Trust Me, Church: Five Micro-Resolutions That Make a Big Difference

Hello My Name is Millennial“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said to myself as the storm door pumped behind me to a close. I carried the day’s mail in on the flat of my forearm, like a waiter bussing dirty dishes. A letter from my former church lay on top of the junk addressed to “The Beam Family.” I took a deep breath. It was a small betrayal, to be sure, but the kind that erodes trust drip by drip until there’s nothing more than the sediment of a relationship that once was.

I want to talk trust with the church. It’s a precious commodity to my generation of Millennials (roughly those between the ages of 18-33) who experienced both the collapse of the World Trade Center and the collapse of the American Economy before we turned 30. We can argue ourselves silly about whether Millennials are psychologically different than our parents and grandparents were at our age but the facts suggest there are at least social distinctions shaping our present. For instance, when asked in a recent survey from the Pew Forum, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” only 19% of Millennials affirmed the general trustworthiness of humanity, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, and 40% of Boomers. We’re a cagey bunch, I’ll admit, but we have a lot of love untapped.

For the next four weeks of the “Trust Me” series, I want to get specific about what’s happening in my church that’s helping trust along or tripping me up – miniscule things like how the bulletin has the congregational responses included instead of assuming we all know them or how passing the peace feels more like a social break than an invitation to look a stranger in the eye. There are a lot of articles out there about how to “millennial-proof your church” that mention how important things like trust, authenticity, and a discernible website are to folks my age. I like a lot of these articles. But instead of talking about the big things that make a big difference, I’m curious about the small things that make all the difference. I want to know what the seemingly small things are for you, too.

Isn’t this how trust is always won or lost in our churches? We engage in a series of micro-moves that either reinforce the reality of “Kingdom Come” or obscure it in service of cultural commitments. In the case of the misaddressed mail, it was the cultural commitment to using my husband’s last name as a catchall for mine, a bow to Emily Post’s book of etiquette rather than the book of Galatians. This was a particularly curious move seeing as how said husband had never attended said church. My husband worked in a neighboring town as a youth pastor, and I worshipped closer to home each week, signing my last name on the pew pad, signing my last name on the checks, and signing my last name under both “head of household” and “spouse” on the new member’s form. Why is it that of all the other organizations I interact with, from my workplace to the nonprofit board I serve on – hell, even my veterinary clinic, my church is the only one who doesn’t address me by my legal name? With gay marriage legal in 35 states and roughly 35% of married women in their twenties and thirties keeping their last name, it’s not okay for church staff to assume one partner’s name for the whole family. It’s not okay that the place where I’m supposed to live into realities yet seen is sometimes the very place that feels most out-of-touch.

“Community is a continual act of forgiveness” says French author and activist Jean Vanier. For this to be true, community must also be a continual act of betrayal; this is especially true of the church where we’re audaciously called to be the hands and feet (and armpits) of God. It’s whether or not we can let the everyday betrayals (for which I, too, am culpable) open us to a greater capacity to love and learn that will determine whether our church is the kind of trustworthy space we all crave.

Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much,” (Luke 16:10, NIV). Even a small thing like a mailing label can make a big difference.

Micro-Resolution #1: Ask me what I like to be called. Do a brief inventory of your church database, pledge cards, pew pads, etc. and think how a family with two last names or one, long hyphenated one would fit in the allotted space. If there’s room, add a field for each person to answer “What do you like to be called?”

I promise to forgive you for forgetting sometimes, if you’ll forgive me for brooding.

Lane_Author Photo_CompressedErin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit www.holyhellions.com.

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  • http://wanderingwrites.com/ elizabeth mcmanus

    As ever, love this piece Erin! My husband and i with our newly hyphenated name have apparently created quite the ruckus- one woman, when i gently corrected her repeatedly calling me “Mrs. Dail” was so affronted she switched to “Mrs. Jonathan.” Charming. He’s gotten equally worse, which seems evidence to me of rampant misogyny, however tacit, in our culture. People have told him he must “wear the skirt” in our relationship – and, funny enough, all of these incidents have been connected to church and church functions. Asking why we hyphenated our names maybe (will) challenge a lot of the Emily Post fanatics, and even more deeply challenge the very assumption that marriage subsumes my identity into his. But if a church is willing to ask why we prefer to be called this, then maybe the conversation could open up to something much bigger. So thanks for your courage, again!

