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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ask the Matriarch: C is for Community

Another quiet week in matriarchland, between stuffy heads and advent prep and snowstorms and whatever else comes slogging our way this time of year. So again (and actually, as always) we'd love your feedback on this important question in our comments section:

My community is very strong on using the C word, but it turns out 'the community' is quite selective on certain people belonging. For example, when I attend 'a belonging activity,' I more often than not find myself repeating month-old conversations with people who obviously don't care, or who only seem to know one thing about you and as such take it upon themselves to ask a whole lot of questions about the one thing with little interest in anything else happening in the persons life. Even worse are the polite surface questions that show so much lack of interest that you want to run away (you can see it in their eyes that they are not wanting to connect). And when you do reach out to enter a member of the community's life, you are slapped (metaphorically) in the face for trying, with snide remarks and/or insults or—even worse—ignored.

What annoys me most is that I feel like I am left looking after people in a similar situation to me while the connected people all go and have their connected conversations and invite each other out.

God knows I have tried to stick with it (5 years) and change things from both the bottom up and the top down (I am a member of the youth leadership and worship teams) but there is only a certain amount one person can do before their soul starts to be destroyed and they realize that the image and the reality don't meet up. In short, I feel more like a machine that is required to perform certain tasks than a person who has feelings, problems, trials and triumphs.

Don't get me wrong; there are moments of incredible beauty, brilliance and connection among some of the community especially among the younger youth and the older groups that are amazing to observe and be a part of, but you can't live on someone else's manna.

A toughie, to be sure. Jacquie's insights are wonderful:

I know that congregations that want to be welcoming and truly believe they are, can have a very difficult time including new people. Established groups of friends can have a hard time functioning in a way that is not clique-ish. The issue that concerns me about your story is that you are not new. Five years is not new. I'm reminded of a young couple who recently moved to our congregation because they had been in another congregation for 7 years, she worked with the youth group, and they were still frequently asked if they were visitors. They decided the congregation was too large for them, and that the people were not interested in getting to know them.

If you choose to stay in that community, it sounds like you have been living into one of the options -- which is to build other small groups within the congregation. You describe doing this with others who seem to be having the same difficulty. The positive to this option is certainly
that you and others could choose to function in a different way in relation to newcomers or those who are different. Over time, you could change the culture of the congregation.

When I have seen cliques excluding others (in congregations I have served), I have named what I am seeing and challenged the congregation to see themselves as they are and to learn to function in a different way. I think this can be most effective when a third party is doing the naming. It can be helpful to talk about having room in our lives for others. And the difference between relationships in the covenant community and 'my best friend' relationships. (I maintain that every relationship in the church cannot and should not be like a best friend.) We have to make
decisions about relating based on the context.

Another approach is to facilitate more in depth sharing of faith and life issues within small groups in the congregation. We had an amazing experience several years ago using a process called "Talking Faith" by Heather Kirk-Davidoff and Nancy Wood-Lyczak. I am convinced that this can help a congregation deepen in relationship with each other as well as to learn how to share our faith.

Most recently we have started "Soul Care" groups, which is a process we are developing. The groups every two weeks are structured to nurture our sharing of what God is doing in our lives.

As for the personal aspect of this, Ann gently suggests that it might be worth investing some time in making new friends, which is often easier said than done (particularly in a small, exclusive community).

As the Cher song says "sooner or later we all sleep alone." There is an existential aloneness in humans, seeking connection. I find that until I come to terms with my own sense of alone, it is hard for me to connect. Plus I think it is hard to have more than a couple of people that are close; everyone else has the potential to be a close friend but it may never be realized. Even those who seem to be "in" have the feeling of being "out," at least that's my experience of hearing from them later.

The put downs are how some act in order to know that they are "in." It all seems so Junior High, in my opinion. And then there is the "it's all about me" self-centered types: run don't walk. Rejoice in the connections you do find and the others? Their loss.

What say you? Have you had any experiences with encouraging inclusivity with diverse groups that don't always want to be open?


  1. Community matters!

    You build it up one by one -and not usually at church functions either - but inbetween.

    Don't give up - those working with the younger set (or younger themselves) usually get that it's not about cliques it's about being Jesus' hands, voice, ears and heart to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.

    most of it is not recognised- but God sees what we do and what we fail to do - and as scripture says - we'll be judged for it. That's incentive too- but mostly just treating others as you want to be treated is the best we can do - in all situations - remember names, stories, and engage - even if it does seem one sided a lot of the time.

    Good question you raised :) thanks

  2. I feel for you, to use a trite phrase. My community (as do most churches) sees itself as welcoming and friendly. We have had folks come to visit and stand around the narthex alone. So I go to folks and say go talk to this person. It is amazing to me that they believe reality is what they experience in church, not what a stranger might experience. I have pointed this out at session meetings, but the transformation that God calls us to is difficult.

  3. This is such a relevant question in my situation. I am trying to help folks in my congregation--or at least the leaders, anyway-- understand an expanded meaning of the word community by changing the way we care for one another (as the gospel commands).

    I have actually had ordained officers say to me "Why would I want to reach out to anybody who I don't already know and care for?"

    Clearly the Holy Spirit, she has her work cut out for her. And so do we who try to work on her behalf.

  4. Depends a lot on the level of community one is seeking -- close friends - only a few may have room in their circle for a new close friend. Less than close but caring - more space for new people. Able to do tasks together but never going to each others' houses - most can manage that. It took 10 years before I felt like I belonged to one church even when I had been elected to the vestry. One day an older gatekeeper woman told me she had missed seeing me at church when I had been out sick for several years. Then I felt in. I think it was more in my mind than in the communities mind. I had not seen the signs I needed to feel a part of it all. I do think checking with newcomers (especially those who don't stay) can give a community valuable feedback about how welcoming they really are.

  5. It does sound like you are making changes from the inside out. That is excellent.

    I wonder if it's time to focus upon connecting with different people? If the "inner circle" of folks at church are unable/unwilling to connect, how about connecting with a new small group? Or focusing upon welcoming some newer folks, and opening yourself to relationship with them?

  6. I am wondering what kind of small group/home group activities you all have. At my church, we have really focused on small groups which interact over the scriptures, care for one another, and do service projects together. We meet once a week in peoples homes. It has become a part of the very fabric of our church, and most people now feel that sense of community or belonging that we seem to be talking about here.

    Another way we try to plug people in is by making a spiritual gifts discovery seminar a part of our new member class. We follow up with each person in an individual consultation, and try to help them find ways to become involved. As a result, more people feel ownership in the church.

    Just my $0.02.

  7. I've always thought it would be interesting to try and pair new members of the congregation with mentors who can be both friends and resource persons. I'm wondering if anyone reading this has tried this in their congregation.

  8. Good books on inclusion in diverse groups are by Eric Law. Click here.

  9. Thank you all for your suggestions and help! you have been brilliant :) and given me alot to ponder!

  10. Sharing ourselves sometimes brings
    responses from others who have been less connected. Even in families there are occasional members who do not communicate much. I experience that with an
    adult son and have decided to keep
    in touch on a fairly regular basis
    and hope it helps him. Carol Holland


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