Corporate and Community Life

by James Steen

James Steen is Rector of the Church of St. Paul and The Redeemer, Hyde Park, Chicago.

The following is a transcript from the 1996 The Center for Progressive Christianity National Forum. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at


The author describes some of the dynamics and elements that are required for a church to become truly inclusive.

I'm going to tell you a little about myself by way of introduction and how I happened to get into the work that I do - of working primarily with congregations and occasionally with other religious organizations around issues of human differences. For about 15 years, I was the rector of a church in Washington, D.C., an Episcopal church, and that church, when I went there in 1979, was a very - I would call it - monochromatic congregation. It was interesting. Everyone liked to talk about how much we valued our diversity, but there was none to be identified. And that made it easy, of course, to live with diversity. But, over the years, the congregation did, in fact, become more diverse, and by the time I had been there for 12 years, there were maybe 50 gay and lesbian persons, there were about 30 Hispanic individuals, there were a number of African Americans and African natives, and there was other diversity as well; and we talked a lot about how pleased we were that this was all happening. I took too much for granted, and I assumed that parish leaders were as enthusiastic about our growing diversity as they said they were. I'm sure they said in part what they thought I wanted to hear. I was gung-ho and pushing forward and probably not listening as well as I might have, and there came a time when all of this came to a crisis point and it became apparent that people were not as enthusiastic as I had thought that they were, and I eventually left around that crisis, and one of the things that I thought about a lot after I left was what I might have done that would have served the congregation better in terms of coming to terms with growing diversity, and helping people be more intentional about dealing with the diversity, and honoring different points of view

In the course of that I read a little book called something like, Living With Diversity in the Local Congregation. I didn't like the book very much, but there was one thing in it that now seems so obvious to me. I can't believe I hadn't thought of it before. It was a statement to the effect of, if you want diversity to work in a congregation, you had better plan, and plan carefully because it won't just happen. There may be congregations where this isn't true, but at least in most I think it is, in fact, true. It's not an easy thing. Anyway, I have since then devoted myself more and more and now more or less full time to helping congregations deal with what I once felt I hadn't helped a congregation deal with very well. And what I'm going to do today is less theological actually than it is pragmatic. I am going to share with you some of the things that I have learned from my experience and also some of what I have learned from others.

I have tried to come up with a definition of inclusiveness and, as I understand, the topic we are discussing this afternoon is inclusiveness and recruiting in congregations. Inclusiveness, ultimately is not about groups or about categories. It is about affirming every person as a child of God. The goal is to create communities where every person is free to contribute fully to the life of the community and to receive its benefits. One reason why, and maybe the main reason why, I'm emphasizing here that inclusiveness is not basically about categories and groups, even though it is about both of those things, is that if you ask most people what we mean by inclusiveness in the church, they will see it as a perhaps even subversive way of avoiding naming the one or two or three groups they think we're out to make dominant. Of course those groups do come to all of our minds, and I see heads nodding, when we think about inclusiveness.

Inclusiveness does have to do with gays and lesbians right now in the church, and we think of race when we think of inclusiveness. We probably think of gender, and maybe not much else. It's very important for us to broaden our definition, and it's important in part because, if we can make it broad enough, everyone in our communities can be helped to see just how much diversity there is, and also to identify their own places of fitting into all of this diversity and, therefore, we can start to build connections rather than walls. I have a list here of some human differences that are present in every congregation. If we had more time, I'd ask you to name them. But since we don't, I'm just going to rattle this list off. And this doesn't begin to exhaust the possibilities. There's nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, religious background, sexual orientation, physical abilities, physical traits, age, education, job, socioeconomic status, primary relationship status, parental status, taste, value systems, political views, length of time in the community and accent. Those are just some.

Now, I also want to say, because recruitment is supposed to be part of what we are dealing with this afternoon, that affirming everyone, including white heterosexual males, as a key element of The Good News, is increasingly crucial to the success of mainline churches. Mainline churches that want to grow and that want to flourish have got to take this seriously. We no longer, and there may be places where we do, but less and less do we have the luxury of having communities where everyone at least appears to be, and thinks of themselves as, alike. And certainly this radical inclusiveness at the heart of the Gospel is part of what we must proclaim if we hope to reach out to the unchurched, the group that Jim Adams said is the largest growing religious group in our society.

Now I want to spend a little time talking about what I see as some hindrances to this vision being achieved and then to talk a couple of minutes about some things that I think work in helping us achieve the vision of inclusive communities. Last night Gail Harris quoted a bishop, I'm not sure which bishop she was quoting, but I could guess, as saying that Christianity began as a movement and then became a philosophy and then an institution and then a culture. Finally it came to this country and it became an enterprise, one might say a business. I know that there are all kinds of problems with Christianity as an enterprise; however, there's another image of the church that I see very often that bothers me more even than the image of the church as an enterprise, and the model that comes to me again, and again and again as I am working with congregations, is the image of the congregation as the Junior League. What I have in mind when I say this is, of course, a kind of clubbiness, but it's a specific kind of clubbiness where people are in agreement that very important for us to be working with those less fortunate people out there. We shouldn't be focusing entirely on ourselves. We have a social responsibility; however, we still want to control who gets inside the club. And not only that, even when people who are different come in and become part of the community, we want to, in a way, and much of this is unconscious, we want to make it clear that it is really our club, and they are, in a sense, still visitors, maybe even guests, but not fully members. This leads me to raise what I believe may be the biggest single barrier to inclusive communities, and that is what I will call privilege. What I have in mind, and some of you may have read that little article that I left on the table downstairs on privilege in which I say much of this, but, what I have in mind by the word privilege is those attitudes and those, in fact, those realities which keep us in a one-up or dominant versus subservient position to one another. I use the example of the white male who honestly doesn't see the need for affirmative action any longer, and he really doesn't see it. He doesn't see it because of his privilege, because he has always existed in the system which limits his vision.

