extravagant belonging


    Friday night was busy at the restaurant.

    I was at the fish station and Chef was on the grill, which are the two main sauté stations. We share eighteen burners, three ovens, and more sauté pans than I can count and, once dinner service gets into full swing, we keep the burners blazing and the pans flying. For the first hour and a half of service, everyone that came in ordered meat. I had only two small tickets. That changed around seven-thirty: I got slammed. All of a sudden I had five salmon, two swordfish, two or three cods, and a couple of pasta dishes that are assigned to my station. Chef had a line of tickets of his own and called for the Sous Chef, who was the floater for the night, to come and help us get the food out. I had thought through the orders and had a plan for getting the food out expeditiously and well timed with the food from the other stations. She stepped on to the line with her own plan and in a matter of minutes I felt superfluous.

    Chef and Sous have worked together for seven years along with two of the other line cooks in our kitchen. They have all been very welcoming to me and willing to help me learn the ropes. I get along with everyone in the kitchen. And as the two of them fell into their familiar rhythm, I knew I was an outsider. I also knew they had no idea they were pushing me out of the circle. Sous was stepping up to a station that was hers before I was hired; she had no need to ask what I was working on or how I planned to deal with the tickets. She had her way. She was going to do her thing and she did.

    As I drove home reflecting on the evening, I thought, “This is how church feels to some people.” People join a church because they feel welcomed and they are encouraged to get involved. Somewhere along the way they have an experience (or seven) much like my night on the line when one of the Ones Who Know steps in to help and simply takes over, leaving the new person on the sidelines not knowing how to get in the game as something other than a sub or a replacement player. The action by the long term member is not malicious, but it is alienating. It would have felt different to me if Sous had simply asked, “What can I do to help?”

    Saturday night, Sous was on both pizza and garde manger. My station was closest to her, so Chef asked me to keep an eye to whether or not she needed help. Again, my station started slow and her tickets were stacking up. Every time I saw three or four salads come up closely followed by a pizza or three, I asked her if she needed help.

    “I got it,” she said.

    She didn’t have it. She was in the weeds, but I was not the one who could help her. Not long after she waved me off, I looked up to see one of the cooks she has known for years at garde manger making salads. I don’t know if she asked for help or if he just went in there and started throwing lettuce in the bowls, but the situation reminded me again I am not an insider. I am welcome but I don’t belong.

    One of the ways we describe ourselves in the UCC is as people of “extravagant welcome.” I love the phrase and the sentiment, and church has to be more than a welcoming place if we don’t want people to end up feeling like I did this weekend. We need to be a community of extravagant belonging.

    When Ginger pastored in Winchester, one of the enduring phrases within the youth group was, “There are no lunch tables at church,” meaning we all belong as much as anyone else. Jesus calls us to crash through cliques and disregard labels. We had kids from every layer of high school society in the group and they learned, both at church and at school, how to break the boundaries between the lunch tables and belong to and with one another.

    Somewhere along the way I heard or read of someone saying, “If you’re on a church committee or board and you are not actively training your replacement, you’re doing it wrong.” I think at some level it’s hard for us to remember that when we say “our church” the pronoun is descriptive, not possessive.

    I don’t know an easy way to do it. I’ve been the one in Sous’ position – both at work and at church — and barreled over whomever was trying to be a part of things with much less tact than she pushed past me the other night, I’m sure. Here’s what I wished had happened: when she came on to the line she would have said something to the effect of, “It looks like you have an idea of how you want to handle these tickets. How can I help?”

    What I wanted was for her to treat me as a member of the team and not the new guy.

    In every church of which I have been a part, I’ve seen people stand on the sidelines trying to figure out how to get in the game. I think a lot of folks get tired of being welcomed but fade away because they aren’t given clear indication of how they can belong. The shared histories of those already there is often intimidating. The mostly unintentional code of conduct and procedure that exists in most churches is unintelligible to the uninitiated. The biggest difference between being welcomed and belonging is in the vulnerability it takes to trust one another.

    Tonight, she was doing pizza and garde manger again and, at one point, she said, “Milton, can you help me by making two baby spinach salads and one Caesar to go with these pizzas?” I jumped at the chance. She had no idea how good it felt to me for the two of us to be standing there in “our” restaurant.



    1. I think that’s true at every church (every type of organization or group, actually), and only the peole who very intentionally take the initiative and strive to be included, will be. The church we have attended for fourteen years was just like that when we joined; we were pew-sitters (totally unlike us)for about six months until we decided that was ridiculous, and saw that we had to make the effort to be included. Not a malicious or exclusionary thing on anyone’s part; just human nature.

    2. Zorra,

      I hear what you’re saying. I’m also one of those who will keep knocking until someone lets me in. Not everyone is like that and church needs to be a place that offers community to more than the gregarious or tenacious ones. After all, the meek get to inherit the earth, not the determined.


    3. My wife and I co-chaired our parish’s “Growth” committee for several years. During this time, we realized that there were (at least) two distinct sets of people that our efforts needed to be directed to:
      1) Those who’d not yet been introduced to our parish. These were the people we reached out to through advertising, etc.
      2) Those who’d come in and sat in the pews and needed to navigate their way to belonging.

      At first it was only amongst ourselves, but later we referred to the committee openly as “Finders and Keepers”, and published leaflets like “Now that I’m here, what do I do?” I can’t claim that we were more successful than anyone else had been or has been since, but I know we were actively trying to accomplish the incorporation that you describe. It definitely takes an intentional approach.

    4. At my recent retreat one of our facilitators taught us about family systems theory and how it applies to churches. In one exercise five volunteers were arranged in a circle, and she wove twine in between them to create a five-pointed star. She then invited other students to come up and try to find a place in the “Church of the Star.” The point was that organizations like churches have a structure at any given time that will by necessity change as people come and go; and thoughtful organizations will take some time thinking of ways to meaningfully and creatively integrate new people into the structure — even if it means veteran members letting go of a cherished section of rope, so to speak, and reorganizing the structure.

    5. Your blog is wonderful. Thank you. Tonight, for devotions for my membership commission, I am going to share this entry with them…it is pretty profound food for thought (no pun intended!). Peace to you as you navigate transition and leavetaking.
      We just moved from Raleigh to Boston a year and few months ago. The Triangle is a great place to live and be…and Durham has some excellent, excellent restaurants…..

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