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Maintaining Boundaries: The Process of Enforcing Expectations

New members to any group need to learn the unspoken rules and norms of the community. A newcomer may lack the history and understanding of “the way things are done here,” and may make embarrassing mistakes and missteps within the congregation. Perhaps a newcomer asked for prayers for something that was deemed “inappropriate,” or acted in a way in worship that was seen as too “enthusiastic.” Perhaps a new member parent failed to restrain his child during the sermon, and the child continued to babble and make noise. Or maybe a new pastor inadvertently offended long-standing members by making references in the sermon to current popular culture, a taboo topic. In these situations, it’s important to examine the ways in which congregations work to assimilate new attenders’ behavior. These are the situations that can provide clear insight into how the congregation views itself and its membership.

Examining the process of enforcing boundaries is important in understanding how the congregation socializes new members. Does someone actually tell the father with the child in worship that the child is being disruptive? Or just scowl in his direction? Or inform the father of the presence of childcare in the nursery? What does this interaction do to encourage the father to continue to attend the service?

Another important consideration is whether entire established community share in the perceptions of what is appropriate behavior. Are there differences of opinion? This can lead to conflict about what is deemed “appropriate” versus what is not. Are these norms and expectations of behavior reasonable, or are they overly strict? Problematizing the long-held norms can be a difficult process, but an important one to break down difficult expectation boundaries.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org