Guest Post: uncertain spaces by Rob Goetze

As a kid, I used to love dot to dot worksheets.  There was always a great sense of satisfaction when I reached the last few dots and I could tell that I’d gotten it all correct because the picture of the dog emerged without any weird shaped ears. There are times in all of our journeys when we are in the midst of connecting the dots, and we don’t quite know what will emerge.  That’s why having the opportunity to look back and see how everything fit together can be so gratifying.  As Christians we recite texts like, “God works everything together for good” but it means a lot more when we actually see evidence of it.

Our guest contributor is a dot in my journey.  He is the one who picked out my resume and recommended me to the board of directors at New Direction.  Rob was interim director and was my first colleague at New Direction.  Our contact was limited after he moved his growing family out west and his busy schedule precluded him from much involvement with New Direction.  As more and more changed about New Direction: critiquing change efforts, leaving Exodus, developing Generous Space, I often wondered how Rob would feel about all of this.  To my relief, Rob had been tracking – and was encouraging of the new direction of New Direction.  Back-in-the-day Rob got New Direction online and wrote a lot of the original content.  It is great to welcome him back with this post on our current blog – thanks Rob!!

uncertain spaces

Imagine your colleague tells you that Human Resources wants to see you right away. If you have no idea as to why, there is uncertainty ahead – perhaps combined with some anxiety or fear — until you find out whether they are going to fire you, promote you to a special project, or just need a form signed.

You are in an uncertain space, even if just for a few moments until you find out what they really want.

Now imagine that you’re new in town, and perhaps you’re looking for a church. You drive by a church in your neighbourhood, and the sign out in front says “Everyone Welcome”.

what does that mean – “everyone welcome”?

Did you know that a study done in the U.S. found that three of the top words that non-Christians ages 16 to 29 associate with Christians are judgmental, hypocritical and anti-homosexual?

This means there’s a good chance the person driving past your church and wondering about it, is already doubting the truthfulness and reality of the “Everyone Welcome” sign. Add to that any past negative experience they’ve had with the church or with Christians, and the uncertainty is even stronger.

When a church is perceived to be an uncertain space, these questions surface: “Will it be hostile or indifferent to me? Or will it be welcoming and embracing?”  Most times, you just don’t know.

For some, a church can be uncertain in particular and personal ways: Will they look down on me because I lost my job last week and there aren’t many other jobs I’m qualified for? Will I be welcome even though I’m from a different tradition? Will they shame me because I can’t read? What will they say if they find out that ten years ago, I ______________? Will it matter to them that I’m of a different social class or part of a racial minority? Will they really welcome me if they know that ______________?

While many churches desire to be welcoming of others, their uncertainty towards outsiders can be a real barrier. Instead of considering the usual questions of how to become more welcoming, this post approaches the goal of inclusion by unpacking the impact of uncertainty.

a brief story, especially for those who are saying to themselves, “My church is welcoming; it’s not an ‘uncertain space’”

A few years ago, we attended a lively church full of people who loved Jesus. Newcomers were warmly welcomed. There was a great sense of community, with people being very supportive of one another. We felt this particularly in the way they were supportive of families with children with special needs, and in the context of a family member having a serious illness. The church also had a lot of positive involvement in the surrounding neighbourhood and a good relationship with the community league. If you had to guess, you’d say, yes, they are embracing. That’s what I thought too, and we were there for eight years.

When our regional group of churches voted to give ministers the option of blessing same-sex couples, all hell broke loose. Within nine months, half the church’s members had left. Some of them left calmly and peaceably with no hard feelings toward those who held different beliefs. Others stood up at church meetings and with anger and what could only be perceived as hatred expressed their views against gay people and against the church leadership. The atmosphere became toxic.

Based on our experience of the church community up to that point, what happened was completely unexpected, totally out of the blue. We also would have said the church was embracing. But in reality, it turned out that the church was not embracing — it only looked that way, until things became clear under pressure.  Embrace was selective and conditional.

uncertain spaces defined

I’d like to propose the following definitions:

A declared space has clearly articulated if and how it values and embraces diverse people.

