Starbucks, Inclusivity, And The United Methodist Church

Starbucks has some things to teach us about inclusivity, but ultimately, like my plants, the United Methodist Church must split to regain health and vitality. It’s more complicated than we think it is to practice inclusivity.


Fences keep us safe; inclusivity is not safeOn Tuesday, May 30, 2018, Starbucks ran full-page ads in several major newspapers (I saw them in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) explaining why they were “starting a new chapter in our history.”

Executive Chairman Howard Schultz offers the philosophy of Starbucks that he formed while observing the cafes and espresso bars in Italy.

I returned home determined to create a similar experience in America—a new “third place” between home and work–and build a different kind of company. I wanted our stores to be comfortable, safe spaces where everyone had the opportunity to enjoy a coffee, sit, read, write, host a meeting, date, debate, discuss, or just relax.

An incident in Philadelphia recently convinced Schultz that they were falling short of that goal. The day’s training was meant as a reset, a time to regain that original goal of what we in the church often call “radical hospitality.”

Schultz concludes the ad with these words, “To our customers: I want to thank you for your patience and support as we renew our promise to make Starbucks what I envisioned it could be nearly 40 years ago–an inclusive gathering place for all.”

“An inclusive gathering for all.” And we in The United Methodist Church, the church of “Open Hands, Open Hearts, Open Minds” a tagline that certainly sounds inclusive, are realizing that an inclusive church probably can’t happen.

The church is not a retail establishment, of course. Yes, there are commonalities with the coffee chain, but we operate from different financial and organizational principles limiting any real comparisons between the two.

Nonetheless, inclusivity is an issue both places and brings up many questions. How far can Starbucks go with its goal of this inclusive gathering space? At what point will too much inclusivity end up eroding profit as paying customers may choose to speak with their feet and go elsewhere?

For The United Methodist Church, the call to “inclusivity” started with racial issues which did cause a split between northern and southern churches. Then we moved onto full acceptance of female clergy–which caused enormous complications with many churches still refusing female clergy. Now we face how to embrace the full humanity of those who sexuality does not fit a rigid male/female binary.

Each move toward inclusivity both strengthened our witness and weakened our numbers and influence. In each case, there have been many who have said, “That particular outgroup does not have a place in the ingroup.”

Although I am and have long been an advocate of a far more inclusive United Methodist Church, I am also aware that, should we make this move, the UMC will shrink even more.

Why? Because it is ever so much harder to have an inclusive gathering than an exclusive one. People need and want boundaries. Those walls and borders bring safety on multiple levels.

The old adage, “good fences make good neighbors” carries much wisdom. This is mine and that is yours. This fits and that doesn’t fit. This is right, and this is wrong. These communal standards make it possible to live in healthy societies.

Let’s go back to the Starbucks situation: at some point, they have to draw a line as to what is acceptable behavior on the part of their patrons and what is not. Will it be acceptable for a group of people to come in, monopolize most of the tables for most of the day, and order little or nothing during that time? Check out what happened at a McDonald’s in New York which faced that very problem.

It’s more complicated than we think it is to practice inclusivity.

Let’s push it a little further. Suppose there is a good paying, well-behaved customer who also decides that eating and drinking fully unclothed is the preferred mode. Then what? Has a line been crossed?

Again, it’s more complicated than we think to practice inclusivity.

Back to the UMC: to be truly inclusive, we have to be inclusive of the exclusivists. Otherwise, it becomes a discriminatory church in its own right. But the inclusivists are as appalled at needing to embrace their sisters and brothers who oppose their very presence as the exclusivists are of embracing those whom they see as directly violating the Bible.

Again, walls make us feel safe. Our houses have them for a reason. Ideally, they protect us from the weather, from intruders, from a lack of privacy while still giving us the option of inviting others in. AND inviting them back out again.

I remember a scene from the classic film Dr. Zhivago when Zhivago returns to his wife’s parent’s giant mansion after his war service. There he finds that the newly instituted governing forces have commandeered their home as public housing. Zhivago’s family, now confined to one small room, watch the uninvited new occupants slowly dismantle the rest of the house.

