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'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.