Tag Archives: Inclusive Language


I am not disabled.  Let me say that again: I am not disabled.  I am not handicapped.  I am not crippled.  I am certainly not handicapable, whatever that means.  I am not a “gimp.” I am not a disabled person.  I am a person with a disability.  Person first, then disability.  Or maybe more accurately, person first, then my hair color, eye color, height, and about 20 other things that also don’t matter, then the fact that I am physically disabled (by definition).

Author Amos Yong writes about people with disabilities in relationship to the body of Christ.  Yong makes the argument that people with disabilities are equally made in the image of Christ, just as able-bodied persons, and are not people to be viewed as needing to be fixed, healed, or cured.

So, how can we be inclusive as fellow members of the body of Christ?  Personally, I think language, specifically body language, is the biggest and most powerful way to be inclusive of others.  Now, I’m not about to just give out a laundry list of Do’s and Don’ts because that doesn’t exist.  Literally every person is different.  Each person’s preferences are unique to them. Saying or doing one thing to another may offend one person, be appreciated by other, and have absolutely no effect on a third.

However, what I will tell you is to think.  Especially when planning something like worship, think about it.  Think about the physical space.  Can people with varying physical disabilities participate in worship with the way that the space is arranged? (For example Dr Nessan and I don’t use the same pulpit or podium because of our foot and a half height difference).   Are there ways for each worshipper to participate physically in the worship service, i.e. the standing, kneeling, and coming to the front for communion, being at the font?  And do those options make individuals feel a part of the assembly, or singled-out?

Listen to how people talk about themselves, and do your best to also speak about them or to them in the same manner.  ASK QUESTIONS!!! Don’t just assume things.  Yes, yes you will get things wrong from time to time.  Yes, you may annoy someone with the questions you ask, but if you treat them as a another member of the body of Christ, made in the image of God, it is better than assuming things about them as if they couldn’t decide for themselves.

Lastly, in all things, let there be forgiveness.  Being mindful and inclusive of one another is not a perfect science and therefore, we don’t always get it right.  There are times when we forget things, say the wrong thing, something slips our mind and we act incorrectly.  IT’S OK!!  Forgive one another and live life together as fellow members of the body of Christ.

2010 ADA Guidance Standards for Accessible Design


Cisgender. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Bisexual. Transgender. Genderqueer. Queer. Pansexual. Asexual. Questioning. The list goes on and on when we are talking about the language we use when we identify ourselves in terms of our sexual and gender identity.

You might notice I left out a few words that are commonly used within the LGBTQ+ community and the larger society. I purposely left out the words straight, gay and lesbian for they do not fully grasp what it means to be living within the LGBTQ+ community and, honestly, I have yet to understand what straight means in terms of gender and sexuality.

Everyone thinks gender and sexuality is binary, where you can simply check a box on a form and that is the end of the question. However, the reality is that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, where you can on any day be at one point and a different point the following day. Understanding that gender and sexuality are a spectrum helps in working towards more inclusive language and community.

When thinking specifically about how to be inclusive when someone falls outside of the binary there are a few basic things that will not only help you in ministry but in society as well.

In terms of gender, think of it in a two-fold way, gender identity and biological sex. Gender is how the person identifies. The way they dress and how their mind is wired. Biological Sex is about the hardware one is born with. When talking to someone who may identify as transgender or gender queer, do not ask them about what they were born as. It shows that they are not valued as people in our current state, and honestly asking about biological sex is only okay in a health care facility, no one needs to know what is in your pants but yourself and your doctor, so be aware of the language you are using and the reason for asking.

Sexuality is not the same as gender identity; it is about the attraction you personally feel towards others. Moving towards being more inclusive in terms of sexuality, it is more about a shift in attitude rather then in language. New language is being created and used each day but a change of attitude can last a lifetime. Opening your mouth and asking questions regarding who someone is attracted to is not always the best thing for the moment. Think about why you are asking the question and if you would want your grandmother to hear it. Sexuality is personal and needs to be kept that way. Avoid saying “wife” or “husband” or “partner”; it limits what one defines as a relationship. Sticking with talking about the person first and the relationship last lets them choose how they want to be labeled.

Being inclusive takes time. It also takes grace and forgiveness from everyone. Remember you are not perfect and asking questions in proper ways help you avoid assumptions and allows you to get to know the person. Allow yourself to make a mistake and learn from it. Remember, getting to know the person for who they are is the most important thing you can do.


One of the central points—truths—to consider when thinking about inclusive language, is our power to name things. It’s one of the things God gives humans right up front.

We can name for good, or for ill. From naming, to classifying, to including/excluding, to judging . . . it’s a slippery slope.

Lots of things about this next story make me cringe. I used to work with a group of friends who had an inside joke about the name “Target.” There was a nice, big, new, shiny (all of those words are important) Target in the rich suburb south of town. That was the Targét (pronounced Tar-jay). Not just Target— Targét. The other Target was in a mall that people thought was dying. Not as nice, big, new, or shiny. That was the Tar-ghetto.

