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Subtle Discrimination in Churches

Who are you unintentionally leaving out?

Carla* fit the exact demographic our church endeavored to reach: hip, smart, and culturally relevant. She also regularly volunteered in the local prison. So when she told me that she was declined membership, I shook my head in disbelief. The reason? She was unable to commit to a weekly fellowship group due to her schedule as an actress.

Membership offers definite advantages to those on either side of the pulpit. For the pastoral staff, it establishes clear expectations, helps keep track of and care for people, and creates a unified body with a clearly defined mission. Membership also helps church attenders to meaningfully invest in that specific body and keeps them accountable.

Membership requirements vary from church to church, according to denominational mandates and pastoral preferences. Some churches request adult baptism or expect a ten percent tithe. Others ask for weekly volunteer hours and some prohibit alcohol or gossip. And to be in leadership, there are additional requirements.

Membership and leadership requirements are typically created with the best of intentions. However, they sometimes place an undue burden on certain demographics—particularly those whose life-work demands are out of the ordinary. The hard fact is that often means women. Carla’s experience is just one of many I have witnessed during my 20-plus years of pastoring.

As leaders, we willingly sign off on these prerequisites, perhaps assuming there’s no real opportunity to dialogue or negotiate. But many of us not only see how these requirements negatively impact others, we struggle to comply without burning ourselves out. When we speak up about requirements that discriminate, we serve the entire body—though there’s always the risk of being labeled as a trouble maker because we have a different vantage point than our brothers.

What Messages Are You Sending?

Take tithing. By expecting members to give a specific amount rather than what they are able, are we communicating a bias for well-resourced individuals over those of lesser means? Families for whom ten percent is simply out of reach often feel far too intimidated or shameful to admit their financial struggles. This puts them in a difficult position: either don’t join the church or join knowing that they won’t fulfill their responsibilities. Similarly, if we demand that members attend a mid-week fellowship or that leaders attend regular training sessions without offering to pay for childcare (or transportation costs for the elderly or disabled), we may be making an already heavy yoke heavier.

Even if finances aren’t the limiting factor, consider the dilemma that an all-day membership class or training event creates for anyone who works weekends, has family obligations, or has health or mobility issues. My friend Stephen* is an excellent teacher with much to offer on the topic of discipleship. Unfortunately, he suffers from IBS and needs the weekend to recuperate and regain his strength so he can return to work on Monday morning. This makes attending mandatory weekend training events nearly impossible, and that disqualifies him from teaching in the church.

I know this territory very well. Not long after our youngest son was born, I began my 15-year battle with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. At the time, I was homeschooling our two older boys, working part-time as a photographer, and co-leading a ministry with my husband. So when my name appeared on the rotation for kids’ church, I didn’t expect any pushback for declining—even though it was something requested of all leaders in the church. Instead of a compassionate or at least curious conversation with the children’s pastor, though, I was accused of having misplaced priorities.

Was the staff member correct in demanding that I fulfill the requirements? Was the pastoral staff misguided in refusing Carla membership? It’s true that the rules were clear, but in both situations the requirements unfairly discriminated. I believe the staff missed an opportunity to support and bless us. They could have encouraged us to do less rather than more, perhaps even helping us discover our own healthy limitations.

Inclusive Churches

Most likely, none of us intend to exclude or stigmatize those who have physical, financial, or time limitations. And I am by no means suggesting we eliminate all requirements for membership or leadership. I do want to encourage those of us who make or enforce these requirements to explore the messages that we may be communicating and consider how we can be more inclusive.

For example, consider offering childcare during any mandatory meetings or training events without waiting for someone to express the need. Or, tape day-long training events and make them available as podcasts for those who are legitimately unable to attend. Teach on sacrificial giving—because all of us need that reminder—but let attenders know you trust them to determine the amount of their tithe based on their resources, not the church’s needs. Teaching in this way may even encourage those who are able to give 20 or even 50 percent to increase their tithe! The goal is to be both empathetic and inclusive while moving the mission forward. If we step back to look at the big picture and then choose grace and empathy, we can avoid many discriminatory practices.

As we think about rules, requirements, and structures for our churches, let’s be careful not to dismiss or devalue the offering of those who are perhaps less than in the world’s estimation but rich in kingdom values. The octogenarian who shows up once a month (and who could never sit through eight hours of prayer ministry training) might be one of the most powerful pray-ers in the entire congregation if given the opportunity. And the 30-year-old with chronic fatigue might be the best person to co-lead the international ministry if we work with her limitations. Yes, being empathetic and inclusive requires more thought, more time, and more patience. In the long run, however, it creates a beautifully diverse congregation that more fully represents the world in which we live.

*All names have been changed.

Dorothy Littell Greco is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and a regular contributor for Today’s Christian Woman and Gifted for Leadership. Her first book will be published by David C. Cook in December. You can follow her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or find more of her work on her site.

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