We’re Family

Quite honestly, it was one of the lowest points of my life to date. We had just left a job which had been emotionally taxing – to say the least. We moved to a new state with no family or friends nearby. I struggled to find work anywhere. (Walmart wouldn’t even hire me!) We also found out a week after we moved that Cara was pregnant with our first child. Everything had been stripped away, and only God would be able to see us through the next year. I’m still amazed at the incredible number of ways God provided, and to think that one aspect of His provision came through the Olive Garden.

I entered into a culture of which I had very little understanding. While I had worked in the restaurant business before, I found few similarities between this new endeavor and “The Amish Door.” Many of the people on staff at the Olive Garden were students at the University of South Carolina; a drastically different college experience from my own at a small Christian school. The diversity of worldviews as well as choices in terms of sexuality and relationships was striking. In fact, Cara and I were considered to be “old” to be having our first child at 23 and 26 respectively. It was an eclectic mix of people, and I was just one more anomaly. And yet, there was something in these encounters that began to shape my mind, heart and passion for family ministry.

The management team at the Olive Garden was well-trained. They promoted and exemplified the company motto: “When you’re here, you’re family.” While the focus was always on the guests being welcomed into our “home” and treated like family, the leadership knew that relationships among the staff members could build up or break down the family atmosphere. I remember days when a manager would take a couple of servers aside and make them work out their differences. There was also a time when a manager was falsely accused and felt betrayed by a server. I can clearly recall the fallout among the rest of our “family” as a result of this one conflict.

We all agreed to work for the Olive Garden, but that didn’t entitle us to choose who else could be part of the “family.” That was left to the managers. We all had our differences, but we were family first. We depended upon one another for personal as well as community success. Servers knew that they couldn’t be lone rangers. They depended upon the kitchen staff, the bussers, and the hostesses to function at their best. Bussers knew they needed to do their job well in order to be in the good graces of the servers who would share a portion of their tips. Whether we wanted to or not, we had to function like a family. If we didn’t, our guests wouldn’t experience the family atmosphere. If the guests didn’t return, the whole Olive Garden Family suffered as a result.

Sadly, the church has rarely facilitated the family atmosphere that I experienced at the Olive Garden. Often when people go through transitions like Cara and I experienced, the church will offer prayers but no practical, physical help. Instead we say “be warmed and filled” and do nothing to follow through on our professed desire. So many times we choose to focus on differences and group ourselves into factions who war with one another for power and control. Differences of opinion are not tolerated because we are concerned more about uniformity than unity and harmony. We don’t seek to reconcile relationships or call people out about their quarrels. So, those disagreements continue, and an infection grows within the body. And we wonder why we aren’t healthy and growing?

Then there are the guests. We all want more of them, and we all wonder why none of them stay. Our petty differences are not hidden in the sight of the visitors or the unchurched. We appear to them to be as ridiculous as one who “puts a light under a bowl” and questions the darkness. They come and experience disintegration and disfunction. There’s enough of that all around them. And we are confused why they don’t want to be associated with us?

God has given a higher calling, but not to an unnatural place.  When we commit our lives to Christ, we also commit to God’s family. We are adopted into God’s family (Eph. 1:5). We don’t get to choose who our relatives are. That is left to God the Father. Jesus provides an example of the priority we should give to God’s family (Matt. 12:46-50). We are given the Spirit of sonship (Rom. 8:15) and are to live life as brothers and sisters in Christ. How our family functions will have a tremendous influence on not only our lives, but all those who visit and watch from afar. Will our influence be negative and turn many away from the love of God in Christ? Or will our example be “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:6)? When people talk about the church, they should be able to say “when you’re here, you’re family.”

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