by Christopher Prestia
To provide a welcoming home in a congregation is more than some Christians think, at least that’s what I have experienced. Welcoming is one of those words that can mean as much or as little as you’d like. I could welcome input in a meeting but ultimately disregard it. I could also welcome that same input and give it serious consideration, making it clear that I value that person’s contribution. I could welcome a family member who has fallen on hard times to stay at my home for a time but constantly preach to them about their poor life choices. Or I can welcome them into my home for a time and make sure their needs are met while offering whatever support I can, ensuring above all they feel safe in their time of vulnerability.
When you don’t feel valued or safe, can you feel sincerely welcomed? What does it feel like to be told you are welcome but then not made to feel valued and safe? Unfortunately, I think this is a misstep all too common in Christianity that leads us to have a reputation for being fake. A church may say they are welcoming to a newcomer but subtly or blatantly insist they have made poor life choices or disregard any contributions they may have to offer.
As a gay man, this hits home pretty hard. I don’t feel safe in a congregation that expects me to deny a piece of my humanity and live in celibacy, or to marry a woman and have children, regardless of how kindly or lovingly I am told these things. Likewise, I don’t feel valued in a congregation that disregards my input in discussions if it is contrary to popular belief.
I have found my home at Good Shepherd in large part because I know I am safe from rhetoric that expects me to deny who I am. I know my contributions are valued. Now, I don’t want to give the idea that feeling safe and valued means you can’t be challenged. Wrestling with life’s messy problems is an essential part of any congregation’s life and it shouldn’t be quelled. The key is to have these discussions with consistent intention to make everyone feel valued and safe.
Ensuring others feel valued and safe is not only the baseline for being a welcoming congregation; it also invites them to make that church their home. This is what it means to find a welcoming home in a congregation and is something we must keep it at the forefront of our decisions and actions as church members and leaders.
Christopher Prestia serves as Cantor (director of music) at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Lancaster, PA. He is also in the process of building The Columbia School of Music in Columbia, PA. Other gigs and projects include playing keys in a Dixieland jazz band, playing organ at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg, PA, and various other collaborative initiatives. In his spare time, he enjoys restoring his historic home, cycling, and hang-gliding.