    • Meltone

      Certainly, different generations have different preferences regarding names. As noted, you won’t find any consensus here. One of my churches, did in fact, ask folks to let us know how they wished their mail to be addresses and how they wished to be addressed and how they wished their name to be listed on their official membership badge. It was clear there was no consensus on the matter of appropriate listing of one’s name. Some wanted Mr. and Mrs on their address. Others wanted “Mary and John.” Then their was the Ms., Miss, Mrs. issue. Regarding “head-of-household” issue, the church could list both of you as head-of-household” and then you would get mailings and/or e-mail separately. Databases want you to designate only one person as “head-of-household” and are as such, sexist. Two last names when listed together are not a problem. Two different last names requires a bit of thinking as to how to put the data in your database so you connect them together as “a family.” Children with different last names are not a problem. You connect them to the “head-of-household.” When two persons are listed as “head-of-household” you end up with the children listed twice. You have two listings for a single family. In a small church, you can figure this out but in a large congregation this gets difficult. In this congregation of less than 600 we have over 3,000 entries in the database. One of my churches had over 10,000 so . . . well, never mind. On a more personal note, my daughter retained her last name legally when married and signed with both last names when attending worship as a visitor. Most didn’t bother to reply in any shape or form so there was no problem with using the wrong name! She reported a multitude of insults of one sort or another including listing the wrong time of services in their website and on their outside sign! For the most part, she felt like an intruder. . . a problem not a blessing. She would have been happy if someone recognized her as a member of the human race and called her by any name even if it was wrong! She doesn’t like church. Wonder why? :)

  • Ronixis

    I’m actually a little puzzled: if you were the one who went, and you signed your name on everything, how did they even get the name they used? I’m not trying to diminish your story or anything, but I’m genuinely curious.

    • Erin Lane

      Thanks for the question, Ronixis. The story is a little crazy-making, no? Both my husband’s and my name were listed on the checks I wrote. (Mine first. His second.) I assume they saw both names and subsumed mine under his.

      I get that we’re all a little clumsy about etiquette. But when the choice to call me by my husband’s name is intentional (as it was in elizabeth’s example, oh my!), it takes more prayer on my part to forgive.

      Good thing prayer works.

      • Meltone

        It is better to forgive. Different last names produces etiquette and date entry problems in your typical database if you wish to connect the two persons as a “family unit.” You are asked to make one of the two “head-of-household” and most old school folks choose the male and as such are sexist. With gay couples you can see this would be a problem. For the record, my daughter kept her single last name as her legal name when married. Her now former husband, rarely attended church so there was no problem! :)

        • Erin Lane

          The databases do prove difficult! My husband works at a church and confirms what you’ve noted – it’s a logistical challenge! So now, in addition to praying for forgiveness, I will also start praying for progressive programmers. Thanks for your comment, Meltone.

        • Rivikah

          And yet, somehow all kinds of other organisations manage to get their databases to correctly indicate appropriate names while also properly linking together families.

          For many years, my husband and I attended a church that was pretty good about asking how we wanted our names and then abiding by that — At least from an leadership/institutional standpoint. We sometimes found that when talking to ordinary church people they would assume that we both had the last name of whichever of us they were introduced to first, but that was more amusing than anything else.

          A more maddening moment came when we were arranging our son’s baptism. Apparently someone at the council meeting where it was discussed had to ask “Are they even married?” *sigh*

  • amylynn1022

    You would think that finding out who’s coming to the church and what they like to be called would be basic, but I guess not. And realizing that spouses can have a different religious affiliation. Imagine how awkward that could have been if your husband was atheist or non-Christian. There seems to be a cultural assumption that churches are and should be stuck in the 1950’s in terms of social relations and modes of address. I think you’re doing a good job of gently letting people know how off-putting that can be.

    Many moon’s ago I was on the membership committee of my church when we decided to have a photo directory made. Ten years on I have memories of the committee chair getting into a battle with the company that took the pictures and produced the directory about how to list people–whether it should be the man or woman. It probably did not help that the church was very liberal (Unitarian Universalist) and the company seemed to be used to working with much more conservative churches. (I can’t imagine what the company did about the same-sex couples.) As bad as it got, another committee member assured me that it could have been worse. At least this company did include the wives’ names. She said that at her former church the company that made the photo directories insisted on listing all married couples as Mr and Mrs Husband’s Name. She said that caused a lot of problems for her because her husband wasn’t a member and hardly anyone else in the church knew him. People always had trouble finding her information because they didn’t know to look for her Husband’s Name. And this happened in the 80’s or 90’s, so it’s really over the top.

    • Meltone

      Been there. Done that. The lack of shared traditions to define these sort of protocols makes for lots of issues with the most basic things of everyday life!

  • Edgar G Earnhart

    Where are the other 4 micro-resolutions?

  • malcolmdfrench

    Jean Vanier is not French. He’s Canadian.

  • Thomas Lindell

    When investigating possible churches to attend, my wife recommends “Bumper Sticker Discernment”. BSD is simply driving through the church parking lot on Sunday morning and reading the bumper stickers on cars–an easy way to get a feel for what people are thinking/acting upon. In walking through my church parking lot, we are very simpatico with most of what we see…