Monday, January 20, 2014

Dear Church, a Response to Unappreciated Pastor

Happy 2014!  I hope your New Year is off to a wonderful start.  I have begun my new position as the Consulting Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  I have also had the privilege to be guest preaching at the UU Fellowship of the Rappahanock in White Stone, VA and the Brockridge Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Lexington, VA. So January has been busy and it is time to get back to weekly blogging.  My goal is to post a new blog post each Monday morning. So let's get started!

Recently I came across this article on Huffington Post Religion, Hello, My Name Is Church | The Unappreciated Pastor.  The article prompted a great deal of mixed feelings for me.  So I sat with it for awhile.  I think the author makes a number of important points particularly that the church is imperfect and filled with imperfect people.  On the other hand, I was not convinced as to why one should come back particularly since the only thing the author had to offer is that we welcome everyone even those that even those who exhibit behaviors that might cause other people to stay away.  At the heart of the matter as I see it is whether the church is willing to transform, is it willing to change to be the church that is needed today or will the church remain attached to its past and its institution at the expense of the people.  So here is my response.

Dear Church,

It may seem strange that I, a seminary training, religious leader who has her own blog reflecting on issues of faith and spirituality, would write this response to you.  I have served congregations within the Episcopal church, Presbyterian Church and Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I am an openly queer religious leader and I deeply appreciate your apology.  Yet some things also really bothered me so I wanted to take some time to write back. I have a few questions.

So first, thank you for the apology.  As a member and leader I have found churches to be all the things you listed.  Particularly in the unwelcoming, overly self-righteous category leaving me to wonder if anyone cared whether I came back or not. If I have had that happen to me imagine those less savvy about faith communities, imagine someone who wasn't raised in a faith community, or was trying a new one, trying to find a place to belong.  I am someone who is committed, went to committee meetings, sought out getting involved, really wanted it to work.  No wonder those who were just checking it out, were there for the first time, were queer and were there the day someone launched a tirade about the evil of homosexuality or my personal favorite "We love the sinner and hate the sin."  My other favorite from the progressive congregations is the "We can't split the church." First, our history tells us that churches can and have survived splits if it came to that and, secondly, isn't doing the right thing and 'loving the least of these' more important than institutional cohesion? Then there are those that checked out your website, worked up the courage to come to worship, liked it, attended the newcomer class, maybe even tried to join a group and then vanished. No one called, no one asked.  They were busy being polite, not wanting to bother anyone.

So my first question is what are you doing to make it better? What are you doing to make it easier for the new person to meet people and get involved?  Are your membership people following up? Is anyone following up to the people who just stop showing up?  Are people being invited/encouraged to stop being so judgmental about others and focusing on loving one another?  On following the life of Jesus, a life lived loving, healing and serving others?  Or is their Jesus one of judgement, seeking only to condemn?

You claim to welcome all but what about the queer? the low income earner? the undocumented immigrant? the person new to religious community?  Will I really be welcome or are those just the words you say?  Will I be welcome if I have been to prison?  Will I be welcome if I work at WalMart?  What if I don't have a college degree?  high school diploma?  What if I can't read?  What if I am just learning English?  What if I am a single parent?  a teen mom?  overweight?  anorexic?  being abused by my spouse?  am mentally ill? I am disabled, can I even get into or around your space?

You see all those people have tried church and found themselves turned away.  Found themselves judged. Found themselves seeking so desperately to be seen, to be truly deeply seen as the child of the holy that they are but instead they were told to pray. Told to pray instead of being embraced or given assistance to shore up the broken places or told that God would not want them to leave their abusive spouse, that they were suffering like Jesus suffered ... NO!  Jesus suffered at the hands of an unjust state and it was a result of his radical inclusive love - not putting up with being hit and abused for the sake of being abused.  There are those that are told that WalMart is evil and we shouldn't shop there let alone work there ... how is that welcoming to the person who depends on their WalMart job to make ends meet?  Maybe they received the usual uncomfortable look and ending of the conversation if admitting they are bi-polar or schizophrenic. What are you doing to make sure that when the people who most need the ministry and healing of faith community only find more pain, more hurt and more judgement in your midst? What is different about you then any other place in their life? Has 'sanctuary' come to mean only a place for the performance of worship rather a haven for those being knocked about by life?

Are you doing anything to reign in those with disruptive behavior?  Anything about the person who insists on expressing their views about the evils of sex, teen pregnancy, LGBTQ people, undocumented immigrants, the poor loudly and at every opportunity?  Those that allow no room for doubt, no room for questions, who insist that things must function to make them comfortable even when it makes others unsafe.

Maybe I am young, a youth or young adult.  Will I hear again that I will be a great member some day? There is always the classic, we have a children and youth program in the other building and you can go over there ... is there a place for children and youth to be seen and heard within your walls?  You do not create leadership in our youth just by allowing them to serve at the pancake breakfast.  Will I hear more about how ungrateful, irresponsible and down right awful my generation is?  Will I hear again, "Oh we tried that once it didn't work" or "This is the way we have always done it"?  Or perhaps, you allow our young adults to take leadership of a project and only to be told that they have to do it the way the last person did it - don't make any changes.

I guess my big question is Church are you willing to change?  Are you willing to let your committee meetings, institutional structures, those horrible hymns, that boring, put me to sleep worship service die so that something else may be born?  Will you listen to me?  Will my ideas and thoughts be welcome?

See Jesus was not killed so we could all worship in the same room. Jesus was killed because he defied and threatened the Roman empire and those religious authorities that cooperated with them out of fear, for greed, for love of power (remember the money changers in the Temple). Jesus did not die to create a new institution.  He died because he lived his life poured out for those who were not welcome anywhere in society - the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the adulterer, the tax collector.  Hmmm...seems not much has changed.  The institution you view as so superior to the Jewish communities is still not welcoming to all the same people that the rich and powerful have always wanted excluded. For it was not the Jews who killed Jesus.  It was the Romans who killed him. The Jewish people were and still are an oppressed people.  A people living under threat of violence.  By the time Paul wrote that, the Temple had been destroyed. The center of Jewish life destroyed by the same people who killed Jesus - The Roman Empire.

So I am wondering Church, why do you need me?  Why do you want me?  Again are you willing to change?  Are you willing to listen?  Are you willing to reign in those disruptive people?  Can you give up the ways things have been to make way for what is needed in a new age, a new era, a new generation?

This is what I am looking for:
I want to be seen in my wholeness
I want to be welcomed
I want opportunities to serve and develop leadership
I want to explore faith deeply - I don't need you to have all the answers
I want my doubt to be welcomed

Are you sure you want me?

Sincerely,
a queer, spiritual leader, seeking to see what new things the Holy is doing in the world