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.


Hystery said...

I had some similar thoughts when visiting an urban meeting. Their ministry seemed very alien to me as a rural person.

Martin Kelley said...

I have to think that the situation might be better if there was more.... well..., actual ministry taking place--you know, elucidating the gospels, praying over one another, sharing direct spiritual openings etc. If the spoken word part of our worship is dominated by "lessons from my life" then it will surely be rooted in lifestyle and the unexamined biases we all carry.

paula said...

You make excellent points. Case in point in my experience:

Once I gave ministry. I don't remember what it was. But a short time later, a man (professor at local college) felt the need to stand and "interpret" my ministry into his own professional language. Which was electrical engineering. I am used to a more intellectual language in our urban university meeting, but when ministry from the Spirit is turned into "lessons from my life (thank you, Martin), something has gone seriously awry.

I thank you for your essay.

Unknown said...

I second what martin said. This is why first-person "sharing" as the main kind of "ministry" becomes a problem. After reading this and other things you've written about Friends and class, I have to say...wherever you go to meeting sounds pretty extreme. Most of my experience is with small fairly chill mtgs though. My few visits to a large, stereotypical "college town" meeting sound a little more like what you've described. Maybe this is sort of norm that builds on itself.

Tyler Hampton

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Actually, I think the only question that matters to us around vocal ministry is, "Are we being faithful?"

Are we responding fully and promptly to the leadings of Spirit, including the prompting to rise and speak, without editing or word-smithing, in the words given us by Spirit?

If we are doing anything else, whether it is suppressing what is being given us to say or outrunning our guide, we are compromising our faithfulness... or, perhaps, learning it, and hopefully there will be some help available to show us how to be more faithful in future.

I believe I have heard faithful ministry that is deeply rooted in the personal, and that I have heard faithful ministry that is rooted in Scripture. But I also believe it is not my place or anyone's to decide for God what form that content should take in advance.

This is one reason why, as a non-Christian Friend, I weep when I hear of Christian Friends being told not to speak of Jesus or to mention the Bible in their vocal ministry; they are being counseled against faithfulness.

Well, but isn't it always "dangerous" to speak from personal experience? After all, as Jeannie points out, aspects of our specific experience may not speak to or may even alienate some hearers.

Of course it's dangerous. That's why we do it in covenanted communities, where we trust God to lead and one another to follow; where we trust that a message that does not speak to our condition may speak to another's, and allow it to pass us by without anger... and where, if there is a pattern of vocal ministry that is apparently not rooted in Spirit, some of the most capably compassionate and loving of Friends will find a way to speak to the Friend at fault in a way that will hopefully help them to discern better in future, while also nourishing and encouraging the growth of ministry wherever it is found.

Censorship around the content of ministry, whether self-censorship or censorship of others, does not seem to me to be a helpful part of that process. Even if it is undertaken with the best of intentions--to protect a non-Christian Friend like myself, for instance, or a working class Friend like you, Jeanne.

It is important that we are careful in discernment of ministry. Questions like, "Is this really meant to be spoken, and to be spoken here and now?" and "Is love at the root of what I am about to say?" belong in everyone's repertoire.

I know many of us fall short, probably in every meeting.

But while I agree with Martin that actual ministry is the answer, and that this will always involve "elucidating the gospel," I think it is important to recognize that the real gospel, the one that speaks directly to hearts and does good and not harm in the world, is the one that, were every Bible in the world destroyed tomorrow, will still go on being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

That gospel can speak through almost anything... and ministry offered without it, whether rooted in personal experience or in beloved passages of the Bible, will be sterile.

Jeanne said...

Cat, I would hope that if a Friend said to me that my ministry reeked of white privilege and was hurtful, I would take some time to seriously and thoughtfully consider her words. I would hope to examine myself and the culture around me that has until this point supported and appreciated my ministry. And I would hope to figure out ways to encourage my whole meeting to grow into the community God intends us to be.

I certainly hope I wouldn't respond by saying that things should stay the same and that God'll sort it all out.

Liz Opp said...

As I was considering this post and the comments, and as I began to sort through what wasn't sitting well with me, it seems that Jeanne has put her finger on it.

Here is how I'd phrase the issue:

What is it about (Liberal?) Quaker culture, and White middle class America, that teaches so many of us to calm the troubled waters, rather than to wade in them?

Like Cat, and until fairly recently, my reaction would be to trust that we are all striving to be faithful, and leave it at that.

But I am learning that often times, being faithful isn't enough. I used to think it was, but now, in the context of oppression based on skin color, on sexual orientation, and on social class, I am learning that that isn't enough.

Being willing to wrestle with things that make me uncomfortable in order to understand a deeper Truth opens a way to participating in justice, social change, and Gospel Order that I could not see or know before.

Until very recently, it used to be enough, to ask the very thing that Cat has said:

I think the only question that matters to us around vocal ministry is, "Are we being faithful?"

But as I work to peel away the blinders I've had around racism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia, that query must now be put into a wider social context--especially when one among us says Ouch.

Not "Ouch that hurts me personally and encroaches on my entitlement as a person of privilege," but "Ouch that hurts because it's part of an oppressive system, an oppressive -ism, that we are supposed to be working to change."

I think that this post, and Cat's well-intentioned reply, is helping me see that I am learning to put the simple query, "Are we being faithful?" into the context of "...And how does the White middle-class Quaker structure that I have internalized answer that question for me?"

Granted, there is a time when a cigar is just a cigar. But when a person who has been part of an historically oppressed group says, "There is something to look at here, for all of us," it may be that God is asking me (us) to see past the cigar, and past the smoke and mirrors that modern Quaker culture has blown in my face, to something larger...