We have the power to name. And I am not proud of how I used that power. How I used that power not just to name, but to judge. Reflecting on that story, one of the most important things, scary things, to me is that it was an inside joke. It was something I shared with some people, and not others. So that shows me personally what exclusive language (as opposed to inclusive) is: “Can I say it to anyone?” Is it appropriate everywhere?

That was a socioeconomic example. Here is a race/ethnicity based example: I have heard very well-meaning people, kind people, friends ask me what I would like to be called, “African-American?” “Black?” I’m sure people who have lived through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, etc have wondered about African –Americans: “Well, what do they want to be called now?”

There is so much packed into that question. The “they” is a separation, designating an ‘us’ from a ‘them’, whether the question is asked sincerely, faithfully, with concern, with annoyance, or with a sense of insecurity. All of those things are present.

Also present is the idea that the many names for African-Americans, from the slurs (n-word/darkie/ coon) to the ones that are socially acceptable and progressive for their time (black/negro/Afro-American/African-American) have all been reactions. They are all reactions of one person looking at another and thinking, “You, your skin, your culture – you are not like me. What are you?” In other words, African-Americans have never had a way of naming themselves that isn’t a reaction to a normative culture from outside classifying, judging, naming, including/excluding. That slippery slope again.

Those groups that have been named from the outside have often taken those names on internally as a defining characteristic and point of identity. Consider the pink triangle, or the n-word with a gangsta ending. Why would a group do this? Because naming is powerful. Inclusion and exclusion are powerful.

The ability to name is the possession of power, God-given power. As leaders in the church, let’s work to change the balance of power.

AN INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE CONVOCATION TALK by S.D. Giere, WTS Associate Professor of Homiletics & Biblical Interpretation

A brief excerpt from a book that we are studying in one of my classes this fall:

To the prophet… no subject is as worthy of consideration as the plight of man…  Man is rebellious and full of iniquity, and yet so cherished is he that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, is saddened when forsaken by him.[i]

To borrow from my good friend, David Tracy, “We belong to language far more than it belongs to us.  Language shapes our perception, our understanding, our world, our sense of community, our sense of who God is.”[ii]

When Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative Rabbi, reworked and published his book The Prophets in 1962, he used the language of man to refer to all of humanity.  Heschel, a prominent progressive figure in the Civil Rights movement,[iii] clearly did not intend to exclude with his choice of language.  At the time, Heschel’s use of “man” for all humanity was understood as inclusive.  And guess what?  Times have changed.  When we read from Heschel’s text in class, we spit and sputter and choke as we work toward hearing and engaging Heschel’s important and profound observations, because Heschel’s most basic language for communicating about humanity and about who God is are simply no longer inclusive.  This kind of language is out of tune… not for everyone, mind you, but for many and for us here at WTS.  Language changes over time.

In the WTS Student Life Handbook[iv] we have a policy, which is worthy of your attention.  By my count, this is the 29th annual Convocation that addresses inclusivity.  (Doesn’t quite get back to 1962, but…)  In short, there is longstanding commitment to inclusivity in this worship-centered community of critical theological reflection, where learning leads to mission and mission informs learning.

Policies are often experienced as law or political correctness, in particular when it comes to inclusive language.  I want to suggest that we reframe policy in light of the gospel.  Simply put, inclusive language has to do with the gospel.  For whom is God’s love in Jesus Christ?  For whom did Jesus die?   Do we want to use language that communicates the inclusive nature of God’s love in Jesus Christ?

Inclusive language was a priority during my time as a student here.  I was unleashed upon the church with a commitment to inclusive language, but the gospel importance of it didn’t hit home until sometime in 1998, when I was serving my first call at Messiah Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota.  Because of my formation at Wartburg Seminary, I naturally used inclusive language, perhaps most noticeably in the context of worship.  Early one week, I received a note from a parishioner, scratched on the back of a communion card.  The note was from a woman in her early twenties, away a good chunk of the time at university.  Her note, which I still have in my desk, read: “Pastor Sam, thank you using language that includes me.”  This little note nudged me toward the notion that inclusive language is about the hearing of the Gospel. The language we use impacts how people hear the Good News of Jesus Christ as being for them.

Closely related to inclusive language is the use of expansive language for God.  In Heschel’s day, it was common to hear God referenced with masculine pronouns, e.g., God Himself.  To ascribe gender to God is never the point when a masculine pronoun is used.  Rather, it has do with language and the change of language over time.  While it’s best (in my humble opinion) to avoid the heresy of Patripassianism, a.k.a., Sabellianism, modalism (referring to the three persons of God as modes of God’s activity, e.g., creator, redeemer, sustainer), scripture provides many images for God. Perhaps we ought to consider the use of expansive language as Gospel-centered in the same way as inclusive language (so that people will hear the good news of Jesus Christ!), though differently responsible to the witness of Scripture and the Rule of Faith.


[i] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (Harper Perennial, 1962) 6.

[ii] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (University of Chicago Press, 1985) 53.

