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The unrealized hope of a ‘Starbucks parent’

The unrealized hope of a ‘Starbucks parent’

Responding to Patrick Hall’s Daily Episcopalian post about “Starbucks parents” who drop their kids off for Sunday School and then skip church themselves, Melissa Holloway offers a compelling piece about the unwelcoming nature of too many of our churches:

I was a “Starbucks Parent.” Well, not Starbucks; we would take the free

coffee and retreat to the little garden area and use the time to enjoy each

other’s company. We have more money now; today, it would definitely be Starbucks.

The church had a Royal School of Church Music choir. Singing that music

changed my children. It transformed the whole family, I think. Looking

back, I wonder why we thought they needed to go to Sunday School as well.

But I know for sure why we retreated to ourselves with the coffee in that

little garden space.

We got tired of being treated as invisible.

It is an experience I have had over the years in a variety of places in

churches over a range of theological stances. Unfortunately for me, and I

guess unfortunately for the Kingdom of God, it has been a uniquely

Episcopalian experience.

Even now I find it difficult to describe in words. One can walk down the

Sunday School hallways or be finding a place to sit in church and encounter

a face that is familiar. Familiar because the same people seem to sit in

the same section of the nave or even familiar because you might have

substituted in the Sunday School class together some time ago. There is

often a moment when you would expect your eyes to meet the eyes of the

other person, and it would seem a slight smile, a nod of the head or some

small sign of recognition would be appropriate. Just in that very instant,

the other person becomes significantly interested in perhaps the colorful

bulletin board or maybe the stained glass windows that apparently happen to

be in view just behind your head. Better even if there is someone that

other person knows well and is delighted to see farther in the distance

behind you. It is the experience of being looked through – as if one wasn’t there – as if one was invisible.

See, sometimes I still buy my clothes at thrift stores, and at that time we

drove older model cars and we couldn’t afford to get the little dings

fixed. No question that we could ever afford the church school, or to buy

a house in the elite neighborhood where most of the members lived. I guess

you could look at me and tell those kind of things.

Funny thing though, how the experience has endured. Over the years I think

we’ve actually accrued a little cultural capital. Yet, the days we were

returning from my spouse’s stint teaching at a European university – where he taught of all things, at a seminary – our luggage lost, sleeping on a

bare floor in an empty house, our first Sunday in the United States in a

long time – we showed up at church. I still shudder for the sake of the

church I do love, to recall, at the Peace, a manicured hand in mine, a

voice and eyes – yes, looking through me – seeking the one, just over my

shoulder with the words, “I like your hair.”

And of my children? The ones who went to Sunday School while we drank

coffee? The ones whose minds and hearts were formed by that profound

tradition of music particular to our church? My daughter called me on the

phone just about a year ago. She attends a small liberal arts college in

the same town where she went to high school and has continued singing in

the same church choir. Instead of finishing at the local Episcopal school,

however, she opted to spend her last official year of high school attending

the local community college and perhaps that is the reason, in the end,

that she doesn’t belong. I shudder again, and for this daughter I love,

this time with anger, to recall her dear 18-year-old voice saying to me,

speaking, I regret, of the clergy, “After two years seems like they could

just recognize my face. I love this music and will always sing it, but I

am done with their religion.”

So I offer a response to Rev’d Hall’s piece. While my spouse and I

dropped off our kids because we were tired of being invisible, maybe those

Rev’d Hill speaks of whose cars aren’t dented and who go to Starbuck’s, go

because they weary of all that it takes, in fact, to NOT be invisible.

Maybe they weary of the burden of the calculus of the rules of the community

about who is to be seen and who is to be unseen. And clerics should

wonder if those rules are altogether so righteous. My experience says it is

not so often that the church stands against a hostile culture, but that

the church, especially our Episcopal church, is not so different from it.

Let the staff meetings be wary of lurking arrogant piety.

And why do they drop the children off?

There are other possibilities. Sometimes nowadays, I do rub shoulders

with that middle class who might be Episcopalian. For one, they can afford

babysitters and child care on their own. For two, maybe clerics in staff

meetings don’t know it, but there are plenty of avenues of ‘good values’ out

there in the secular world.

Despite my own rather ragged uneven experience of church as community, I

still believe that the church is the one place we hope to find transcendence,

to find mystery, to find beauty, to believe in love. I believe that no

matter how mucked up church can get, those things somehow persist. Maybe,

we parents who have done/do the dropping off have an irrational hope, that

even though our experience denies it, church is the home of the

transcendent and we are slow to deny that to our children. It seems so

very human to hope against the odds that the good we may not have found for

ourselves might be found for our children. Maybe it is not unrepentant

out-sourcing, maybe it is more brave hope.