(Ugh, I have more that is stirred up but I'm having trouble getting to it. Time for me to sit some more and listen further....)

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

ef said...

Martin- I'm not clear what a "direct spiritual opening" is and how it differs from "lessons from my life" (or at least where we would draw the line, as they'd seem to be on a continuum) - does it have to include Jesus, or Christian imagery?

Anonymous said...

When I visited women at the jail, I once invited a prisoner to attend our meeting when she was released. She asked me, "Would I be welcome at your meeting?" I told her I knew she would be welcome, but I couldn't say that she would feel welcome. I knew it in my heart, for all the reasons you're describing, Jeanne. She would not have felt welcome. She would not have felt that she could "fit in."

Eileen Flanagan said...

This blog post doesn't address all the issues you raise here, but it's all I can manage for tonight.

Chris Nugent said...

I'm so thankful Friends are addressing this issue. Lack of diversity is a growing concern with me.

Vocal ministry is always a delicate negotiation. Part of that negotiation involves listeners. How earnestly do we seek to discern the Messenger behind the words? How do we sit with messages that do not speak to us?

The Friend offering ministry, too, needs to be aware of those to whom he/she speaks. One of my favorite prayers during meeting for worship is, "Lord, spare me pious thoughts." Sharing such thoughts simply spreads the problem.

When I speak in Meeting for worship I try to remember the often illiterate desert fathers, who left very simple but profound words for us to ponder.

Alice Y. said...

Thanks so much for writing, Jeanne, and all the commenters as well. I have nothing to add, but I feel relief that these things are being talked about and brought to light and wanted to share my appreciation of you all. Good news to the poor.

Hystery said...

Being welcome and feeling welcome are two different things. I'm glad Rosemary made the distinction. I often don't feel welcome at meeting for worship although I am assured that I am, in fact, welcomed. I'm always afraid someone will think I'm a fraud or that I don't really belong among Friends. I only began to feel more welcome when someone went out of her way to spend time with me as a person outside of meeting. She friended me on facebook and came to visit me at my house. She took long walks with me and laughed with me. She listened to my concerns and to my feelings of being an outsider. She also allowed herself to be vulnerable in my presence. I was amazed at how much I had not understood about the people in my meeting and how much I had misunderstood about whether or not I belonged. I'm still working on my feelings of being "different" in my meeting and with my fears that they all have more than I do (money, wisdom, patience, knowledge, experience), but what a difference she made for me by treating me as a friend, and not just as a Friend.

Elizabeth said...

Liz said:

"Being willing to wrestle with things that make me uncomfortable in order to understand a deeper Truth opens a way to participating in justice, social change, and Gospel Order that I could not see or know before."

(Hi Liz!) That sounds to me like the heart of faithfulness, not something separate from it. It sounds like the process of humbly working together with God so that our ignorance and greed and fear be transformed into something more Christlike. It sounds like acting out of a Love that trumps ego, security and social standing.

Because we're human, the quality of our ministry can be affected by how far along we are in this larger journey of faithfulness.

I know I could be more fruitful if I were farther along in the journey, and that progressing in this takes hard work. I'm not so far along. But the words Jeanne wrote are sitting heavily in my heart, and I see them as an opportunity for some small measure of transformation.

Su said...

I also like Rosemary's distinction between being welcome and feeling welcome.

I just ended up touching on something like this in a post on my own blog. I was writing about a book but ended up commenting that I think Quakers engage in a kind of careless socializaiton of our young people into certain ideas. In my meeting, for instance, our actions show, for instance, that we think it's important to go to college and that getting into college is worth celebrating publicly (during joys and sorrows). The little stir that runs through the room when a parent announces that a child has been admitted to a "name" school like Brown makes it very clear that we think "name" schools are better than other schools (there are happy nods when a kid gets into a state college; on the rare occasions one gets into the Ivy League, there are vocalizations. Do we think our kids don't notice this?)

In addition, we often announce professional awards, or if someone gets written up in the paper (and then it gets posted on the bulletin board). People in our meeting might not even know, for instance, that other members have been deeply involved in a particular ministry; I've never seen anyone say something like, 'we're celebrating 10 years of so-and-so's involvement in Couple Enrichment," for instance.

I'd like to see us think more critically about these values and the ways we're transmitting them. Do we really value our children who get into "name" schools more than the ones who attend state schools? Do we really value our members who achieve professional prominence more than our members who are farmers, or ministers within the Quaker tradition? If not, then do our behaviors really reflect our values? Are there things we should do to ensure that they do?

Jeanne said...

I also like Rosemary's distinction. It's about intention and impact. I don't think any Quakers ever intend to be classist. But we do a much better job at reflecting the upper middle class society at large than we think we do.

Helen said...

What is it about (Liberal?) Quaker culture,..., that teaches so many of us to calm the troubled waters, rather than to wade in them?

This really speaks to the point I am moving towards in my spiritual journey. I work in a poor rural community, so going to meeting can cause me some culture shock...they are so "polite".

In addition, with health reforms in the UK, as a clinical person with management responsibility I have no choice but to wade into troubled waters, and I am realising this experience has broadened my understanding of the peace testimony. Conflict does not go away by being nice.

If we are going to speak truth to power, we need to think about the power of culture/class as something that needs to be spoken of rather than politely ignored.

Suzanne said...

I remember arguing with God at Pendle Hill about not wanting to join my meeting, because although I felt welcome and right with God in the presence of the meetinghouse, I did not feel community with those who gathered. A voice quite sternly spoke to me and said, "I am meeting you where you are AT."

Well, who could argue with that?

I still remember one of the first questions I was asked was what college had I attended? As much as that will forever annoy me, I trusted God and joined anyway. Thank you for speaking to my condition!