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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Wade in the Water

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water...
God's a gonna trouble the water.
African American Spiritual

Our question this week is about baptism, and the situation our sister presents, as well as our matriarch's responses point to the multiplicity of meanings that this rite or sacrament holds for followers of Jesus.

I generally like to do baptisms on Sunday with the whole congregation but a family - long time but somewhat estranged from the church asked me if I could do one on Saturday when all the family would be there for a wedding that I was also doing. It is a dilemma - I want to draw the family closer to thinking more kindly towards the church that abused them in the past. But on the other hand - I don't want to totally lose my standards.

What to do?

Karen's response opens with a pertinent question, and an explanation of her denomination's expectations...

You don't say what denomination you are part of. In the Presbyterian church, all baptisms must be approved by the Session, which moves some of the burden off the Pastor's shoulders in terms of discerning whether this is an appropriate pastoral move or "caving" to pressure from a disgruntled family. It's supposed to be a decision by the whole of the church leadership. Though my denomination discourages private baptisms, on the occasions we deem one appropriate, we are supposed to have elders present to represent the congregation. You could agree to do the baptism on Saturday, but insist that there be other members of the congregation present besides the family. You could ask the family who they would like you to invite to take that role.

Jan, who blogs at Church for Starving Artists, adds...

Not only is it my tradition as a Presbyterian, but it's my interpretation of scripture, that baptism is not a family event. It is a church event. It's not a sentimental event, or a milestone to check off a list of "to do-s" before hitting preschool, or a private occasion.
It is one's initiation into the fold, into the ministry of Jesus Christ. The first thing I say to a newly baptized person is "welcome to this ministry." If a baby is being baptized, her/his parents are forsaking all previously held expectations they might have and they hand over their child to God's plans. This is the ultimate in stewardship.
This is a teaching moment that may very well tick off this estranged family. But you are not expected -- by rational people, anyway -- to forsake your own beliefs to make one family happy. (This is one of those moments when you get to decide if your calling is first and foremost to please God or a cranky family.)
Baptism is a sacrament that welcomes us into the church as followers of Jesus. It doesn't make sense to do this in a private family setting because if anything, a family is presenting their child to claim a place in God's larger family.

Singing Owl also invites us to think about how we please God in this situation, but sees the possibility for middle ground...

I am wondering why it is imperative to do the baptism on Sunday. Of course, it is significant to have the church body present —but I am wondering if the "family" are also part of the church, or if a significant number of church folks would be present because of the wedding? If I were talking to this minister in person I would ask, "On what are your standards based?" That is the key, to me. What makes a baptism significant, and are there ways to include that while still being accommodating to the somewhat estranged family. I once did a baptism that I absolutely should not have done, by any standard I could think of. But I did it because I knew that to do so was the right thing to do under the circumstances, and God was very present. It sounds trite, but seriously—"what will most please God?"

Ahhh...the answer to the question of pleasing God is not always crystal clear!

What say you, rev gals and friends? Let's talk about the waters of baptism and how we navigate them and pour them faithfully.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Considering the circumstances -- the family reaching out to the church after something of an estrangement -- I think having the baptism on a Saturday, but also having non-family church members present as representatives of the congregation, may be a good compromise. And it may say something to this family that you have parishoners willing to re-arrange their schedules to help witness and welcome this little one's adoption into the Body of Christ. But I'd be careful to explain to them the theological "whys" for having these folks present at the baptism.

    I may be dating myself, but I remember back in the day when family baptisms were more common -- and when even Sunday baptisms happened before the worship service, usually with only family and friends present. Yipes.

  2. I'm a Lutheran... and we believe that baptisms take place in worship... with the community present. Our liturgy has promises that the parents make... that the sponsors make... and that the congregation makes... so to put it in a different setting would remove the promises that the congregation would make from the rite. To me... that's not much of a leg to stand on... it's just doctrine if you will.

    The real basis for baptism is entrance into the church which is the body of Christ... disciples... people who are the hands, feet, and voice of Christ in all that they say and do. That's in the Bible.

    I invite the parents to walk through the liturgy with me... and then take a deep breath and tell them that their inactivity... not participating fully in the body of Christ... indicates to me... that they are not ready to have their child baptized... because they are not keeping the promises that they made/were made for them in their own baptisms. If therefore... they are not keeping their own baptismal vows... how will they will make (in good faith) and keep the promises that they need to make for their child in the rite of baptism (bring the child to worship, teach them the creeds, the Lord's prayer, and scripture).

    At the same time... I assure them that the child will be safe in the eyes of God... while they take the time to ponder their own involvement in being the body of Christ... and that I'm willing to stay in conversation with them about what it means to be a disciple/parent. If they stay in conversation... if they come to worship... if they start begin to journey in life as disciples... then they will either approach me... or I'll approach them and say... it's time to baptize the child.

    Doing this is difficult... primarily because it pisses people off. The question boils down to this for me.... do I want to take the wrath of the folks I pissed off... or do I want to stand before God... and say... I didn't do your will... because it pisses people off? I'm standing on God's side... because that to me is what disciples do.

  3. I have a sort of similiar situation that happened recently. I have a family who goes to our church and are faithful attendees and very involved, but who refuse to join the church. Their father doesn't want them to, they grew up in another denomination, he doesn't come, but this is what feels like home to the rest of the family now.

    So their boys, 9th and 11th grade hadn't been baptized and wanted to be. And they wanted to be immersed. I struggled with how to do it because in our baptismal liturgy, joining the church and the vows of the congregation are so important also.

