“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.
Erin 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.