I’m on the welcome team at church.
My role involves saying hi to people when they arrive and finding them places to sit if they’re struggling. I know, serious business.
I enjoy it for the most part but on the Friday* just gone, I had my first negative encounter. If I’m honest, it still riles me up each time I think about it (I know I need to forgive, I’m trying).
Anyway, I was given a section last week in the middle of the hall, which included a row of seats reserved just for parents and children. In most public places, I’ve noticed parents and children are normally pushed to the margins (so as to not disturb others) so I personally thought it was a lovely gesture to include them at the heart of the hall this time.
Unfortunately for me, there was someone who did not share my sentiments…
I clocked an older lady standing in my section, we’ll call her Irene**. I glanced occasionally over to her to see if there were any little people who belonged to her but didn’t spot any, unless I included her handbag which had its own seat too.
I approached with caution…
These situations could escalate quickly. For all I knew, Irene could have had impaired sight which may have prevented her from reading the large, laminated signs strewn over the seats. We are in the UAE after all, maybe Irene couldn’t read English? It’s not always a prerequisite for jobs here. Irene could have been a newbie and didn’t know how things operated in our church? I tried to be gracious and give Irene the benefit of the doubt.
Assuming this was an easily-correctible mistake, I asked Irene if she was there with any children? I politely pointed out that the space in which her and her bag sat were reserved for parents and their children; I also informed her that there were plenty of seats a bit further up. Irene flippantly chuckled and replied “just let me woooooorship,” as though her enunciation reflected her deep spirituality and I would be convicted enough to leave her be. Yeah right!
No problem. In my many years of experience as a church usher (don’t hate, appreciate), I had encountered something similar before. I prompted Irene a second time, repeating myself but this time premised it with “I completely understand where you’re coming from but,” hoping that would do the trick.
She abruptly responded “I’m only staying here for the woooorship and after I’ll go,” which made absolutely no sense to me. Ah, εdiεbεn? What was the problem? My girl still wasn’t having it.
To my surprise, another lady in the congregation came over, we’ll call her Penelope**. I thought she was coming to back me but I was astonishingly mistaken. Penelope said “this is one of the most senior members in church, you should let her…” at which Irene replied “no, no, it’s fine, I’ll go…” She picked up her
child bag and proceeded to the aisle next to where Penelope sat, still not sitting in a seat. Penelope also returned to her seat. Now they were both standing about a metre away from me, shoulder to shoulder, singing along to the songs with their hands raised high.
I can’t lie, I really judged the both of them.
I was so offended and was struggling to worship because I was vexed. Whether my eyes were open or closed, all I could see were Inconsiderate Irene and Pleading Penelope worshipping as if they had committed no wrong.
I eventually calmed down and the next day spoke to one of my friends about it – he pointed out that we all could have been perceived as wrong in one way or another.
My friend mentioned that her actions may have been heavily influenced by her culture. She is from a place where there are a lot of people and there is not much space. If there is any space available anywhere, you grab it with both hands and hold on tight. Therefore, she may be unaccustomed to the ‘reserved seat’ concept and was just totally unaware of any wrongdoing.
Fair enough, that may have been the case but that doesn’t account for the way she responded when I made her aware of the reservation. We’re in the UAE for crying out loud, everyone at church is from a foreign culture!
If there were no general standards to adhere to, the church would be unable to function.
Everyone would be used to doing things differently. So if she can live harmoniously in the UAE then she must have the capacity to adapt, right?
I have a real problem with people using these sorts of excuses as adults. Children are clear products of their environment but as they mature, there comes a time when they need to take responsibility for their own actions. Irene was no longer a child. What I was asking her to do was not unreasonable at all but, in fact, gave her the opportunity to make life easier for someone else. It didn’t need to become a confrontation.
Now this woman was totally in the wrong. No two ways about it.
So what if Irene had been in the church for a while? Does that give her the right to disregard others or defy authority? And why did Penelope feel as though it was her place to defend her? Did she think Irene was justified? Or did Penelope think I would listen to her just because she had been on the pulpit before?
People lording their status over others in church is an abuse of power. Period.
I shouldn’t have been encouraged to favour someone because of the number of years they’ve been in church. Does God do that? Leaders need to be incredibly careful with behaving in a manner that is not reflective of the God of the Bible so as to not leave any space for confusion. If she believed Irene was in the right, what other behaviours she may accept/tolerate that are incongruent with scripture?
Me (Mrs Psychoanalyst)
If you know me personally, I’m someone who likes to do things by the book most of the time. For the most part, I have quite polarised views of right and wrong and seldom leave any room for grey areas. I think people have quite a strong sense of right and wrong and that people love to make excuses for things rather than accept responsibility for their actions. But I think sometimes this means I always think the worst of people, that when they do wrong it’s because of some underlying sinister characteristic rather than sheer ignorance. I think people are self-centred and inconsiderate (which is backed up by a wealth of research by the way) but sometimes forget that this applies to me too.
I could have behaved differently.
I could have let it go. I mean, was it really that big a deal? Was the power of the neon orange Welcome t-shirt getting to my head? Should I choose my battles more carefully and exercise more grace? That’s as Biblical as asking the woman to move seats, isn’t it?
Principally, I still believe I was in the right, especially as there was a woman and her two children who came and occupied the seats not long after. Was this my sign from God? Tee hee…
Although this situation is one I would rather not deal with, I think it’s really important to be part of some sort of serving team in church. Being part of the congregation only means we can have a skewed or glossy view of people in the church. We can think that because people have been in church for a long time, or hold a senior position in the church, that they are perfect or always right. C’mon, we’ve all been there.
It’s not until you have to deal with Christian people intimately that you realise that we are people first and Christians second. And people are flawed. We all need Jesus because we all need grace.
When serving, there will be people that rub you up the wrong way and vice versa but all these experiences provide an opportunity to build character. I had to re-learn forgiveness, grace, unconditional love and letting go pride and offence all in the space of about 15 minutes. None of us are perfect and these situations help us to remember how God loves us in spite of our imperfections.
Do you have any negative experiences in church where you could have been more gracious? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section below.
*I go to a church in Abu Dhabi (no it’s not underground) and our weekends here are on Fridays and Saturdays.
** For alliterative purposes.