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Subtle Discrimination in Churches

Who are you unintentionally leaving out?
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Even if finances aren’t the limiting factor, consider the dilemma that an all-day membership class or training event creates for anyone who works weekends, has family obligations, or has health or mobility issues. My friend Stephen* is an excellent teacher with much to offer on the topic of discipleship. Unfortunately, he suffers from IBS and needs the weekend to recuperate and regain his strength so he can return to work on Monday morning. This makes attending mandatory weekend training events nearly impossible, and that disqualifies him from teaching in the church.

I know this territory very well. Not long after our youngest son was born, I began my 15-year battle with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. At the time, I was homeschooling our two older boys, working part-time as a photographer, and co-leading a ministry with my husband. So when my name appeared on the rotation for kids’ church, I didn’t expect any pushback for declining—even though it was something requested of all leaders in the church. Instead of a compassionate or at least curious conversation with the children’s pastor, though, I was accused of having misplaced priorities.

Was the staff member correct in demanding that I fulfill the requirements? Was the pastoral staff misguided in refusing Carla membership? It’s true that the rules were clear, but in both situations the requirements unfairly discriminated. I believe the staff missed an opportunity to support and bless us. They could have encouraged us to do less rather than more, perhaps even helping us discover our own healthy limitations.

Inclusive Churches

Most likely, none of us intend to exclude or stigmatize those who have physical, financial, or time limitations. And I am by no means suggesting we eliminate all requirements for membership or leadership. I do want to encourage those of us who make or enforce these requirements to explore the messages that we may be communicating and consider how we can be more inclusive.

For example, consider offering childcare during any mandatory meetings or training events without waiting for someone to express the need. Or, tape day-long training events and make them available as podcasts for those who are legitimately unable to attend. Teach on sacrificial giving—because all of us need that reminder—but let attenders know you trust them to determine the amount of their tithe based on their resources, not the church’s needs. Teaching in this way may even encourage those who are able to give 20 or even 50 percent to increase their tithe! The goal is to be both empathetic and inclusive while moving the mission forward. If we step back to look at the big picture and then choose grace and empathy, we can avoid many discriminatory practices.

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