Reason #2 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Ability to Live Together Amidst Our Wonderful Diversities

Yesterday, one of my regular readers pointed out I had accidentally skipped Reason #3 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry.  With that in mind, I went in today and changed the numbering of the reasons on my blog.

Please keep something else in mind.  When I list My Reasons for Want to Leave (or Stay), the reasons are NOT specific to my current ministry site of Woodland Hills Community Church.  They weren’t reasons I Wanted to Leave (or Stay at) Woodland Hills Community Church.  They were Reasons for Wanting to Leave (or Stay in) Parish Ministry.  It’s VERY important you understand that.  With that said, let me share with you Reason #2 for Want to Stay in Parish Ministry.

Having been born and raised in a small town, I grew up with an approach to life that was foundational for me.  That approach is that we shouldn’t separate, or segregate ourselves in life by hanging out only with those who look, think, or live like us.  We should learn how to live with those who look, think and live differently than us as well.

That approach developed not because of some abstract philosophical process I went through; it was born of practical necessity.  You see in small towns you don’t have the luxury of hanging out with only like-minded people.  Necessity dictates you mix things up.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  If you belong to one political party and a man named John a few doors down belongs to a different party, it is highly likely that John plays many important roles in your life.  In a small town, for instance, John might be your butcher, the coach of your youngest child’s softball team, AND the driver of the car pool that takes the neighborhood kids to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Because of that tangled web of relationships, you don’t have the luxury of getting mad at John because of his politics and telling him to F-off.  You HAVE to figure out how to get along with John and develop a healthy relationship in other areas of your life.

Over time, you learn how to reach an understanding of what can (and cannot) be talked about with John.  And if you venture into dangerous conversational territory (i.e. politics), you have certain unspoken guidelines that let both individuals know when they can continue with a conversation – and when they need to switch topics.  It is not unusual in small towns for people who are radically different from one another to develop intimate friendships.

When I moved to much larger cities, I realized that folks who grow up in big cities often don’t share that approach to life.  They are MUCH more likely to build a series of micro communities that are composed of people who look, think, and live much like them.  For instance, families might pull together to form a playdate group for the kids (and parents) who get along from Nursery School.  Or an adult might join a Meet Up group made up of people who share a love for hiking.  In big cities, people have the luxury of spending most of their free time hanging out primarily with those whom they can relate to.  “Why WOULD you hang out with those who are radically different from you if you don’t have to?!?!,” I’ve been asked more than once.

This move in the direction of micro communities used to happen mostly in big cities.  Smaller (or rural) areas were largely immune from this dynamic.

Things began to change when cable/satellite television and the Internet broke onto the scene.  People began to watch television stations (i.e. either Fox News or MSNBC) that broadcast a version of the news with which they agreed.  Later people began to hang out on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and interact (or like) those who shared their perception of the world.  As a result of these developments, today even our small towns reflect the divides that were once common primarily in our big cities.

This development is a tragedy.  People rarely come into contact with those who see things differently.  I believe these developments explain why we are so incredibly polarized about virtually EVERYTHING these days.  We have traded in our notion of community in order to become a series of micro communities.  

Our local faith communities are one of the last places that still provide us with the opportunity to voluntarily hang out with folks who are different from us.  I love, for instance, that the church I serve is full of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.  We have people in our community who come from (or whose parents or grandparents came from) places like Afghanistan, Argentina, China, Columbia, England, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Ukraine: people who identify as African-America, Asian American-Pacific Islander, European-American, Native American and Latinx. In our congregation we have some who voted for Hillary Clinton and others who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election.  In our community we have people who – in addressing the situation in the Middle East – are passionately pro-Palestinian, and others who are vocally pro-Israeli.  In our church we have people who were raised Agnostic, Atheist, Buddhist, Congregationalist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Presbyterian and Zoroastrian.  In our community, we have folks whose household income is in the four-figures and others whose income is in the six-figures. You name the issue, and we have a breadth of experience and perspective present in our church.

This is one of the reasons I love serving a local church so much.  Today, when we are at our best , the local church offers a deeply polarized world something that it can’t seem to get from other places: a diverse place where people who are different from one another can voluntarily hang out, get to know each other, and – get this – actually build healthy relationships.  There are so many days I wish we could bottle up the spirit of our local church and take it out to share with the rest of the world.

Of course, it takes a lot of work to maintain this.  Some are threatened by expressions of difference in our local churches and push to get us to become more homogeneous.  These pressures are particularly strong in areas of theology and politics.  Nevertheless, I continue to push back and do my best to maintain the sacred (and wonderfully inclusive) space our church can offer the world.

This way of living together in the midst of our diversity is Reason #2 for What I Want to Stay in Parish Ministry.

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 53-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Reason #2 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Ability to Live Together Amidst Our Wonderful Diversities

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    It’s interesting that you experienced more diversity in a small, rural town than in a city because my experience was the opposite. My smallish hometown was a lot bigger than your small hometown, but I wouldn’t need both hands to count the number of people I spent time with who were of a different race or religion than my family or whose income differed from ours by more than one digit. I did experience a lot of people who were different from us politically but I expect that’s because our opinion was the minority and we were expected to keep it to ourselves. Nowhere was all that more true than at church!

    For me sports and games have been the things that brought me into the company of the most diverse set of people demographically and philosophically, and that’s been far more true since I moved to a bigger city. I expect that if the church I’d attended had been noncreedal there might have been more diversity there too. It’s certainly a requirement for creating an intentionally diverse community!

    • Pastor Craig says:

      Hi Beverly. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, the population was around 1,300. While Walla Walla was certainly not as big as the big towns of Spokane and the Tri-Cities, it’s population was around 23,000 (about 18 times the size of Deer Park), and it was a college town. While those two factors may not seem significant by big city standards, the social dynamics were different. The tiny nature of our community forced a web of social relationships (and social dependency) that perhaps was a bit different than the larger cities in Eastern Washington.

  2. Stevie says:

    I’ve never thought about demographics of a small town…or church…..being related to forming relationships. My kids grew up in that same small town, and you had to be friends with everyone or be alone. As adults they still have that ability. Interesting food for thought, Craig.

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