    What I ended up doing is inviting the congregation to join us after worship out at the nearby lake. I did the communion liturgy, but left out membership specific parts. I asked those gathered if they would support and love and nurture these persons before them as they grew as disciples of Jesus.

    It wasn't what I would have preferred to do, but as young men, they wanted to make this commitment to Christ, to acknowledge that they have been chosen by God, and they are active in the church, they just don't want to officially join. If they are there and active, I think they are a part of our body of Christ - whether or not they are on our "rolls"

  4. I am also Lutheran and I'll ditto what PK said, with one thing added: I've actually flat-out refused to baptize one child. His parents wanted a private baptism. Their reason? Well, they really had no intention of bringing their son to church, nor of keeping any of the other promises they would have made during the baptismal rite. Their only reason for requesting the baptism was because, "We're supposed to do it."

    I met with them for several instructional session and finally, painfully, refused the sacrament. Though it 'cost' me the membership of their entire family, three years later, I have no regrets.

    The bottom line in my decision-making was the parents' disregard for the sacredness of the event and their willingness to stand before me, their family and God and lie about keeping sacred promises--all to keep peace in the family.

    Having said that, though, I like the compromise of holding the baptism on Saturday with congregation members present. That is, in fact, what my husband and I did. We're both pastors, with three congregations between us. Holding the event on a Sunday would have excluded 2/3 of the people we serve, so we had Jason baptized on a Saturday and invited all of our congregations. Of course, we're both actively involved in congregational life, which does not seem to be the case with the family described in the question.

    Regardless of how many folks seem to define it as such, Baptism is not fire insurance! It is the event which brings a child into the Body of Christ and everyone who witnesses the event--friends, family members, strangers--are called to support the newly baptized (and their parents) in growing in faith and discipleship. As long as the parents and/or sponsors understand this, I might agree to the compromise.

  5. I find my inclination to go strictly by the book, for all the very good theological reasons given, running up against the wall of experience with laypeople who lack not only theological knowledge but any real context in which to frame what they're hearing. There may certainly be some shallowness and selfishness involved, but...sometimes they just don't get it. My pastor tells me that he tries to approach situations like this from a glass-half-full attitude: At least there is something, somewhere, moving them to want their kid baptized, even if it's just Grandma or the "fire insurance" misunderstanding of the sacrament. So you work with what they've got, even if it ain't all that much to start with.

    Great topic...I might have to ponder it all the way to my own blog tonight!

  6. Wow - we Lutherans certainly do have opinions about baptism. (Not surprising.) Myself included.

    I've been in similar situations, and I've said no to more than one private baptism which seemed to me, insofar as I could understand, a situation in which the family really didn't care about any of the meaning of baptism but simply just didn't want to get up early on a Sunday morning. So I can say no.

    But honestly, I think there are times - not just with baptisms - when pastors have to back off the theology a bit, or at least balance it with the pastoral concern at hand. In general, I completely disagree with private baptisms. BUT, I also know there are times when finding some middle ground between theological ideals and real life situations can bring real healing.

    Every situation is so different, and so filled with its own nuances, that I'm not sure whether I can judge what another pastor ought to do. I think you ought to have a conversation with the family about what baptism really means, and why we do it. And I think you ought to try to identify for yourself why the 'right theology' might be so important to you (and ask yourself whether you can find a good compromise).

    I'm not trying to belittle the importance of theology. But it might be possible to do something less than theologically ideal if it will open up a conversation and relationship that might otherwise remain closed.

  7. Yet another reformed tradition voice! With additional ideas (I won't repeat the ones mentioned previously). Fully inform the congregation that the baptism will be happening, pray for the family and child in services on Sunday as would happen if the sacrament had been enacted in worship on that day, have a special 'welcome to the family' component in a subsequent service, acknowledging that y was baptised into the church on a previous occasion. I have been a part of congregations where this has happened for various reasons including baptisms in other towns to allow grandparents to attend, child with health condition that made participation in front of a crowd difficult, and baptism enacted in a home setting for reasons I now no longer remember.

  8. From an Anabaptist perspective here...

    It is not a private matter, it is a family of God matter. Therefore, it would be a way of welcoming the family back into the larger Church family. I suspect that relatives coming back to town are encouraging this to be a two-fer.

    While baptism may start as a private decision (either by parents or baptism candidates themselves, if they are older) they are not being baptized into their own little world.

    The first woman I baptized, I said, "welcome to the family!" and that is what it is.

    who is praying that Gustav does not annoy my RevGal friends in the South...

  9. I have declined to baptize privately. It happened very early in my ministry, and was quite a learning experience for all of us.

    The baby in question was a grandchild, who lived 1,000 miles away,in town for a visit, and the parents were not members of any church, nor did they plan to become active in any faith tradition. When I offered to get to know the parents and then perhaps baptize in worship, the family called my predecessor, who did it that day, no questions asked, under the authority of no session, who then later called me to brag about it and admonish me for being "stuck in a rule book".

  10. Well, since no other Episcopalians have chime in, I will. According to the rubrics, baptism is to take place in the context of the main celebration of the Eucharist. The congregation is an important part of the process, and vows to uphold the person being baptized. We are baptizing into a community

    I decline to do private baptisms, although my boss has done a few since I've been here. I question parents about WHY they want to have their child baptized and try to help them see the big picture.

    PK said it pretty well for me.


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