Everyone an Outsider

By Cathy Norman Peterson

When I was a terribly shy pre-teen, my mother got me some cassette tapes on adolescence by James Dobson. This was before he was a political power monger, and I remember listening to them raptly while I ironed my father’s shirts in the basement and my mother worked on sewing projects.

In one talk Dobson said that every teenager feels insecure. Even the popular kids—the football players, the cheerleaders, the cool kids—all of them feel uncertain about themselves, he said.

It was a wild revelation for me. All that laughter in the hallways, the boys shoving each other in between classes, the girls who flirted during biology class behind Mr. Shinn’s back—was it possible that any of that was disguising the kind of anxiety I carried around with me daily? I’d assumed that everyone else was gliding through junior high while I stumbled along on the fringes.

Sometimes I think we have the same misconceptions in the Covenant. We think there’s a group out there somewhere who is at the center, who identify themselves as the core of our church. They feel at home. They’re comfortable. They have a voice.

In the grand scheme, we’re a small denomination, and I think that’s partly what feeds this perception that certain constituents really belong to the Covenant—and those constituents are not me.

Who are those people?

Over the years I’ve heard people identify each of these groups as the true core of the Covenant: North Park graduates. Non-North Park graduates. Fourth generation Covenanters. Brand-new churches. Residents of Chicago. Everyone in California. Members of so-called legacy churches. Members of churches that have adopted in. Young, urban church planters. Older, male pastors. White Covenanters. Covenanters of color.

I’ve heard long-time Covenanters say, “No one wants to hear from me—it’s not my church anymore,” and I’ve heard new Covenanters say, “I didn’t go to North Park—so I know this isn’t really my church.”

See what I mean? It starts to feel like high school when we all think everyone else is at the center. But sometimes more than adolescent feelings are at stake.

Why this feeling of exclusion seems to permeate our DNA is a question to consider, but lately I’ve been thinking about what damage it causes. If I assume that because I’m not ordained, I don’t really have a voice in the Covenant, I give myself permission to sit in the balcony and offer critiques to anyone who will listen—without having to actually take ownership of anything. If I assume that because I married in to the denomination—and thus my roots “only” extend some twenty years—I don’t invest myself in the church. In other words, if I assume that this church really belongs to some other group, then it’s pretty easy for me to keep one foot halfway out the door. Why engage tensions or challenges if I don’t really belong?

More tragically, if I assume that the church belongs to those people over there, then I relegate it to them—and forget that the church belongs not to any of us but to Christ.

Next week many of us (at first I typed “many pastors”—so ingrained is this tendency to identify myself as outside the core group) gather in Denver for our annual Midwinter Conference. It’s one of the great things we do—offering time and space each year for pastors and leaders throughout the church to gather together. Over and over I hear participants say they look forward to this event as an important and meaningful opportunity to connect with friends.

Yet exclusion also happens there. Some find it hard to make connections—especially if they don’t already have a cadre of friendships among fellow ministers, and that perpetuates the “everyone else is an insider” perception.

And what about even more egregious examples of exclusion? Like a speaker lineup that lists six main speakers on the conference website but only one woman—and no women of color? Clearly those constituencies are not being intentionally welcomed or invited in. And why is no space created to hear the voices of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the church?

These members of our body don’t just feel left out—they are left out.

When members of our body are silenced or dismissed or ignored, exclusion causes deep pain. This isn’t just hurt feelings or a high school clique. It’s separation from the body.

The prophet Isaiah calls God’s people to be “repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12). Let this be true of us. Let the Spirit of God draw us together in friendship, as the beloved community, the body of Jesus Christ. And let us remember that Jesus created the church to be a home and refuge for all.

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17 thoughts on “Everyone an Outsider

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  1. I have found that nurturing my own outsider status produces anxiety, distance from the community, and a sense of entitlement – even pride. “That group (whichever I am feeling alienated from) clearly doesn’t value me and my strengths – I sure with they understood me and my potential contribution.” The starting point is weakness and alienation, and, when fostered, my outsider status only exacerbates all those things.

  2. This one packs a wallop–in every direction. I identified with non-North Park, married in, non-Swedish, female, not young and urban/hip, relatively short Covenant tenure, and I’ll add this one: started pastoral ministry later in life when it seems every church wants a young married male with children and 8-12 years of experience. Having said that, I still think it’s easier to find a place at the table in the Covenant than in many other places. How can we keep our eyes peeled for those of us who are still wondering where it’s safe to sit down with our lunch bags?

    1. A great and open post – reflects what I think a lot of people feel. You are right – this “outsider” idea hits at many levels. Nice to have you here in this discussion, and in the Covenant.

    2. Debbie – this is right on the mark.What is your experience as a church planter? Have you found a place, it sounds like? How many others are like you?

  3. Cathy,
    This is a great article–and so true. At various points in my journey with the Covenant, I’ve identified myself as pretty close to the center and very much on the outside edge! One of the beauties of the Covenant is the diversity of experience and backgrounds that have found a home here, but it is a continuing challenge for everyone to feel like they belong. Thank you for articulating this so clearly. Nancy Gordon

  4. Lovely post, Cathy, and spot on. GREAT questions at the end, too. The sweetest thing about us – after loving and following Jesus – is the high value we place on community – agreeing-to-disagree on doctrine and biblical interpretation as long as we are earnestly seeking to be Jesus people. Praying that we will always make room at the table for all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas, that we won’t give into fear or begin drawing lines in the sand that Jesus would not draw. SO IMPORTANT. Thank you.

