The formation of a domestic goddess

May 13, 2013

The women's guild asked Susan to set the table for the luncheon. Susan placed the Tupperware containers directly on the table. Gasps of horror reverberated around the room and the glares injected Susan with a massive dose of domestic shaming. One of the luncheon organizers made a joke and laughed too loudly, while quickly placing the food into glassware. She saved the luncheon from Susan's plastic faux pas.

Susan didn't make a big deal about it. She made up some excuse to leave the luncheon before dessert. She imagined putting up some sort of Yelp review, detaling the situation in order to let people know what kind of church it was. But she knew she would simply disappear from the congregation.

It was a small thing. And Susan knew it. But church was already hard for Susan to get to and thousand reasons kept her from getting there on Sunday morning, so she began to cave to the soccer games, grocery shopping, and New York Times. She didn't go to the pastor, with details on how much money her family contributed over the years. She didn't threaten her membership standing, holding the church hostage unless she got her way. She didn't write any letters to the governing body announcing her departure and reciting the reasons. She just dropped out. 

It was a tiny control issue that happened in one corner of a fellowship hall. But now, in your mind, multiply this minor discomfort by a thousand. Imagine the drama spreading across the country. Susan will never be back to church, and neither will the thousand other Susans. And another little thing will happen the next week, except it will be with Jackie. And there will be a mishap with plastic forks instead of silver, or with paper plates instead of china. Then the next week Grace won’t put the doily down on the platter before the cookies. And the gasps and the shaming will continue and they will reverberate across the country.

Until an entire generation of people stops going to church.

It seems like, in the past, the church (and particularly the women’s guilds and circles) may have been an important step in helping a woman become that domestic goddess. They were taught how to serve large groups, with sparkling presentation.

However, in a new generation, with two people working 80 hours to keep a household running, domestic duties look a bit different than they used to. Sometimes that plastic goes right on the table. We consider it a victory when the meal includes something green and has nothing to do with a clown in a yellow jumper. It is necessary for someone to get food to our family. Sometimes it’s a woman in the house, sometimes it’s a man. The niceties surrounding the meal are not as important. So well-meaning people hovering over the place settings, re-doing all of Susan’s work are killing our congregations.

It's a small thing, I know. But as I travel across the country, I've heard the story countless times. Which makes me think that the church might need to give up the job of teaching people how to set the table.


It's not just the "domestic goddesses" who drive people away

Yes, these seem like minor incidents, but every time someone leaves and doesn't return the church is rendered that much weaker. It also happens with newcomers who are never made welcome. Every Sunday these people are driven away by those who consider church their private club rather than a mission and refuge for the broken and hurting. A few years ago, a women told me about her experience of being invited to an after-church lunch. When she arrived she was told "no, you can't sit here this seat is saved." "No you can't sit there because those seats are saved." Afterwards she referred to it as the "Church of the Seat Savers." If we want the newcomer to feel welcome we have to stop saving seats and instead be willing to give up our own for them.

The nitpickers will always be with us

Honestly, you'll never stop this from happening. This scene is particular to the women's guild, but on another night you'll find a clerk of session who insists the minutes be taken THIS way, the youth group advisor who insists the ice breaker go THAT way, etc., etc. We are never going to have churches full of perfect people, all with impeccable social skills -- so the first thing, I think, is to teach people that what makes church different from the soccer league, the PTA, and the zoning board -- is not that we have entirely different people, who are never petty, never ridiculous. Its something else.

We SHOULD e teaching how to set the table!

I was totally with you until I got to the last sentence. The center of our worship is a table. At which Jesus Christ is the host. And all are invited, drawn in, and welcomed. Each person's gifts are accepted and by the grace of God multiplied and sent back out into the world. We should practice hanging out at that table. Bringing what we have to bring. Trusting that the doilies and the rubbermaid and the (gasp!) cookies bought from the store and still in the package can all play their parts to feed and transform and send us. When we gather as church, we should not shame one another. But we should practice together for the generous hospitality to which we have been called.