Meta Herrick Carlson: Coming Back Together: Church and Consent Culture in 2021

Sometimes I catch myself thinking about the last handshakes and hugs I shared with parishioners before Covid-19 and the Holy Spirit sent us out of our buildings. I can recall the veins in a matriarch's hand, the exuberant high five of a child, the desperate embrace of a widower. I miss the energy of being proximate in crowds, but 2020 has me wondering about those who have not missed the pressure to share contact and personal space.

In my new book Speak It Plain: Words for Worship and Life Together (Fortress Press, 2020), I offer some tips for creating a trauma-informed worship space. What if our faith communities spend this season apart learning to talk about trauma and developing new hospitality practices to support folks on the other side of Covid-19? Here are a few ideas.

What is Consent Culture?

This means creating patterns of behavior that ask for permission and respect each unique response. When we build habits that check-in before and after interactions, we're normalizing options for gathering, honoring the personhood of others, and recognizing whole people. Developing these practices can feel awkward for the majority or dominant culture, which is now engaging the social and emotional work that was previously left to those whose needs had not been noticed or prioritized. But stick with it! With patience and practice, the shared responsibility for safety and welcome can become a long-term trait and active characteristic of the whole system.

Normalize Options

Every community develops patterned behavior and expects newcomers to find their way into the mainstream. But safe and healthy communities regularly examine what's been normalized. If it is essential, we learn to speak to why we've made it central to the shared practice. If it is not, we work to provide a variety of options to decenter and dissolve that norm into one option rather than a requirement.

Think about the rituals in your faith community. Can you name a practice that requires apology, explanation, or avoidance from those who do not conform? Here are a few examples:

The greeters extend their hands to shake mine, and I'd prefer not to. So, a friendly greeting turns into me awkwardly apologizing for waving instead.

My kid doesn't go up front for the children's time. Other adults want to hear that he's just shy, and he will eventually join the others. But he's just not interested and that's okay.

There's social pressure to eat sweets and drink coffee at church gatherings. I have dietary restrictions and my partner doesn't like coffee, and it becomes a topic of conversation every time we refuse. I don't want that to be our only identifier.

I appreciate verbal and written announcements that expect someone will be brand new every week. It sets me at ease on behalf of guests to hear that my community does not require conformity, but invites participation in ways that are comfortable and meaningful for them. The review helps me remember why we do what we do.

By regularly examining our patterned behavior, we will build brave spaces where belonging does not require conformity and people can safely be their whole selves.

Honor Personal Space

While Covid-19 has trained our bodies to prefer six feet of personal space, everyone defines personal space differently. It's common for folks who don't need much space themselves to assume the same about others. He's a hugger. She's a close talker. They pull you in while shaking hands. These intentions are usually friendly, which can make it difficult for those impacted to say something or set boundaries. The church has an opportunity - and a responsibility - to create space that honors the felt safety and boundaries of every person.

The lectionary is filled with stories about Jesus noticing and responding to the needs of others, acting with attention to the impact, and modeling bodily autonomy. Is there a text coming up that invites people to think about what personal space will be like when we're back together in one place?

What if communion servers are trained to ask children before touching their heads to bless them, or if you crowdsource kids about what mutual interactions they prefer when they come to church?

By consistently honoring the personal space of others, we show our young people how to honor bodies and voices in God's name.

Recognize Whole People

The collective grief and trauma of Covid has stretched more than 10 months, which means we are learning to engage small talk with more vulnerability and paradox. I hope the messy and complicated answers to, "How are you, really?" continue when we're back together at church.

I asked my kids for a few ideas:

If you don't actually want to know how someone is, or you don't have time to listen to the answer, don't ask, "How are you?" Just say, "I'm glad to see you," or, "I'm really glad you're here." Or just, "Hi."

Grown ups try to talk to me by talking about what I'm wearing and what I look like, but they can ask questions about what I'm reading, playing, learning, wondering, and feeling, too.

I have a few more:

What if our hospitality volunteers have local resources saved in their cell phones - and are trained to help a person call a mental health, domestic violence, or housing service instead of dialing 911?

What if we learn to ask different questions of newcomers, so we can learn what "getting involved" means to them? What if we expect to be challenged and changed by their investment rather than shored up for our existing, internal priorities?

What if we come back to our space with fresh eyes and ask, "What story is this space telling?" Invite neighbors and ask your newest members. Consider artwork, accessibility, and historic precedent. So many of our congregations steward spaces that tell stories about the ghosts of pastors past, theology colonized, or that the community has already peaked and is finished becoming.

It will be powerful and emotional to be back in one place. Before we do, let's consider the trauma that will surely come with us and prepare spaces to help all people to find welcome, safety, and wholeness.


Meta Herrick Carlson

Meta Herrick Carlson
Meta Herrick Carlson (she/her/hers) is a pastor and writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She serves a two campus congregation all learning how to let go and lean in for the sake of a shared future. At this time, Meta is safe at home with three children who cannot ration snacks. Meta’s first book Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life proves a worthy gift in these uncertain times. Her second book Speak It Plain: Words for Worship and Life Together with more ordinary blessings and resources for church nerds and liturgical communities was released in December 2020.



Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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