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Subtle Discrimination in Churches

Who are you unintentionally leaving out?

Carla* fit the exact demographic our church endeavored to reach: hip, smart, and culturally relevant. She also regularly volunteered in the local prison. So when she told me that she was declined membership, I shook my head in disbelief. The reason? She was unable to commit to a weekly fellowship group due to her schedule as an actress.

Membership offers definite advantages to those on either side of the pulpit. For the pastoral staff, it establishes clear expectations, helps keep track of and care for people, and creates a unified body with a clearly defined mission. Membership also helps church attenders to meaningfully invest in that specific body and keeps them accountable.

Membership requirements vary from church to church, according to denominational mandates and pastoral preferences. Some churches request adult baptism or expect a ten percent tithe. Others ask for weekly volunteer hours and some prohibit alcohol or gossip. And to be in leadership, there are additional requirements.

Membership and leadership requirements are typically created with the best of intentions. However, they sometimes place an undue burden on certain demographics—particularly those whose life-work demands are out of the ordinary. The hard fact is that often means women. Carla’s experience is just one of many I have witnessed during my 20-plus years of pastoring.

As leaders, we willingly sign off on these prerequisites, perhaps assuming there’s no real opportunity to dialogue or negotiate. But many of us not only see how these requirements negatively impact others, we struggle to comply without burning ourselves out. When we speak up about requirements that discriminate, we serve the entire body—though there’s always the risk of being labeled as a trouble maker because we have a different vantage point than our brothers.

What Messages Are You Sending?

Take tithing. By expecting members to give a specific amount rather than what they are able, are we communicating a bias for well-resourced individuals over those of lesser means? Families for whom ten percent is simply out of reach often feel far too intimidated or shameful to admit their financial struggles. This puts them in a difficult position: either don’t join the church or join knowing that they won’t fulfill their responsibilities. Similarly, if we demand that members attend a mid-week fellowship or that leaders attend regular training sessions without offering to pay for childcare (or transportation costs for the elderly or disabled), we may be making an already heavy yoke heavier.

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