Last week I was at a conference/retreat with a bunch of Lutheran clergy. Most of us knew each other and had been around for a couple years, but there were some new faces in the crowd. Two of those new faces belong to friends of mine from seminary who recently moved to the area.
As we sat around the lunch table the first day, I began to think about what it’s like to be a new face in a group that already knows each other. Especially when it’s an event where most people tend to congregate with their close friends since it’s “time away.” I’ve been that person – I was that person seven years ago at the very same event. Thankfully I had an “in” with another friend from seminary and it was natural to hang out with her friends. They quickly became my friends too, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes (most times) it’s hard. Which is what I was thinking about last week and continues to be on my mind now, particularly in the church.
Being the new person is usually hard, but it can be much easier when one is intentionally welcomed. 8 years ago I wandered into an Emergent Cohort (part of the old model Emergent Village was working with years ago) in Columbus, Ohio. I was a senior in seminary and was beginning to be well versed in the Emergent conversation. I decided I needed some conversation partners outside of my seminary so I sought out a local cohort. The group I wandered into was full of people my age (early to mid-20s) who were passionate about making the church a better experience and more faithful followers of Jesus. The primary difference is that most in the group had come out of an Evangelical/Non-Denominational background. In some ways, they looked and sounded like me, but there was enough of a difference for it to be awkward. Add on top of it, they obviously knew each other well and were a tight-knit group. Here I was, the outsider, who didn’t know anybody in a group that knew everybody.
But they welcomed me in. They treated me as if I was already one of them, asking me questions about what seminary was like (after they discovered where I went to school) and why I was there. They wanted to know what my favorite food was and why I was so interested in making the church a better place. They wanted to get to know me; they talked with me and wanted to know my opinions on things. They didn’t treat me as if I was a pariah or leech. Soon after, I was one of them. I had become a part of the group. I’ve stayed at some of their houses when I’ve returned to Ohio and some of them have stayed at mine here in Maryland.
Fast forward a few months after that first meeting. I’d introduced my friends John and Andrea to the group and they too had become members of the group. Then, John and Andrea hosted a Super Bowl party at their apartment complex. Most of the people who showed up that evening were attached the seminary in some way and we all knew each other with the exception of two people. Two of the members of our cohort showed up and after I’d talked with them, they moved over to John and Andrea for conversation.
Then, when they were done talking, I watched.
I watched as nobody else engaged them in conversation or even really acknowledged they were there. Even after John introduced them to the whole group. I watched as a bunch of Lutheran pastors and church leaders to be couldn’t get up off their seats or peel their eyes away from the TV long enough to engage two people they didn’t know. I watched knowing that I’d done it before and that most of our churches were guilty of the same thing. We’d not learn how to be welcoming or hospitable – regardless of whether we were the hosts. It was almost as if I was witness to an attitude that suggested I’m not responsible for inviting these two people so why should I be responsible for them now? Or simply an inability to see there was even somebody new in the room.
Last week made me remember this story. Partially because of my two friends new to the area. But also because in attendance was a person who represented our benefits company. She’s responsible not only for our area but pretty much from Indiana to the East. She goes to a lot of different church gatherings and she doesn’t know hardly anybody at most. She told me while we were there that one of the worst parts of her job (which she loves) is arriving at the conference and waiting to see if anybody will eat a meal with her or invite her to dinner.
It’s hard being the new face in a group that knows each other.
It’s harder when nobody welcomes you in.
Mainline church, we need to do better.
Lutherans, we need to do better.
Not because it’s our job (though it should be), but because everybody deserves to be welcomed.
Image: Jim Clark (https://www.flickr.com/photos/joc67/)