Sunday, October 21, 2007

Wrestling with Welcome

My congregation is participating in the Church Vitality Indicator process. We conducted a congregational survey then held a discernment process with our Committee on Lay Leadership that guided us to find out our strengths and places of most potential for vitalizing our ministry. It came as no surprise to those of us gathered yesterday at our local Church Conference and Convergence that our congregation places a high priority on faith sharing and experiential worship, and that focusing on our strengths of welcoming and inviting will have the most positive impact on our common life.

Here’ what our focus area will mean: Boulder Creek United Methodist Church strives for persons to feel welcome and safe. Together we learn and tell the faith story, sharing our own experiences of God as a foundation to include and embrace others. We provide a welcoming space to ask questions, explore differences and learn.

What does it mean to feel welcome and safe? To share our experiences, ask questions and learn without threat or fear?

I’m not sure exactly how to live that out, but I know what it’s not. In my past Political Science life, I participated in activities, campaigns and causes where I had to act, think and believe in a prescribed way. And because I believed my side was right, everyone with differing beliefs was wrong. My interactions with members of the opposing camps were characterized by trying to convince them of the error of their ways, and to convert them to the right way, my way. Conversely, they thought I was wrong, ignorant, and stupid, and took every opportunity, as I did, to point that out. I directed a lot of psychic energy at my opponents.

I soon burned out, wore out and withdrew. I needed a different type of community, one united not by minds sharing the same views on the issues of the day and attempting to convert others to our thinking, but one that made space for the soul and its longing for connection. I left politics and found the church. The church isn’t immune to politics, but my experience in it has been more positive. In my early days at Boulder Creek UMC, no one knew anything bout my education, employment, political leanings or theology. I was absolutely welcome, wrapped into the embrace (literally) of strangers.

In the past twenty years in this congregation, I have laughed, cried, taught, listened, prayed, learned, and changed my beliefs as my faith matured. I’ve been tempted to leave when conflicts rose, but stayed to experience first hand new growth and healing that can take place after painful pruning. I’ve grown from a twenty-something new Christian mother-to-be, to a middle-aged pastoral leader on the verge of an empty nest. I am still human, flawed, and still welcome.

What does it mean to be a safe place? At the minimum, when I preach, I need to share my passion and opinions in ways that help people build their relationships with God, not to force them to agree with me. To be a safe church, all of us need to get out of God’s way, to harness our tongues and to hold our cherished beliefs close and visible without pushing them on others. To be safe, inviting and truly welcoming, we need not only to enlarge our aisles for wheelchair access, but to enlarge our minds, hearts and expectations so that God has room to maneuver in, among and through us.

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