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.