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The Cost of Inclusion

The doors may be open, but is that really enough?

There is a hymn that is often sung in churches entitled “All Are Welcome,” and in the fourth verse there is a line that goes:

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.[1]

I have heard this song at reconciliation workshops, Sunday worship, ordinations, and baptisms. Although it may not be the origin of the phrase, “all are welcome,” it certainly has been married to the movement of inclusion. This is especially true in a post-segregation society in which we claim to live and worship.

And why not? “All are welcome,” and its sister phrase, “all means all,” seem to cross the boundaries that society had set so firmly into place. But when we bring everyone into the space without the work of deconstruction to systems of oppression, we are asking the “least of these” in God’s creation to pay the price of their dignity and pain. Are all really welcome in a space that asks the oppressed to offer their hand to their oppressor?

This song gives us the space to explore what we are asking people to do when we say, “all are welcome.” The phrase, “Let us bring an end to fear and danger,” does not ask us to stop making others fearful, it asks the fearful to stop being afraid. Fear is the natural and appropriate response by the oppressed to the dangerous acts of oppressors. It is conjured into being by those who anticipate danger. Now, I understand that the song is talking more broadly about the human condition. We all experience fear at some point in our lives. We have all experienced loss, want, and the need to belong. But when we lack nuance in our work of reconciliation and inclusion, we privilege the oppressor and ask those who have been hurt to pay the price of our welcome.

So, the big question is…should all be welcome? Read more

Not So Silent: Christmas Worship with Children

Dearest church people,

Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve. Your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. You may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.

In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, become a pew-sitter; as a minister without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.

And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes needs a reminder to do so. Sometimes, this nudge results in a little preteen, mother-daughter drama. The five-year-old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran. (We currently attend a Lutheran church.) And the two-year-old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also highly attuned to the Holy Spirit, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing. And when it’s time to go forward to receive communion, she has a hard time waiting her turn. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles. Add candles on Christmas Eve (our church has one service, at 7pm, well past the littlest one’s bedtime), and it’s going to be anything but a meditative experience for me. Read more

'All Are Welcome' sign above church doors

All Inclusive (a top ten list)

So often in ministry we preach the sermons we need to hear just as much as our congregations need to hear them. That was certainly true of this top ten list. My spouse, you see, is genderqueer. This list is grounded in my experience as a spouse watching even the most progressive churches stumble when it comes to welcoming trans* and genderqueer folks. So consider this a helpful beginner’s guide to making your community of faith a safe space and building up good allies so that all of God’s beloved children are welcome.

'All Are Welcome' sign above church doors

How To Be Good, Inclusive Communities of Faith for All Gender Identities and Expressions:

  1. Don’t split responsive pieces of liturgy between “male” and “female” voices. I’m a big fan of “left side” and “right side.”
  2. Our forms for membership, church school, online options, etc., should list multiple gender options beyond male and female. Where it is possible to give a write-in option rather than choices, do that.
  3. Bathrooms. I know this is everyone’s favorite hot button. But seriously: provide at least one gender neutral restroom. I promise you: folks will thank you for it.
  4. Be mindful of how we talk about God. Use male language, female language, and non-gendered language. The choices we make from the pulpit matter deeply. Be intentional. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in how we talk about the Holy.
  5. Be good allies. Listen to the voices of those in your community who are trans*, genderqueer etc. Elevate those voices without asking them to educate people. Listen to their stories.
  6. When we mess up, say we’re sorry. I’m married to a genderqueer person. And even I mess up sometimes. It’s part of being an ally. And, when I get it wrong? The first thing I do is say, “I’m sorry,” and commit to doing better.
  7. When members of an applicable community give us feedback about something, listen. Hear them. Make it clear we are taking seriously what they have to say. They shouldn’t have to tell us multiple times that something is offensive for us to stop doing it, or even for us to hear them.
  8. Flags. If we are hanging a rainbow flag or symbol in our building (and gosh I hope we are), then think about hanging a trans* flag too. Every one of the colleagues I know who has done this has seen a new visitor or two in church the next week.
  9. Ask about someone’s pronouns. In my ideal world, all churches who use name tags would include folks’ pronouns. However, we can also ask! Good rule of thumb: if you don’t know, ask. It’s polite to ask without making a fuss to help someone feel fully seen as the beloved child of God they are.
  10. Never out anyone. Pastors, this is crucial for us. If someone comes out to us as trans*, it’s our job to hold that information sacred, confidential, and tender until they are ready to share their story with the wider body of Christ.
handprints in paint on a white wall

