An Empty Pew

by Kendra Weddle

After a year of sleeping in, riding my bicycle, and lingering over the Sunday newspaper, I decided it was time to try to find a church.

Admittedly, I realized, my last church experience would be hard to top. After all, the pastor routinely created superb worship experiences, astutely managed the minute details of a trim budget, and designed small group discussions where people actually shared what they really thought. Even more, she was also a very good friend and my weekly lunch companion for over six years. The congregation, too, was top notch: welcoming, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who constantly surprised themselves by their boundless generosity.

So, I realize I might be just a teensy bit difficult to please.

The Search Gets Underway

Embarking on my new church hunt, I forced myself to adopt realistic expectations: people in the buckle of the Bible Belt will generally be, shall we say, more prone to literal interpretations of the Bible than in the Pacific Northwest where I had formerly lived, and the worship experience could entail a greater emphasis on creeds and beliefs while probably not rising to the carefully-crafted wordsmith level of my previous pastor’s work. Too, the congregation may not be as socially active as I’d like; and finally, eschewing the lectionary, they could possibly—probably—sing patriotic songs on July 4 while decked out in their red, white, and blue.

My search began where virtually every person begins these days—in front of my computer. After all, it’s of the utmost importance to limit the number of times I have to approach a building trying to look inconspicuous while at the same time locating the right door, the right direction to the sanctuary, the right pew.

Hours passed while I investigated numerous websites. I read mission statements, belief statements, looked at pictures, considered outreach events and adult discussion groups or Bible studies. Too, I noted which congregations had female clergy, cringing each time the head pastor was male and all associates were female.

The Shortlist and Initial Visits

Finally I assembled my shortlist, the handful of churches requiring a face-to-face visit. Mustering my nerve and energy, I left the comforts of home and headed off to find not the perfect —but the reasonably acceptable—church.

Careful to avoid parking in the reserved “visitor” space, I found my way to a few United Methodist Churches within fifteen to twenty minutes from my house. Comforted that none of my choices turned out to be mega-church wannabes with huge white screens and coffee-house coffee, I felt somewhat hopeful that my opening to faith community would end favorably.

Following three very unsuccessful ventures, including one thirty-minute sermon that I swear made the cut for being the dullest thing I’ve heard in years—right up there with most commencement addresses, I decided to try one more church. From my internet-savvy work, I discovered its pastor and I shared a geographical connection and that she had attended a local university where women’s studies courses were routinely required. This, I thought, was it! Furthermore, they had a large community garden and a reputation for being a helping hand in the community. I actually felt some excitement over giving it a go.

This shortlisted church visit had to wait, though, for I first had scheduled attendance at the 2010 Gathering of the EEWC in Indianapolis.

The EEWC-CFT 2010 Gathering

What I encountered in worship with EEWC members from all over the United States is, as is all religious experience, impossible to convey through the limited construction of words. The closest I can come to describing this time is that of one-ness; a deep and persuasive sense that even though I barely knew anyone, we were somehow fully connected to each other and to the divine mystery.

As women read liturgy and sang and shared openly about their lives, as feminine imagery for God was employed and intention was given to exclude no one, the spirit of God surely was pleased.

On Sunday morning, Rev. Gail Ricciuti cradled the communion loaf in her arm as though she were holding a baby. She remarked how Jesus may have recalled his mother, Mary, reminding him how she gave her life for his; and Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott preached on the story of the prodigal son, shifting the metaphors to open up a fresh perspective. Mollenkott’s wise and poignant message resonated deeply: God loves us so profoundly there is no way to sever that familial bond. The prodigal daughter would always be welcomed home not to a reprimand, but to an extravagant party. The faithless one was the daughter who didn’t trust her mother’s generosity enough to leave home.

Throughout this holy weekend, I felt found. Found in this community of inclusivity. Found by a gospel of truly good news.

Could This Be the One?

Invigorated, I returned home inspired to find my new church.

The very next Sunday morning I dressed up, which is to say I put on slacks instead of shorts, and sandals instead of Crocs. My first impression buoyed me. The community garden was huge! And, between it and the sanctuary, there was an outdoor labyrinth. So far so good, I thought.

People were friendly but not too much in my space as I made my way to the sanctuary and quickly settled in a pew. Glancing around, I noticed the United Methodist hymnal—a solid hint that this wasn’t one of those churches that sing what my former pastor calls 7-11 songs. You know the ones: seven verses, each sung eleven times, giving you more than enough repetition to realize how insipid the content is. Too, they had pew Bibles of the New Revised Standard Version variety—another important clue in the right direction, I noted.

Glancing at the bulletin, I was glad to see no use of masculine God-language except for in the Lord’s prayer, which I mightily try to endure, even while apologizing to Jesus for being so persistently frustrated about what he has caused by his “father-only” language.

The pastor preached about the need to reach out to our neighbors, to all of our neighbors! She even mentioned the current immigration debate, urging us to see it in the light of God’s neighborliness, to imagine how love changes immigration from an issue to relationship.

Now, I’m not an impulsive person, so I had no grand illusions on my way home that Sunday, but I did think perhaps there was a glimmer of hope that this church would be a place where I could work and worship.

A couple of months passed and I went back several times. While there was much I liked, there also emerged a consistent pattern of the father-only metaphor and masculine language. Debating what I should do, I opted for theological transparency and invited the pastor for lunch.

A One-to-One Discussion

When we’d both completed our “how I got here” accounts and found out that we both enjoy reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings, I took a gulp and jumped in. I wanted—needed—to worship in a church recognizing and celebrating the multifarious images and names for God; and while I did not expect her to use language in a way contrary to her beliefs, I wondered if she had purposefully been exclusionary in her language?

Now, sometimes my perceptive abilities are about as useful as a fleece blanket in the dog days of a Texas summer. When she immediately replied that, of course, she was willing to use inclusive language for people and to change her reliance on masculine language for God, I should have let loose the string holding down the red flag.

In seminary she had learned about inclusive language and had been required to use it in submitted work. When she graduated and was placed in a church, it was easy, she said, to forget what she had learned. My presence in the church necessitated that she be inclusive, and she would give greater attention to language.

Three weeks later—I had been out of town during the two Sundays following our lunch—I perused the bulletin and noticed only one responsive reading lacking masculine language generally, and more particularly, the use of “father.” An interesting way to follow up on our conversation, I thought, as a knot started to form in my stomach. When the liturgist began reading the text—Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray—I wondered if there was any way she was going to avoid the obvious: “Our Father.”

Bothered and Bewildered

I recall three very specific things from her sermon: two about the content, one about my response.

First, she said, Jesus only used the word “father” so that means we should correspondingly use only “father.” Second, for those who want to avoid father language, either due to an experience of an abusive father or because of some political correctness conviction, then those explorations might be OK, although probably dangerous. And, furthermore, she didn’t see the need. I felt bewildered.

As she greeted me afterwards, her arms circled me while she whispered in my ear: “I hope I didn’t step on your toes too much today.” My bewilderment passed. I had been assailed.

I’m sure I’ll eventually find a church home. In the meantime, there are numerous mornings beckoning me to worship God on my bike or over a cup of coffee and the morning paper.

Kendra Weddle
Kendra Weddle, PhD, is scholar-in-residence at Northaven Church in Dallas, TX. She is coauthor of Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends (with Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD) and If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be (coauthor Melanie Springer Mock, PhD).