I’d consider other factors besides length such as: Is the testimony overall helpful and inspiring; are many others waiting to testify; does the individual usually give long testimonies; and is he or she new to Christian Science?
It can take considerable courage to stand up in church and give gratitude to God by sharing a healing. So, I'd be inclined to be patient and let the individual continue unless the remarks are clearly imposing on the congregation, inordinately long, or extend more than a few minutes beyond the ending time for the meeting.
In three years of serving as a First Reader, I almost never had to ask someone to curtail a testimony, even some pretty long ones. But when I did, the right words came and they were received with grace. Also, sometimes the most loving and effective approach is to have a private conversation later instead of interrupting the testimony.
Remember the old adage: "It’s not so much what you say as how you say it." I love Mrs. Eddy's letter "To a First Reader" which ends with this statement: "The little that I have accomplished has all been done through love, - self-forgetful, patient, unfaltering tenderness" (The First Church of Christ Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 247).
I will always remember how a First Reader of The Mother Church handled a difficult situation many years ago. The meeting opened for testimonies, and a man stood up and began to rant about something inappropriate. The First Reader, in the most loving yet firm tone, said to the man, "Sir, are you glorifying God?" The man continued to rant. But the Reader persisted: "Sir, are you glorifying God? Maybe you should sit down and think about what you are saying." The man quickly yielded up the microphone and sat down. The meeting continued as though nothing had happened. I am certain the Reader was praying for the right words. But what has stayed with me to this day is the power of Love, which he expressed, and its immediate effect.
Whatever you feel led to say or do, if it is done without any sense of impatience, rebuke, self-righteousness, or condemnation, but rather with genuine patience, tenderness and love, it will accomplish its purpose and bless the testifier and the meeting.
Response 2: Curt Wahlberg
In considering these questions, I think it’s helpful to have in mind the purpose of testimony meetings. For me, the purpose of testimony meetings is that those in attendance gain inspiration that enables spiritual growth and healing for everyone in the world.
I think the issue we face is that congregations can fail in the focus to support one another spiritually during testimony time. We really need to feel people’s “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (holiness) (see Matt. 5:6) and then hear how that brings healing results. Often, people will settle for merely sharing gratitude for how their daily adventures can wind up pleasantly. There is something to be grateful for in that, but such an emphasis tends to draw out the mundane and falls short of transforming each other’s lives.
As a Reader, I first wanted focused readings, with a strong thought behind them of a spiritual sense of life. I looked for hymns that clearly backed up those readings. I also felt it was important to introduce testimony time with notices that were especially thought through for each meeting, to indicate the importance of giving deep thought to every moment we shared.
I then liked to at least remind people to “keep their remarks to a few minutes and to keep the focus on the healing.” I also did things such as read this from the Church Manual: “Testimony in regard to healing of the sick is highly important. More than a mere rehearsal of blessings, it scales the pinnacle of praise and illustrates the demonstration of Christ, ‘who healeth all thy diseases’ (Psalm. 103:3)” (p. 47).
The emphasis for me was on “illustrating the demonstration of Christ.” If a testimony would have a long rehearsal of events, or a focus on suggesting to others how to live and think, I would ask if “a healing was coming.” Sometimes, I would ask if “there was a healing point or a demonstration to wrap up with.”
The whole goal I figure is for us to feel how God is moving His children. Having this feeling within me was the most important thing I felt I could do to encourage good meetings and testimonies, and it was the key to knowing in the moment the right thing to do and maybe say. It’s hard to force good testimonies, but the peace, love, and thoughtfulness we feel surely helps move things in a good direction.