a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.