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Running Down the Aisles Edition

handprints in paint on a white wallDear Askie,

Recently, our church has seen an increase in young children attending worship. Now, I love children very much, and I know that young families are a wonderful addition to our congregation. However, the noise and commotion can be very disruptive, and really detracts from my (and others’) worship experience. Our congregation offers childcare, but I guess some parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Another problem is that as these children get older, they feel right at home in the church building, and can often be seen running around with little or no supervision. This can be dangerous for the children and for the unlucky folks in their path. How can our church address these problems without chasing the families away?

Sincerely,
Concerned about Children

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A View From the Pew

I am a newcomer.

That is an identity that I haven’t worn in 18 years.  But as a newly-staying-at-home mom who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, a priest whose family spent several months seeking a church home, I see church through new eyes….the eyes of one sitting in a pew.

My husband, two year old daughter, and I have visited about ten churches in the past three months. I am here to tell you that you all are doing a great job—the preaching has been very, very good, I am inspired by the opportunities for engagement in my own spiritual formation and that of my daughter and husband, and I see plenty of places where I can jump in to serve the wider community and world in the name of Christ.

But what I don’t know, is where to find the nursery. Or the bathroom. And I’m not sure where to park, or if you expect me to volunteer in the nursery, or if you consider me a member of your church.

When I reflect on my time as a parish priest, specifically one who worked with children and youth, there are a few things of which I so wish I had been more aware.

452px-Immaculate_Conception_Roman_Catholic_Church,_115_North_Cushman_Street,_Fairbanks_(Fairbanks_North_Star_Borough,_Alaska)

 

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs (or not)

Once my GPS has finished its work and I am parked somewhere near your church, I am 100% at your mercy. God blessed me with an excellent sense of direction, but even I don’t know where to go. Churches have many, many different entrances, at least 600 per church, and most bear not one sign. We newcomers really do read signs. Maybe ask some folks who don’t worship at your church to do a site visit, and have them tell you where they need direction. Those signs are a welcome sight for a newcomer, and they speak volumes about the hospitality of a congregation.

First Responders

Now that I have made my way into your church, I might need a little more direction from a live human being. I might need to know where a certain Sunday school classroom is or where the bathroom is. Churches are doing a much better job of appointing people to serve as “greeters,” a separate ministry from “ushering.” The challenge is that these greeters like to talk—with each other! I like that people are happy to see each other! But they forget to welcome newcomers! Train your greeters to be on the lookout for newcomers and to make a step towards us. (We are easy to pick out. We look lost and gravitate to the pews in the back.)

First Responders Part II

I was in charge of our church’s childcare ministry. I’ve been the one to receive the 8:55 phone call saying no one can work in the nursery at the 9:00 service. These things happen. And not every church has the finances or the ethos to offer childcare during worship, and that is okay. But, if your church does have a nursery, know that it is both a wonderful gift and an awesome responsibility. We newcomers are nervous about leaving our most precious treasures with you. If you are calm (not rushing in a minute before the service starts), ask about allergies, ask about preferences around being called if our child is upset, and ask about pottying, we will rest much easier. I sat through one service not listening to one word because I was worried about my child. A calm, professional, warm childcare provider makes a hugely positive impression!

Website

Not every church has a website, but if yours does, keep it up to date. Yes, a nice, crisp website is a good start. But if the information is outdated, the value of having a website is severely compromised. An outdated website does not a good first impression make.

Vocabulary

Even those of us who are well versed in church talk are sometimes at a loss when it comes to announcements about ministry gatherings. For example, “St. Margaret’s is meeting on Sunday, March 3, at 5:00 in the Parlor. Newcomers welcome!” I am wracking my brain to remember who St. Margaret is, and what the focus of her namesake group might therefore be. Many announcements use insider language. The person who proofs announcements serves newcomers well by asking if the language is inviting or informational to those who have forgotten Saints 101.

