Many churches have made great strides toward the intentional inclusion of people who don't look or act like their historically typical members. Whether it is committing to the practice of antiracism, affirming the LGBTQIA+ community or making sure your facilities and activities are accessible for all, this work is essential for the modern church. Despite the bold declaration of welcome on your website and the rewrites of your church charter to incorporate a broader understanding of love, however, you may still not be attracting people from marginalized groups. True inclusion requires more than lip service, and there are several ways to ensure it is something you do rather than something you just say.
Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The first step church leaders must take when pursuing intentional inclusion is to make note of those who either do not feel free to express themselves or who are missing from important discussions altogether. It is impossible to engage in truly inclusive decisions without making room for those whose voices have not been heard. Analyze your committee memberships and meetings with a series of questions:
- Who is present?
- Who is doing most of the talking?
- Does everyone at the meeting get a chance to speak their minds?
- Who is missing from the meeting?
- Do the decisions this committee makes directly affect those who don't have a chance to voice their opinions?
- If so, whom are you going to invite to join the discussion?
Answering these questions will show you how much work needs to be done and where you need it the most. Once you have fully assessed the state of your decision-making groups, it's time to look for individuals to fill the gaps.
Just because you have a need and a selection of people with some free time, that doesn't automatically mean they're a match. Everyone has different talents and preferences. Members thrive best when they participate in ways that they enjoy and in which they excel. The sentiment of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons that the glory of God is a human being fully alive rings true in regard to not only personal motivation but also organizational responsibility. You can use strengths tests or interest surveys with new or under-involved members to gauge where they fit the best.
Once members have found a place and a purpose in the work of the church, it is important to trust them to fulfill it. Thomas Merton wrote, "The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image." Understanding this directive is key to encouraging congregants to give freely of their time and energy, particularly for those whose previous experience with the church has been one of unnecessary control and judgment. In fact, members who have been admonished by other churches they've attended for not fitting within others' narrow expectations may find it hard at first to believe that you are actually entrusting them with the task they've undertaken. Be patient when they continue to ask permission for every decision that is theirs to make, and fight the urge to step in and take over. Empower them with enthusiasm. After a while, you'll get to experience the delight of watching them grow confident in their own leadership as they step fully into the roles they are meant to play.
Inclusion doesn't just happen because you desire it. You must be intentional not only in the messages the church issues but also in the basic functions of the organization. It will likely involve a lot of hard work, but it is necessary to enrich the life of the church.