Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: We are called to be keepers of an open tent

Detail from the icon of the Trinity, created by the Andrei Rublev for the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, a monastery near Moscow. It is considered a masterpiece of ancient Russian iconography.

Event design marked by deep hospitality is related to the core of what the church is about. It is a sign that we are making room for God in our gatherings, inviting God into our work and acknowledging our colleagues as children of God, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

When my family prepares for guests, we tend to sweep the clutter off the counters, light a candle, set out homemade salsa and chips, and contain our frisky dogs. My mother would gather newspaper clippings of articles she thought the guests would enjoy. My mother-in-law is always ready with kaffee und kuchen(coffee and cake). We all prepare to welcome people into our homes.

But we may have more trouble translating this hospitality to our work. Do we offer similar hospitality in the meetings, workshops or retreats that we lead? I think we would if we understood event design and planning as related to the core of what we are about as the church.

What does event design have to do with God? And what are the theological reasons that hospitality should be at the heart of Christian event design?

Houston pastor and filmmaker Marlon Hall talks about the importance of knowing the “why” of what we do. I understand Genesis 18 as the heart of event design in my own work.

In this chapter, Abraham and Sarah receive three visitors to their tent at the oaks of Mamre, rushing immediately in the heat of the day to wash their guests’ feet, lead them to a shady tree under which to rest, prepare cakes from the finest flour, and assemble curds and milk and a tender calf to eat. Abraham then stands by the strangers in case they need more.

All this hospitality before they have been introduced, much less mentioned a meeting agenda or action items! Abraham has not even recognized that these visitors are divine beings.

Sister Joan Chittister says that Abraham’s rush to welcome strangers to his table is “one of scripture’s most powerful icons,” calling us to be “keepers of an open tent in the desert.”

What does it mean to be “keepers of an open tent”? What does the story teach us about the importance of Christian hospitality in our own work? I use this story as a foundation for thinking theologically about Christian hospitality and event design.

First, the story reminds me that offering deep hospitality is a sign that we are making room for God in our gatherings. How do we clear the space and set a place for the divine? How might that preparation guide our conversations and our responses to one another? What kind of room do we make for the divine strangers in our midst, those on the margins or those who are wandering thirsty in the desert?

Preparation that makes room for God might include asking careful questions before a meeting or an event to clarify participant needs; practicing deep listening during the meeting or sessions and responding as important issues arise; and paying attention to the event’s setting -- elements such as the location itself, as well as the room setup, lighting and temperature.

Second, when we offer hospitality in our events, like Abraham, we invite God into the work that we do. We make it clear that God doesn’t just belong in the sanctuary; God also belongs in the nitty-gritty of our daily work running the church and serving the world.

God is our vision and our compass. Inviting God into our work might mean offering a prayer or Scripture reading or a longer worship time before or after each meeting. The way we present times of worship sets the stage for the tone of the work that follows. Inviting God into our work might also mean incorporating into event materials an image -- such as a grain of wheat, a shepherd or a dove -- that prompts people to think theologically about the gathering’s topic.

Third, when we offer good hospitality, we say to our attendees, “We know that you are children of God. No matter how humble, how proud or how annoying, you are worthy of respect, love, honor and good-quality coffee.” Do we offer opportunities for participants to share their crucial stories, to be listened to? Or are we simply offering a “sage on the stage”? Hospitality fosters a sense of belonging for all of God’s children who duck into our tent for a spell.

Such hospitality includes time to rest, think, move our bodies and absorb what we’ve heard; fresh, local food; and gracious details such as a small takeaway gift, bookmark or thank-you note. These elements celebrate participants as children of God but need not cost a lot of money. They simply indicate that we care.

Fourth, when we pay attention to hospitality through our design, we convey that we expect transformation to occur. This is not business as usual; something important is happening here. How will we harvest what we learn in the meeting? How will we offer mutual blessing as participants depart? How will we follow up to show that we take what happened seriously? Author Peter Block says that carefully built community can shift the context from “one of deficiencies, interests, and entitlement” to “one of possibility, generosity, and gifts.”

Last, Abraham’s welcome was the inspiration for the artist Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Rublev understood that God’s triune life is a life of sharing and hospitality, welcoming and making room for the other. When we show hospitality in our homes or at our events, we participate in and witness to this triune God.

If we believe in a God who can transform lives, then we need to keep an open tent, to set the table of our events with intentionality, generosity and expectation.