Sunday, February 27, 2011

Welcome and Ministry

Update: an updated version of this was published in Friends Journal on December 26th, 2012.

I hear over and over again tales of meetings wanting to be more welcoming and they spend much time at committee meetings or meetings for worship for business discussing how to be more so. They talk about greeters and potlucks and literature and how to be more "Friendly" to those we don't know. But do we talk about worship itself?

One place I find particularly unwelcoming and sometimes hurtful is meeting for worship, and more specifically the ministry given.

During worship, I might hear references to things like GRE or NPR or CPA, none of which I'd heard about before moving to Minnesota at 24. I hear about the trials and tribulations of graduate school, and see nods of understanding but was clueless about until becoming friends with people who had gotten their advanced degrees. Friends find metaphors for ministry in complicated investment tools (which are still beyond my capacity to understand), academic treatises (which only recently have ceased to intimidate me), and even in all the discipline required for doing middle class taxes (I'd always used 1040 EZ, one page, no tracking required).

Beyond using words and metaphors that aren't accessible, sometimes the ministry is hurtful. Recently, a man stood to talk about all the help he'd gotten to get where he was, a retired and published chemistry professor. As he went on to describe a woman he'd helped at his private elite liberal arts college, he stated his utter shock that she was so smart and talented given that she'd transferred from her local community college in northern Minnesota. It made me think that I shouldn't tell him that I'd only recently graduated from Metro State.

Another time, a dentist talked about her "a-ha" moment when she realized how unfair the trade was that she'd done with a man who painted all the walls inside her house. She'd given him partial dentures that took an hour of her time and little effort and didn't realize how much time it took to paint her walls until later when she painted just one room. She seemed to be using the story to "teach" us about economic inequality.*

So I have some suggestions about making our actual worship more welcoming and less hostile to those who are not like us, and welcome your ideas too.

1. Create ways in meeting to address hurtful issues like these when they come up and make them explicit. My meeting has channels to flag ministry that's considered inappropriate in Friends ways (responding in a defensive way to a previous person, speaking right after another, using the platform to advance something overtly political or personal), but considering content seems verboten.

2. Consider very carefully your use of education or finances or middle class professions as metaphors in your own ministry. Is this something a hotel maid can relate to? A day laborer? A dishwasher? Is there another metaphor you can use if not?

3. We can only "preach" what we know, so we must speak from our own experiences. But as you give ministry, ask yourself if you're assuming that your life and your story is universal. See the questions under #2.

4. Now this one is radical. Make it okay to talk about social class in your meeting in an open and honest way, even when you talk about the quality of ministry. Ask hard questions about how welcoming your worship is for poor and working class people of all races and ethnicities.**

What are your thoughts and ideas? Does your meeting talk about worship when they talk about being welcoming? If so, how does it tackle that topic?

*I had to explain to Liz why that one hurt so I'll also explain it here. All I knew before I met middle class people for the first time was hard work, the kind that wore you out every single day so that you had little more energy for anything more than pulling up the footrest of your recliner, the kind that broke your wrist or even killed you if you weren't careful, the kind that required protective gear. I've been among Friends for going on 20 years and I still am surprised and hurt when a middle class person has become the "expert" on economic inequality when they are only now choosing a couple of hours of physical work on the weekend "for fun". My life is easy now, but I did hard low-wage work for the first ten years of my working life and then low-wage office work for the next eight, all by the time I was 33.

**For a bit of disclosure, I haven't been able to have any of this conversation in my own meeting. More on this in an upcoming post, I hope.