Such people really aren't aware that the playing field is not even, and that some people are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting what they want compared to other people. The church is full of this, and I want to emphasize, again, this is not bad people we're talking about, it's not even the Religious Right, it's people like, and including, all of us. Because what I'm talking about is so subtle very often, and it does not operate at an overt level. It operates very much under the surface and in our subconscious.

I want to give you a couple of examples from my very recent experience. I have been working with a congregation that has always had male clergy, and both the rectors and the assistants have always been males. This congregation finally called a female assistant. They had a perfectly positive experience with her and, when she left, the people who were making the decision about calling the next assistant, or who were advising the rector on this decision, were unanimous in saying, "We don't have to worry about that anymore". We've done that and now we can call a man, if a man happens to be the best-qualified candidate. Guess who was the best-qualified candidate! He was a man. These people didn't even see what they were doing. They believed that they were going to call the best candidate, whether it was a man or a woman but, because of all their unconscious baggage, they went back to what was comfortable.

I'm working with a diocese right now that is trying to build bridges among several disparate groups, and each is very diverse. The bishop has appointed a committee of eight people to oversee this process, and guess who is on this committee: Eight white, straight men. Now the bishop is not a "bad guy." He wants a more inclusive diocese, and yet this still happens. I was in a colleague group for almost 15 years. It was an all-male colleague group made up entirely of Episcopal clergy. I finally left that group fairly recently because the group would not have a female member. Now, I'm a slow learner. It took me 15 years to reach my decision, so there's not much by way of self-righteousness here. But when the subject came up of asking a female to join this group, I assumed, because all the men in the group are bright, enlightened, progressive people, that there would be no problem, and I was surprised. People made statements like, "It would make our communication more complex".

These stories are desired to illustrate just one thing and that is that what I am talking about is everywhere and it's something that we need to be very attentive to. We need to start out by doing our own work and by looking at those places in our lives where we embrace privilege, because every single one of us does, and I find that just as soon as I think I've really gotten rid of it, I get surprised unpleasantly by finding myself pulling privilege in another situation. I'm afraid it's a lifelong journey.

Another barrier to inclusion and growth is resistance to recruiting. This is something that we might want to talk about, because the more progressive a church is the more resistance there often is to recruiting. It's regarded as a kind of evangelical thing to do. It's what conservatives do, and Ialways find myself being surprised by this because I don't hesitate for a moment to recruit, to evangelize from a progressive perspective. Another problem is the notion that somehow inclusion in churches is a peripheral issue, one that, at this moment, has somehow managed to steal center-stage. This attitude I find almost every place I go, and it's expressed in statements like, "I wonder when we're going to get all of this inclusive stuff over with and we can go on with the real business that we need to be taking care of?"

I don't understand how someone could have read last Sunday's Gospel about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, and not just eating with them, but seeming to have no difficulty eating with them, and not even moralizing insofar as I could figure out, and still see this as peripheral. Or how can one read Peter's vision in the book of Acts and see this as a peripheral issue, or read the book of Ruth, and we could go on and on and on. We may all have our favorite passages to deal with these issues - there are hundreds of such passages - and yet this notion persists that inclusiveness is peripheral to our real work as Christians.

Now, the good news is that people in communities, people and communities, really do change, and I want to say a couple of things about what helps people change. During this conference I've already heard five people mention one thing that works, and probably works better than anything else. It is simply getting to know people who are different. This takes work. It's something you've got to be intentional about, make conscious decisions about, but I will promise you there is no single thing that helps people get over their phobias over differences and become more open, nothing works as well as getting to know people across differences.

There's a really good book called Sexual Orientation and Identity: Heterosexual, lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Journeys. It has to do with how heterosexuals become more open to gay and lesbian people. It was written by two psychologists who have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours interviewing people on this topic. What the book tells us is that every single time a person has a major change in attitude around this issue, it involves getting to know a person who is lesbian and gay, finding out that it is a child, is a friend, is a brother, a sister, you name it. That's what changes people. I mention sexual orientation. These sample people have also done work on race, and they have found the same thing is true on race, and it's true concerning any difference that we can name.

This leads to another thing that I have heard people talking about this morning: The importance of telling our stories and listening to one another's stories. Everyone can find something to identify within another person's story. And it quits being something that's academic and out there, and it becomes a way to connect with the other person. There is a lovely surprise that I often experience in asking people to tell stories, and I'm always asking them to tell stories when I'm doing a workshop. I ask people to tell stories around experiences with human differences. People will often start to tell a very negative story about an experience that they have had with someone of another group. And I wince and expect the worst. Then, very often, by the time the person has finished telling the story, it ends up having been positive and transforming for the person to have been able to tell the story. Any authentic story has power, and it's amazing to me how even the most apparently intolerant people can change when they are listened to with respect.

I have talked almost entirely about personal change and dealing with differences on a personal level. It's also crucial to deal with them on a systemic level. This is because even if every one of us in this room changes and becomes more open, the systems we are a part of have a life of their own. But that is for another workshop.