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Melissa Holloway

Oh dear. Funny how difficult communication can be. Most of mine these days are in fact here, every Sunday in church, busy about lots of things, for the most part deeply Christian. Our vicar has indeed gotten lists about what I think ‘welcome’ means (bless him).

Interesting thing that I have been read, in some cases, as someone who ‘left’ or someone with no commitment.

There is to me a dark side of ‘community’ that most of those who stay, especially those who find their vocation in the church, haven’t experienced and don’t imagine. And when we, the ones who do the work in the sacristy, at the altar, in the pulpit or in the nursery, are confronted with the non-takers, however they present themselves, we need to be careful how we tell the story. It makes a difference in how those people are treated, and it also makes a difference in what kind of people we become.


Years ago when I was in seminary I observed a few families in the church where I did field work. They arrived in their tennis togs, dropped the kids off for Sunday School, and went off to the club. They finished a set or two, and arrived back just as Sunday School ended to pick up the kids. Their timing was perfect, and their discipline was dependable.

I want to give Melissa Holloway credit for trying. Perhaps she and her husband might have preferred Starbucks, but they did in fact stay at the church to drink their coffee.

I want to note that because what I saw more often was not that folks who felt invisible, or who felt imposed on because they couldn’t be invisible, were missing the point. They were making an effort. More often, it was the tennis parents who were seeking to acculturate their children into values they didn’t share. What I fear they succeeded in teaching their children was that faith was for children; and that once one was sufficiently grown up one could reasonably leave it behind. These were the families who, once the kids no longer enjoyed Sunday School, simply disappeared altogether. The parents thought there was no more to be gained from Church than simple “Sunday School values;” and once it seemed the kids were no longer interested there was no reason for any of them to go.

Even Ms. Holloway’s daughter counters that concern for her family. She does have expectations of the Church and at a time when she’s trying to be an adult, she’s thinking about whether her church is meeting her needs. I’m not happy with her decision, but she hasn’t simply faded away, thinking it’s not important.

At the same time, I have to raise a question about appropriate expectations in church. Specifically, just whom are we in church to be visible to? Living in Christian community is, at least to some extent, about discipline – which sometimes means doing it when it doesn’t feel fulfilling. If it’s about our relationship to God in community, and not just about the relationship to the community, we do need to press it.

If, then, “the church is the one place we hope to find transcendence, to find mystery, to find beauty, to believe in love,” that’s worth pursuing for myself, and not just for my children. “Maybe, we parents who have done/do the dropping off have an irrational hope, that even though our experience denies it, church is the home of the transcendent and we are slow to deny that to our children.” Maybe; but it undermines our efforts to have our children learn that if we by our behavior deny that for ourselves.

I don’t want to make to strong a claim. It’s been so long since I’ve been “invisible” in church that I usually enjoy it, at least for a while. At the same time, if we want our children to have faith, we need consistently to show our children that faith is an adult thing to do. We need them to know that faith and church are “grown-up” activities. After all, what does any child want to be more than to be “grown-up?”

Marshall Scott

Bonnie Spivey

Sorry Bill. I should back that up just a tad.

“The body of Christ.” “The cup of salvation.” The gift that has always kept me from leaving.


Melissa, I am so sorry that you found your parish experience cold and distant. It all sounds so sad, both for you and your family.

I wish I could make it up to you in some way, but I don’t know how, I’m afraid. I’m just another Piskie posting here on the website, and not “there”.

All I can do is empathize and hope that I will see “Another You” in the future(whoever that may be) and make them feel welcomed and affirmed. And I pray one day that you and your family will give us another chance.


Kevin McGrane

Clint Davis

Bill, you know what, I wonder if people are coming to church wanting to ascribe religious value to, or paint with a shiny coat of Jesus, things that aren’t really religious and have little religious content, because they aren’t getting the homespun “authentic” experience at home, complete with emotions, messiness and lots of texture. Or, they find these things so self-defining that they must see them everywhere they go, from their living rooms to their cars, their churches and their vacations, or they aren’t “into it”. Same music, same look, same stuff, but with a Jesus-tinted semi-gloss. Many people seem to want the stuff that they think defines them to be validated even religiously so that they too are validated. But that’s not a very deep welcome, that’s a welcoming of someone’s jewelry, or hairdo, or t-shirt, or musical tastes, or taste in wine, or what have you. Church does the world a disservice (pun?) when it works this way; all that needs to be taken off the table (Table?) and a culture of truly welcoming every person, greeting with a smile and a nod and a dose of real attention because that’s how you treat people, that what it takes to turn our parishes from oaken country clubs to the Lord’s House.

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