Visit our new site at

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - To Preach or Not to Preach?

Our question this week deals with conflict over inclusive language and how best to address it. We've got a lot of great responses from the Matriarchs, and perhaps you have some thoughts as well. Read on.

I'm a fairly new pastor, been in my placement for nine months, and for the most part people are very happy to have me here. But, I just lost my first member this week, and no I don't mean in the euphemistic sense of 'she died', but she announced to the women's group that she would never set foot inside this church again! (She is one of our matriarchs.)

My "sin" was using a closing hymn that referred to God in the feminine tense. She just couldn't get past that, to her the only way to imagine God is as The Father. So, my question... do I preach an educational sermon about theism, sexism, and dangers of patriarchialism, knowing full well she will not hear it, (but, also knowing word will get back to her) or let it go and do some bible studies around the issues. Both have their merits. How do you(all) weigh in?

-- Wondering in the Land

Jennifer rings in: 

I’m wondering if you’ve reached out to the matriarch in your midst? For some reason this woman feels hurt and offended (or perhaps something else has happened and this is the reason she’s giving others, but not the real reason for her leaving) and talking with her directly accomplishes a couple of things. It models the way in which we are called to treat one another, it doesn’t presume that she’s gone forever, and it offers the opportunity for dialogue (what a concept!!!!!!)  

Not knowing if this hymn that offends her is the first or the most recent example of a lot of inclusive language that gets her goat, an opportunity to talk together would at least give both of you the chance to hear each other (and that’s assuming that you and others are eager to have her back in the fold.)  

That said, I think it is wise to talk about images for God and inclusive language for God and people, especially if it’s important to you. Not knowing if you have a worship committee, you might want to engage them in study, too. It always makes sense to build a base of understanding with new concepts, and worship belongs to all the people, not just the worship leaders. 

The Vicar of Hogsmeade offers:

Over the years, I have found that a Bible study setting that is conducive to discussion, while sometimes more uncomfortable, is a better place for topics that have "hot topics" or concerns. In a setting where there is give and take, where you can ask follow-up questions, where they can ask questions of clarification, and you are able to respond to the body language of the participants, there is more likely to be an atmosphere where the participants feel heard. A sermon on a sensitive subject can lead to perceptions of a "bully pulpit" even when nothing could be further from the truth. Everything you can do to facilitate conversation works to strengthen communication. When there is an atmosphere of open communication and respect in the face of differing understandings, there is the possibility of unity without uniformity.

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, writes: 

Forgive me if this sounds patronising (or perhaps matronising?) - but is there a way you can ask some of your folk what they think?

You might find that they have insights into why this person has left, what might help people to come to terms with this, and what has worked well in the past. They might also have history to tell you about others who have got upset in the past, or other things which upset this same person.

Sometimes as ministers we get very worked up about having upset someone, just to have others in the fellowship say ‘oh don’t mind her, she gets like that’. I’m a great believer in sharing the responsibility for caring for all. 

Mompriest rings in:
I wonder if you have had a conversation with the woman who is leaving? Have you called her and offered to come over or meet for coffee, saying clearly that you hear she is leaving the church over the use of a particular hymn and you want to understand her feelings. This is the first thing I would do. If she lets you come over I'd ask her tell ME why the hymn bothered her. Listen carefully and repeat back to her what you heard...I suggest this because it sometimes affirms to the person that you have really heard them. Then if she comes back to church I'd stay away from hymns that would offend her until you have the chance to do some teaching.

One thing I'd be very cautious of: because this is a matriarch be careful that this does not become about YOU. You don't say how big your church is but I have the feeling it may be small - or at the very least function like a small church? Matriarchs are powerful and you want to be careful that this stays about the topic, the language we use for God, and NOT about you.