Expectations

My final thought is that the “welcome” stage is but the first phase of embracing newcomers. The second phase is newcomer integration. Now that we’ve decided to make yours our church home, what are you going to do with us? What are we supposed to be doing? Pledging? Transferring our membership? Volunteering in the nursery? Making cookies for coffee hour? I dare say, the newcomer integration part is probably more critical than the original welcome. We newly-committed newcomers are nervous that we’re not doing something that we’re supposed to be doing. Tell us what you expect from us, whether that is via newcomers classes, being connected to other members who can shepherd us, or a meeting with the clergy.

Welcoming newcomers is intentional work, and it takes time, training, and money. And, it’s often difficult for existing church members to have an objective perspective about their congregation, because they already speak the language and know every nook and cranny of the building. Don’t be afraid to visit other churches (hard for clergy) or have members of the newcomers committee visit other churches to walk in the shoes of a visitor. Or, think about the most hospitable places in your town (ours is probably the YMCA), and talk about what it is that makes those places feel so warm and welcoming. Then, do what they do! In the eyes of a newcomer, a little bit….a sign, a “Hi, can I help you?” or “Does your child have any allergies?”…. goes a very long way.

 Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rev. Mary Davila and her husband and daughter are new members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, which does have a wonderful childcare ministry, greeters, and signs galore.

Safety Pins and Masking Tape

Ten minutes to show time, and the pews are filled with guests. Soft, unobtrusive music flows from the organ pipes, muffling voices and the footfalls of last-minute arrivals. The groom and groomsmen, thankfully all present and accounted for, wait in the lounge for their cue. Parents smile and check for the tissues they’ve tucked into purses and pockets. Hidden away in a corner room off the narthex, one woman in white huddles with several others in some shade of satin that they’ll never wear again, whatever the bride may have promised. She adjusts her posture, realizes her stiffness, shifts again, breathes deeply, purposefully; her friends and sisters fuss with hems and hair and bouquets.

Meanwhile, I crouch at the front of the sanctuary, robe and stole puddling on the slate floor, a roll of masking tape around my wrist like a particularly hideous bracelet as I secure the aisle runner that everyone else forgot until now and no one else knows what to do with. In the back of my head the usual voice whispers, “This is not what I thought I was getting into when I went to seminary.” That thought is true of so much of ministry that it’s barely worth my eye-rolling response to myself. The bride’s mother taps my shoulder – do I happen to have a safety pin? I do, as a matter of fact. I have several of them, in a variety of sizes, in the same bag from which I produced the masking tape – which also came in handy when the unity candle set didn’t quite fit into the holders. The same bag also holds bobby pins, double-sided tape, a Tide pen, a small sewing kit, tissues, water, and assorted other helpful objects that I’ve accumulated. I was a bridesmaid four times, a personal attendant another four, and I’ve performed well over fifty weddings (I don’t count, but that’s a conservative estimate). You pick up things over time – skills and objects that smooth the chaos that goes on around weddings.

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Ministry of Presence…

Presence1

As I prepare for work/worship on Sunday, I realize that I actually don’t have any huge responsibilities – it’s a “regular” Sunday School day, and the high school youth are doing worship. It’s also the last week of the month which usually means I don’t have so many meetings. So…I’m thinking that my work Sunday morning will comprise generally of hanging-out…which means playing with the babies in the nursery and visiting Sunday School classes, oo-ing and ah-ing over the little creations made by little hands.

The ministry of presence is the ministry of hanging-out. I’ve discovered it takes different forms but the core of it is consistent. It means simply being with people and then being a space for people.

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Holy Housework

But in the midst of all that spiritual work, the everyday work of dusting, scrubbing and organizing real rooms doesn’t go away. This month, we bring you a sermon that reminds how this, too, is a spiritual pursuit.

I have a secret.

I have a very long term, very intense, shameful love/hate relationship with housework. I love the idea of housework. Years ago I bought the Cheryl Mendelson’s book Home Comforts. Mendelson is a lawyer, who grew up in a farm in Pennsylvania, and her passion is housekeeping. She loves to sort and clean and cook. Her book is so beautifully written that it seduces you into the idea that housekeeping is an art. She writes:

What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.

(Sigh) Isn’t that lovely? I’ll read that paragraph and swear to myself that I will become a capital H Housekeeper. My house will be airy and light, dust free, with clutter put into its rightful place. The sink will sparkle. No crumb will mar my hygienic kitchen counters. My home will be a place of peace and beauty.

Yeah, right. Read more