A declared space might be embracing, it might be hostile, or it might be somewhere in between. But whatever it is, is clearly known and seen, intentionally or as a byproduct of other things.

Intentionality is typically demonstrated by specific statements created for this purpose. A church can also declare itself clearly yet unintentionally as a byproduct of actions it takes, such as participating in political activities like lobbying or boycotts.

An uncertain space on the other hand, has not declared itself regarding if and how it values and embraces diverse people.

This is not about theological beliefs or statements of faith, which are of little value divorced from real life, but about valuing our shared humanity, seeing our common ground as image bearers, respecting and loving one another, entrusting one another’s journeys to God, and working to dismantle barriers that leave some people marginalized.

the trouble with uncertain spaces

People entering uncertain spaces do not know what disclosure of information (verbal or nonverbal, intentional or otherwise) or what transgression of unwritten behavioural codes might result in shaming, marginalization, discrimination, rejection or physical harm.

For some people, this is a non-issue. They do not have any concerns about disclosures or transgressions. If they have skeletons in the closet or secrets that they keep, they are safely tucked away with little threat of public exposure. Much of their experience matches that of the majority.   But for other people, to move into uncertain spaces requires vigilance and compartmentalization. Their intuition warns them that their experiences and innermost thoughts are too “other” for this community. Caution is the order of the day, along with a stifling of oneself. As a result, uncertain spaces present significant barriers to living an authentic, open life, and dwelling in such spaces is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy for them.

People who could benefit from involvement in a particular church might be unable to cross the threshold due to the uncertainty of a true welcome or embrace. Others go reluctantly, in some cases so desperate for encounter with God that they endure not only uncertainty and stress but actual harmful environments for it. And still others find themselves in an uncertain space without the language to define it or the understanding to identify it until many years later.

A space that has declared itself as having high regard for people is a safe place, which is key for personal growth. As Joshua Culbertson said, “My old church would have told me that I was welcome. I needed more. I needed to know that I was safe.”

At another level, the unconscious question that some people ask themselves is:

Will I be blessed by being here or cursed?

Will I be perceived to be a blessing or a curse?

In uncertain spaces, one does not know for sure which way it will be.  What a sad situation to be in when considering attending a church….

getting practical

In Jesus’ day, the people most despised by the religious were tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and Samaritans.  In our day, if people who call themselves Christians are despising anyone, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people tend to top the list.

Becoming aware of and addressing uncertain spaces by inviting openness and transparency is useful to many different people. In fact, the whole community will benefit from intentional and clearly communicated inclusion.  But we’re going to start by focusing on LGBTQ+ people for this exploration of uncertainty. What you will see in most of these examples is that the value of declaring intentional inclusion goes beyond LGBTQ+ individuals and applies to a wide range of people.

example 1: uncertain spaces that are actually lgbt-friendly

For a brief exploration of my denomination’s churches, I called the regional office and asked a simple question:

Are there some congregations that are LGBTQ+ friendly?

I was given the names of four churches. The one I attend wasn’t one of them.

I then did what many people would have done first: I looked up these four churches online. Their websites gave no indication of LGBTQ+ anything, nor were there any broader welcoming statements.

I then called these four churches and asked if they were LGBTQ+ friendly. Some of them hardly knew they were LGBTQ+ friendly. In fact, when I told one minister that the regional office had given me their name, he said, “Well, we’re at least not LGBTQ+ unfriendly.” Now, it turns out, upon asking more questions (including about whether the church culture is embracing of LGBTQ+ people),  that they are all actually LGBTQ+ friendlier than it sounds. But the fact that they are is not at all obvious!

Here’s the point: there are four churches (of twenty in my denomination in my city) that the main office indicates are LGBTQ+ friendly, and which (from what I can tell based on phone conversations) are in fact LGBTQ+ friendly. But for the person who just looks at their websites, there’s no indication of this, making these churches uncertain spaces. For the person who calls one of t