How many of us want to see our living spaces taken over like that? But that’s also inclusion taken to its tragic logical end.

Exclusion also has a tragic logical end. At some point, the fences get so high, the walls so impenetrable, the insiders so insular and cut off from other ways of thinking and seeing the world that the overly protected space becomes a cult and a prison.

That process sums up the tragic history of much of Christianity after the Reformation and the splitting off from Roman Catholic hegemony. The church splintered into hundreds of thousands of tiny little groups, all sure they are right, all building tighter and tighter boundaries around their belief structures or racial groups or gender identities.

As the exclusivists well know, human beings are inexorably drawn to high-boundary groups with defined in-groups and out-groups. Again, such structures give a sense of safety for those inside–they know they belong, they are “saved” so to speak, that all those around them share mental and spiritual commonalities.

Those on the inside can relax, and periodically invite those on the outside to take the necessary pledges and go through the initiation process and come in. It can be a desirable proposition to those on the outside.

An inclusive church demands much interpersonal trust, trust that the weaker boundaries won’t be improperly breached or destroyed. That trust takes a lot of mental and spiritual energy. The nature of inclusiveness and greater diversity does not offer the assurance of the commonality of thought and beliefs.

Maintaining that level of trust with those who hold differing ideas and ways of perceiving the world drains energy. We might compare it to ongoing sojourns in areas where the languages and customs are not our own–fascinating but often tiring. Nothing can be done by rote. Everything takes extra effort.

The exclusive church or organization has a lot more freedom to innovate within the boundaries it has built. The inclusive church has to continually re-think where those boundaries need to be built.

As I meander down this torturous thought path, I find myself in sympathy with both “sides” fighting the battle for the soul and future of The United Methodist Church.

Each has excellent arguments. While Jesus was clearly an inclusivist–he did eat with sinners, after all–he also had a small group of intimates. That in-group experience provided them the safety they needed to abandon their previous lives for the sake of this unusual itinerant preacher who called them into lives of sacrificial love and extreme service.

The early church leaders had to form their own inclusive/exclusive balance as they dealt with the influx of those who didn’t fit their preconceived ways of being religious. In the end, they appeared to agree to disagree, to stay loosely connected but to contextualize their specialized ministries.

Their advantage over us? They didn’t have an impenetrable Book of Discipline or even a set of scriptures as we know them as their law books. With persecution around every corner, they had to have each other’s backs to survive.

It’s different for us. Our exceedingly complex structure and cumbersome way of making decisions (have you ever tried to explain the purpose of General Conferences to outsiders? I have–and the look on their faces is a wonder to behold) wraps chains around any hope of flexibility. The decision-making process, combined with confusing structures, also exacerbates tensions that we might otherwise resolve over cups of coffee or a bottle of wine and a hunk of bread shared around the table.

I celebrate what Starbucks is doing. I also know they are walking in a possible minefield of corporate disasters.

I celebrate what The United Methodist Church has done over the centuries. It has been a profound force for both personal and societal good. And our minefield is blowing up all around us.

Plants need to be divided periodically to be healthyI garden for mental health and for the delight of nurturing plant life. Periodically, I must pull overgrown perennials out of the ground or pot and forcibly break them up. Their centers get too hard, too ingrown for any more healthy growth to take place.

I often wonder how the plants “feel” about what I am doing to them. If the centers are severely ingrown, I’ve been known to take a hatchet to them to break them up. I then replant the pieces some distance apart. A few of the split apart pieces inevitably die. But most thrive, freed to send their roots deeper and their leaves and branches higher.

I’ve fought and fought and fought against reaching this point for the UMC, but I think its time. May we find a way to do this as gracefully as possible so all of us can thrive. It’s the only way I see to find the balance between the biblical mandate for an inclusive church AND to recognize that some exclusivity is necessary for health and well-being. I hope that we will all learn from the pain and use the memory of the pain to go forth most freely.

Starbucks has some things to teach us about inclusivity, but ultimately, like my plants, the United Methodist Church must split to regain health and vitality.


Photo on VisualHunt
Plant Photo by Christy Thomas

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