In my first year of pastoring, after I spoke at an event, a young woman approached me. She asked me how I had become a pastor. Through our conversation, she shared that I was the first pastor with whom she could relate in gender and age; because of this, she realized that night that she too was being invited to use her gifts and passions to become a pastor.
That moment is fixed in my memory and continues to teach me new things. One of the most profound lessons was the significance of visibility. For this young woman, seeing someone she could relate to in pastoral ministry changed her future. This begs the question: how does the visibility of diverse groups in our churches impact the way they take shape?
The shape of the body
The New Testament offers us a beautiful analogy for how the church operates. The church is the body of Christ, made up of many members that contribute to the whole (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12).
When I hold this reality next to the concept of visibility in our churches (be it gender, marriage/singleness, age, race, disability or other factors), I consider how we allow (or fail to allow) the different parts of the body to discover what they were made for.
Consider this: our church communities communicate a lot week to week. We have bulletins, sermons, announcements, prayer chain emails and more. But parallel to these intentional messages are a number of unintentional ones.
One of the messages we may not realize we are sending is the one that states who “can” and “cannot” do things within our churches. Based on my experience with this young woman, I’ve realized that one of the ways we can communicate this is by representation:
- Who stands on our stage?
- Whose gifts do we affirm?
- Who do we include in our language?
- Who serves on our boards, chairs meetings, leads Bible studies?
- Who is missing?
The power of visibility
While this question is complex, I would suggest that one factor that plays into the discovery of our gifts is being able to see people like us using those gifts. For instance, if there are no millennials leading our church services, how do they know that they are invited to participate? If millennials, or any one of us for that matter, cannot picture ourselves entering into a role, how will we discover that we are meant for it?
As we serve together as the body of Christ, one way that we can address the importance of visibility is to consider what we are communicating about it. We can ask critical questions of our own practices, invest in relationships with people of our congregations so that we can affirm and encourage their gifts, and be intentional about making our ministry teams, church councils, musicians, readers and preachers diverse.
While I am not an advocate of tokenism, I am an advocate of intentionality. Tokenism checks off a box that says you’ve done something, while intentionality considers its actions purposefully. The purpose I am proposing is – with wisdom and discernment – to encourage gifts in all people in the body of Christ so that both might be used as they were intended.
Concern for each other
The apostle Paul writes “[the body’s] parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25–26). To me right now, that concern is particularly for the young women in our conference who are not acquainted with their gifts or calling because the body might not be communicating that they are welcome to do so.
Jesus came to earth and showed us that we could be a part of the Kingdom of God. One of the most powerful ways that he did that was by inviting people who were marginalized and outcast into his presence as loved children of God. The inclusion of diversity has always caused growing pains and tension in the church, but has also always been worth it for the church body to be better equipped to participate more deeply in the Kingdom of God.
In order to multiply Christ-centred churches, we need to be multiplying Christ-centred disciples who identify and utilize their gifts. One way that we can encourage this is to intentionally explore the gifts, backgrounds and stories within our local churches so that we can embrace the richness of the whole body of Christ.
Today, the young woman from the opening story is pursuing opportunities in pastoral ministry. This woman’s discovery is cause for celebration because it affects us as a whole.
May we all work together to fully appreciate and empower one another to be the light and love of God in our world.
[Janessa Giesbrecht is the youth and young adults pastor at Fort Garry MB Church, Winnipeg.