Therefore, regarding the teaching, I'd consider asking someone else to lead a study group - someone else in the congregation who can lead a group - IF you have someone like that. I'd have them use a book to frame the conversation. A book depersonalizes the topic a bit and enables people to reflect with some distance to the topic. It also gives folks the opportunity to see what other folks are thinking on this topic. I once used Bill Moyers book, Genesis for a group discussion. It models a group format for a diverse discussion and there is some conversation about language for God. That's one idea that might work for you. There may be other books or resources for this.

At some point you can make reference to the study group in a sermon or two. After awhile I might build a forum for a season, like Advent and/or Epiphany where we used hymns that have different language for God. Again, I'd have other folks, if possible, lead the forum and choose the hymns. The more you can have others lead and hold the discussion and keep yourself out of it the less it will be about you. The less it is about you the more it will be about the topic. And the more its about the topic the more you can minister to people who are upset or concerned about things like this.
If you don't have leadership who can do this then I'd tread very carefully. Maybe even wait a year or two to begin this study. Let folks come to trust you more and know that you have their best interests at heart. (which you do)...

Also, this summer I will be working with a group of women and men from the National Council of Churches on a conversation about Expansive Language. We hope to produce a resource for people to use, one that might help you with this conversation. It won't be ready though until sometime next Spring, assuming all goes well with our plans and intention. If you are interested in more information drop by my blog: Mompriest at

And revhoney offers:

I think there is something I would do before or perhaps instead of preaching a sermon or teaching a bible study: I would make the effort to sit down with this person and address her upset pastorally. 

It can be tricky to do this…you don’t want to set a precedent of running after every person who gets upset.  But there is something about this situation that feels as though it goes deeper than a hymn with feminine descriptors for God. 

It is not unheard of for matriarchs in a congregation to feel displaced when a woman is called to pastor a parish.   If you can sit down with this person and listen, you may find that your ear and a sense of your heart is what she wants most.  Don’t plan to apologize or to make the case for the hymn you chose.  Simply make time to get to understand her better and to respect where her faith journey has led her.

Perhaps she will decide that she can step foot back in the sanctuary; perhaps not.  But no matter what she chooses, others in the congregation will learn something very important about you – that you are willing to listen to those whose opinions differ from your own.   You can probably never fully measure the good will and respect that this step will gain you.

Lots of wonderful advice here! And as you can see, there is a common thread - the advice to speak with the matriarch and with other congregants before doing anything else. 

So what about the rest of you? Do you have anything else to add to the matriarchs' thoughts? Have any of you had experience with this particular issue in your own congregation? Do share in the comments. And, as always, if you have a question for the matriarchs, send it our way at


  1. I think revhoney has put her finger on it squarely -- that some matriarchs feel displaced when a woman is called to lead a parish. And I wish very much that someone had named that for me ten years ago!!!
    Rather than teaching "pro inclusive language" or "anti patriarchy" my tendency (cowardice???) would be to teach something about the apophatic approach...the beyond-all-understanding aspect of God... Elizabeth Johnson is good on this, also Jaroslav Pelikan...
    But I've had good results from the direct approach, "I'm told you didn't care for that last hymn--tell me about it?!"

  2. I was going to put in an answer to this, and came down with the flu first thing Wednesday morning.

    That being said, I think that while sermons and a Bible study may be well and good, what revhoney said is the first course of action: pastoral care.

  3. Lots of good stuff here.

    I do find it an ironic contrast, though, with the fact that many people aware of inclusive language and theology issues suffer pain week after week in virtually every congregation. And when we speak up and ask nicely for change it happens at a snail's pace, if at all. Masculine language is very predominant most places, somewhat balanced by some neutral some places, and feminine is extremely rare--which is why reactions like this happen, which then fuel even female pastors' belief that it is radical and dangerous even if they understand its importance themselves. Masculine and feminine language are equally appropriate in Christian theology and should be used as such, either with major amounts of both or major neutral and part both. To do otherwise is very theologically problematic and endorses reactions like this: that God is really or more male or that only male language is appropriate, which says that women are not fully in the image of God. This story just shows how important

  4. Everything that Mompriest says. There is a lot of wisdom in her caution that this NOT be about you. I'm especially in favor of her advice that you recruit someone else to lead a class/discussion about this topic and suggest that you participate as a class member. This gives you a chance to hear where the congregation is, an option to ask questions in a humble way that may lead to some productive conversation without this being seen as something that you (and you alone) are introducing, and an opportunity to model that everyone is learning new things all the time. You may also want to look to your denomination for assistance. I know that mine has some study guides as well as some reference materials about names for God that I have used with young people to introduce the idea that God just might not be exclusively a guy.