  5. Thank you, Cathy. I too can relate to this feeling… as a 4th generation covenant, white, Californian, Chicago-loving, 35yr old male North Park University and Seminary grad with 12yrs of experience in a 120yr old church engaged in multi-ethnic ministry! I have openly shared with many that I can’t stand the first 12hrs of Midwinter, preferring to hide in my room. It’s all of the “How are things going in your context?” stuff that stirs some sort of inferiority complex (read “sense of being on the outside”) in me. Clearly you are right in stating that many who appear to be on the inside would not self-identify that way. I am so grateful for your honest words and strong challenge! We are better together but being together requires willing ourselves, and encouraging one another, to cross these boundaries.

  6. Yep, you said it…and thank you. I first sensed this while attending NPTS, especially in my first year. I came from an out-of-state public university, not that it necessarily mattered where I went to school before seminary, but it was clear that I was not from North Park, even though I could connect with many friends who did attend NPU. This, among other things left me feeling like I didn’t belong…the language, the who’s who, the name dropping, the culture, etc. My insecurities swelled and I found myself desperately wanting to separate from the environment that caused me to feel like an outsider. I don’t have a huge struggle with feeling like an outsider -ok, sometimes it gets me, but I struggle even more when that is coupled with feeling alone…if I can be an outsider with a group of outsiders, I’m pretty content; cue The Clash or any other punk album. I realized that separating myself and withdrawing can only be appropriate to a point. I need community and I need an intentional one. By separating myself I finish the job of lopping off a limb that is already being separated from the body, by the body. I simply cannot do that. I’ve spent a lot of time in prayer about this because of the insecurity that it brings. I’ve taken steps to embrace new people who may feel left out, I guess I mostly assume they do because of the Covenant size and culture. We need to keep embracing everyone, this is what we’re invited into by Jesus and it’s awesome. Thanks again for your thoughtful post, your questions at large, your challenge and for creating space here, much appreciated.

  7. First, I really enjoyed this post! However, I wonder how “feeling like an outsider” relates to issues of systematic exclusion. I’ve “felt like an outsider” at times in the Covenant (no Swedish heritage, no extended family or historical roots in the Covenant!) but my sense is my “outsider” feelings are fundamentally different from those that feel like “outsiders” because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

    Additionally, I think responding to those different forms of exclusion requires drastically different institutional approaches – and that the response to exclusion based on race, gender, and sexual orientation has been much more difficult for the Covenant. I’m still in the middle of these thoughts but I wanted to add my comment to this great conversation!

  8. Thank you Cathy for brilliantly writing this blog article. I felt and have experienced many of the things you posted. I would like to comment on a few items.
    – intentionally welcomed or invited was a comment in the blog about inclusion of woman at MW. We started with a list of 20 women to speak at MW. We began conversations with 6. We were close to signing three of them but life circumstances prevented them to commitment to MW 2015 but all three are slated for Gather or MW. Three woman because of life situations have very limited speaking currently due to health issues, trying to start a family and one invited to be in their first movie. So it sadden me that we needed to go to alternative speakers. Making it look like we didn’t have a full line up. Our CovTalks have 2 female presenters, our learning experiences have 12 leaders, each night we have invite a pastoral presence to guide us through worship and our Connection groups are lead by 13 woman. So even though it isn’t as we hoped it isn’t because of lack of trying.

    We also have tried to address the issues of Connectivness with dedicating a day to Connection Groups- invited people to gather for conversation around similar topics of conversations. These are not workshop style but are facilitied conversations. The leaders have been asked to serve because they are great Facilatators! We have also started a meal gathering space outside of registration where you can come and meet others for a meal.

    Lastly the issue of conversation around human sexuality. Mark Novak began last MW with two learning experiences centered on this important topic. This last year he has worked with professional in the field met with conferences and conference leadership to create a space for conversation on both Wednesday and Thursday this year.

    So again please hear me as thankful for the conversation and the passion in which it was intended but I did want to be able to say we are on the same page trying to work toward resolution and provide a space for people to see the whole of the kingdom represented, invite people to meet others and engage in important conversations.

    1. Thank you, Marti, for sharing this perspective. It’s helpful to hear you name the efforts being made to address these challenges. Your comments highlight the fact that overall in the Covenant we very seldom actually intend to exclude (which may be one reason why it’s so isolating when any of us feels on the outskirts). That’s a deeply good thing about this collection of Mission Friends, which I don’t take lightly. Your office has a unique challenge, coordinating myriad details, responding to multiple constituencies, while putting together an important and meaningful event. I genuinely respect those efforts, and my aim here was to explore feelings of exclusion and encourage each of us to remain connected–in the game, so to speak–even when we feel, or actually are, at the margins.

  9. Cathy, thank you for your vulnerability and boldness. This is such an important topic to name and discuss, especially heading into Midwinter. Simply naming this dynamic helps diffuse some of the power that it can have on us, and it’s a helpful reminder for me to be more aware and intentional.

  10. I continue to be struck by the wide range of experiences/perspectives represented by these comments. Thanks, Debbie, Tim, Nancy, Erick, for sharing your honest stories. They matter, and they pull us together in our struggles and in our belonging.

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