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September 28, 2012

Melissa Wiginton: Eyes that lead

Leadership, if it’s about anything, is about noticing what is often overlooked, and then having the courage to speak up about it.

I was reminded of this recently. It was Sunday morning. Rain poured from the sky and I was grateful. We need rain. Curled up with my coffee, I had no problem deciding to hunker down and enjoy it instead of heading out to church. Reason No. 27 why I am not a pastor: the option to skip church on Sunday mornings like this.

But before David Gregory had announced next week’s guests on “Meet the Press,” I was dragging my sorry self off the couch. Be in solidarity with all the pastors you respect, I thought. The least you can do is show up. Visit Servant Church like you planned.

Worship at Servant Church -- a two-year old United Methodist church plant with a young pastor and lots of young adults—starts at 11:11. I walked into the foyer about 11:15 to the familiar sound of church announcements. Servant Church has a lot of people new to church and certainly to this congregation, but it looks like some things don’t change. I’ll lay odds that there were Announcements on Pentecost.

The pastor issued reminders of sign-ups, regular meetings and special events and concluded by saying, “And we want to remember to pray for the Burnetts and their safe return as they travel home this week.” I was mildly curious about the Burnetts, where they were returning from and why they had gone wherever it was. But I was a visitor, so no reason I should know.

Then I heard something totally new in my half-century-plus experience of church announcements. If nothing else good had happened, this made it worth getting out in the rain. A voice from somewhere in the middle of the congregation called out, “Who are the Burnetts?”

Clearly, this person was not reared by my mother. His question seriously violated multiple norms of church behavior: It was rude, disruptive, distracting, and nosy. Right?

Actually, the question felt friendly. It slowly dawned on me that this might have been an act that showed hospitality. Maybe the questioner knew the Burnetts, but recognized that not everyone did. Maybe he asked the question to make sure everyone had the same information, so no one need feel like an outsider. Or maybe the questioner had no idea who the Burnetts were, but felt like it was important to ask since he was part of the community being called to prayer.

When I heard that question, “Who are the Burnetts?,” I suddenly saw the shadow side of the common congregational convention that we all know each other. New people don’t. “Sunday-morning only” people probably don’t. Visitors don’t.

Yes, we need to keep wearing nametags and welcoming visitors. But leadership is about seeing what is often invisible that keeps a system from changing—like the assumptions that maintain boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Like assuming we all know the people named in worship. A little context, a little story, a little authenticity will go a long way to including new members of the family.

By the way, the Burnetts (not their real name) are returning from Zambia with two newly adopted children who will, as the pastor said, “Increase the size of our family by two.” That is worth knowing and praying for. I am so glad for this question, asked and answered.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

3 Comments

We're Home!

Melissa, Glad you made it to SC that Sunday. We are back from Uganda and our kids are having a great time discovering America. Thanks for this sweet article. We will be at SC this Sunday and would love to meet you :)

Thanks!

Melissa, it was great to have you there to be a part of Servant Church's worship gathering. We really try not to use "insider" language and assumptions, but as you say, some habits are hard to break. One of the best things we can do - and that our gathering's organized chaos allows for at least to some extent - is casually, humbly, honestly name jargon or postures that set up an "us and them", and then reorient.

Something any new church setting helps us do is keep asking hospitality questions: "What if someone who's never been here before is listening? What if someone who's never been in church, or someone who's been deeply wounded in church, is listening?" Because in our case, they are.

Servant Church??

Hey Melissa, where is this Servant Church? Sounds like Central Presbyterian to me, but I know that is not it. Love this insightful piece about how difficult it is to be in the minds of our visitors...

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