  5. There's lots of good advice here, but as I am also a newbie working with a congrgation in many places on the continuum of comfort with expansive language for God, I'm throwing in my 2 cents.

    1. First of all, I would want to acknowledge your own feelings. It feels lousy when people say they are never coming back, esp from one little thing like this. One thing to remember is that it's important not to take it personally, as best as you can. For some folks, leaving the chruch is a favorite threat - sometimes they mean it and sometimes not. So, I would take this comment seriously, but hold it lightly, if you know what I mean.

    2. One of the most important things I've learned in this, my first call, is that use of inclusive/expansive language is a journey not a destination. I guess this may be obvious, but you can expect that any sermon you preach (along with the excellent suggestions for pastoral care offered here) is just one step of many that you will be taking with your congregation in the months/years to come.

    3. In talking about inclusive language with my congregation, I do try to avoid being polarizing. I think it helps to use many names/images for hte Divine in worship; to talk about "exploring many names for God;" to invite people to notice which images are unfamiliar or uncomfortable and then to GENTLY invite them to think about why some names/images feel comfortable and some not. In other words, exploring how we image the divine does not just have to be about male/female but can be expanded to include many of the biblical/historical images of God.

    4. That said, people can be very attached to their own images of God and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, having a strong faith/understanding of God is an asset. The problem comes when images of God have to be the same for everyone. So be cautious about telling people whose God image is very traditional that it is somehow wrong. In fact, it can be very right, as long as there is a mutual understanding that others may or may not hold the same image.

    5. Allowing yourself and your congregation to have a little fun with this helps. IE: Does it comfort you to imagine Jesus as the mother hen, or do those feathers just make you sneeze?

    Oh boy, long comments. But this is a growing edge for my congregation, too, so have given this particular issue lots of thought. Many blessings on your journey!

  6. chairman of the leukemia cod cash on delivery Fludac Cancer Center in Houston, purchase Rogaine 5% the researchers noted. from online pharmacy Brand Cialis as upgrades cheap order Fosamax at the University fedex shipping buy cheap c.o.d. Myambutol had a complete cytogenetic response, saturday delivery overnight Mega Hoodia front-line therapy for cheap cod delivery Sildenafil (Caverta) of complete cytogenetic remission and of order generic Sporanox at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute buy cheap cod online Prilosec randomly assigned 519 patients buy pills online Diflucan of internal medicine buy cheap discount online Altace "In less than 10 years, purchase Relafen of medicine, biochemistry and biophysics buy cod Fosamax to imatinib [Gleevec] in the treatment buy now Casodex be first-line treatment buy legal drugs Cialis Super Active myeloid leukemia, Sawyers noted. $name cod saturday delivery Vantin two new studies show. without prescription cash on delivery ED Trial Pack Lichtman said. buy cheap cod online Premarin a more sensitive measure online Pilocarpine 4% in New York City and author $name cod saturday delivery Ventorlin Tasigna is also made buy cheap generic Viagra Oral Jelly The one remaining question is buy generic Dramamine June 5 in the New England Journal of Medicine. order cheap Acai Slim Extra compared with 65 percent buy cheap discount online Synthroid of medicine, biochemistry and biophysics purchase cheap Nexium of the disease, buy legal drugs Himalaya Clarina Cream the researchers noted. without prescription Macrobid are superior to Gleevec online ordering Himalaya Geriforte Tabs We now have formal evidence through buy now Protonix


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.