Do you hear that great whooshing sound in your congregation? It’s supposed to be the sound of the Spirit rushing in like a mighty wind during the season of Pentecost to restore and renew us to a more fervent faith. Unfortunately, all too often it’s the sound families make when they disappear for the summer: camping, making the pilgrimage to Disney World or absconding to places apart where offering plates and committee meetings don’t exist. And yet, the church survives. This is all fine and well, but we might make an assumption in this paragraph that calls for a little scrutiny because the church is facing big challenges in this current culture.

For the sake of God’s kingdom and the church’s future (which aren’t mutually dependent), we need to redefine “family” before our pews are empty year round, not just in the summer.

What do we think of when we read the word “family” in the ELCA? Odds are, we are thinking white, husband, wife, 2.5 kids, a mortgage and a dog named Luther. This family has one member on council, one in confirmation, one in the youth group and one in the choir. This is the “traditional” definition of a Lutheran family. For the sake of God’s kingdom and the church’s future (which aren’t mutually dependent), we need to redefine “family” before our pews are empty year round, not just in the summer.

Changing this definition is fraught with all sorts of emotional issues for folks, especially at this time of year when some count on us to include Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in some aspect of the worship service. When I served in the parish, I dreaded these holidays because by honoring moms and dads I was more or less telling every parishioner who had ever suffered abuse at the hands of a dysfunctional parent that they needed to suck it up and pretend everything was normal for once. A few years into my parish ministry, I started adding an intercession during the prayers for victims of child abuse and was once asked by a concerned council member to not muddy the waters, but that is another story for another article.

Mother’s and Father’s Day insinuate two major fallacies:

1. Everyone has a healthy relationship with mom and/or dad.

2. Every family has a mom and dad.

First, it would do the church a world of good to take moms and dads off the pedestals on which we place them. The pressure to be a perfect parent that comes through church life in all sorts of subtle ways isn’t helping people become better parents, much less better humans. I remember all too well the young woman who bravely forgave her father during his funeral service despite the post-traumatic stress disorder that drove him to suicide on the day she was supposed to graduate from college. Grace happened. She accepted her dad’s limitations and moved forward with strength and peace of mind. That moment was more sacred than any Father’s Day activity at any of the parishes I served. We need more of that and less of the “Let’s give a hand to all our dads today!” during the announcements.

Second, some of the best parents I know are of the single, same-sex or foster/adoptive variety, or people who lost their kids in horrible accidents beyond the threshold of any pain a human should have to bear. The church’s subtle insistence on catering to the needs of the “typical” family can be interpreted as telling people outside those narrow parameters that somehow they matter less. I remember multiple conversations with single moms who felt as if they were being judged harshly while struggling to provide for their children in less than optimal circumstances. The stigma of divorce or unmarried mothers is still with us—for the sake of the gospel, we need to abandon our bias because the baptism water is for all, not for some.

While we’re at it, let’s celebrate the many-faceted ways in which God creates a family—like pieces in a stained-glass window coming together to bring beauty to our worship and community.

The can also be said of same-sex couples who are seeking acceptance in a congregational setting. All congregations are supposed to be welcoming, but there’s a difference between lip-service and genuine acceptance and hospitality. Eight years ago the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted in support of LGBTQIA folks both as rostered leaders and members within the church body, yet how many of our congregations make a point of posting visible signs of welcome to this community? Better yet, how many congregations are willing to have a Pride Sunday in addition to Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations?

So many people have gifts to bring to the table and yet our practices implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) tell them to try the church down the street. The first steps are small but crucial—let’s admit that parents aren’t perfect and that families are flawed and in need of healing. While we’re at it, let’s celebrate the many-faceted ways in which God creates a family—like pieces in a stained-glass window coming together to bring beauty to our worship and community.

Martin Zimmann
Martin Otto Zimmann is the alumni relations director for the new United Lutheran Seminary. He lives with his family in Gettysburg, Pa.

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