[iii] I am delighted to share with the reader a children’s book that was shared with me by Wartburg student Carina Schiltz after the convocation: Richard Michelson (author) and Raul Colon (illustrator), As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom (Dragonfly Books, 2013).

[iv] §3.1 Inclusive Language, p.84.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES – Inclusive Language—Inclusive Community

The “Inclusive Language—Inclusive Community” Convocation was held at Wartburg Seminary Thursday, October 22. Presenters were students Nicholas Rohde, Mack Patrick, Denise Rector and Prof. Samuel D Giere. This is the 29th such convocation held annually in the Fall at Wartburg as the seminary and the church continue to grow, ever expanding the meaning of inclusivity.  Watch coming issues of The Persistent Voice for more on this convocation.

BROADENING INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE IN WORSHIP by Thomas Schattauer, WTS Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel

Comment at Morning Prayer, Loehe Chapel
Feast of Michael and All Angels
September 29, 2015

“I want to address briefly a matter of concern about inclusivity in our community and in our worship. It has to do with the booklet we have been using for our singing of morning prayer the last few weeks [Marty Haugen’s Come Let Us Sing for Joy]. As you know, there are a couple places where it divides the singing between “women” and “men.” We need to think about that language as we seek to become ever more inclusive—for two reasons. First, it does not accurately describe what we are trying to do, which is to divide ourselves into “higher” and “lower” voices in our singing. When we use the labels “women” and “men” to accomplish that, where do young children fit into that picture, or women who sing low and men who sing high? Second, not everyone lives in a world that divides so neatly into men and women. Where, for example, will people among us who are transgender as well as transgender friends, colleagues, and neighbors find themselves in these binary categories? Where do they fit into the picture?

So, let’s try to shift our thinking a bit and start to use labels that more accurately describe what we are trying to accomplish and include the full range of gender identity among us. When we wish to divide into higher and lower voices, let’s say it exactly like that. As long as we continue to use this resource, we can at least make that shift in our minds and together translate it with a meaning that seeks to include each and every one.”


Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben, WTS Assistant Professor of New Testament:

Welcome to our first convocation of the academic year. “Convocations” happen here at Wartburg at various times on topics that require—not simply disseminating information—but face-to-face conversation. These topics are typically not cut-and-dry issues, but matters of evolving, ongoing, dynamic conversation.

For many years Wartburg has hosted a convocation on “inclusive language.” This convocation is similar, but broader in focus. It entails not only concerns pertinent to inclusive language but also concerns pertinent to behavior and actions that foster genuine inclusion of “the other.”

Our language and our behavior do things, especially in community: by our words and actions, we consciously and unconsciously assume certain norms, characterize ourselves and our community ethos, and establish what is “normal,” acceptable, and appreciated. Sometimes we are deliberate about our words and actions, sometimes not so much.

This morning we have 6 individuals who will each speak for about 2 minutes on a particular issue that pertains to becoming an inclusive community.

– Hannah Benedict (concerning gender)
– Norma Cook Everist (concerning disabilities)
– Mack Patrick (concerning transgender)
– Stan Olson (concerning inclusive language for God)
– Gus Barnes (concerning race and sexual orientation)
– Susan Ebertz (concerning denominational backgrounds)

Afterward, we will dialogue with each other at our tables.

Hannah Benedict, Final Year M.Div. Student: 

I don’t think much about my gender. I don’t have a constant internal track going, “I-am-a-woman-I-am-a-woman-I-am-a-woman.” I say this fully aware that as I say that, I wear a particular piece of attire typically attributed to one gender–yep, high heels, those tortuous devices woman can wear. But I don’t wear high heels because of my gender. I wear them because of my 5’3″ height. It’s logistics folks! I truly don’t pay attention to my gender much, until a moment about which I’m going to tell you:

At the end of internship, a congregation member came up to me with what she thought would be a compliment. She said, “At first we didn’t know how a lady intern would do, but you did great, honey!” Her pleasant surprise was my harsh realization. Not only might I need to consider my gender, but that others could see my gender as a detriment.

She wasn’t the first to share such reactions. Others, mostly women and women my age, shared similar reactions, “You wanna be a what? Sweetie, don’t you know you’re a lady?”

It’s not that I don’t know my gender. I am fully aware of it and others of my kind. I’m one of three sisters, (an aunt two nieces; women outnumber men in my family). I attended a women’s college—go Suzies—and chaired the feminist group. I got that I was a woman, through and through. But what I didn’t get was how this somehow made me any less effective or valuable.

Being a woman never stopped me from doing all that God called me to do. Being a woman never stopped me from being compassionate, courageous, strong, determined, and dedicated. Instead, being a woman, surrounded and supported by them, taught me how to be all these and more. My gender provides a particular perspective, one no less important than any other. From this vantage point, I can see who God makes me through the Holy Spirit in Christ.

In Christ, we are no longer male/female, gentile/Jewish, enslaved/free. We are God’s.  Gender may be part of my identity but it is not all of it. Yes, I’m a lady—and a wife, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, and, occasionally I wear heels.  But I am first and foremost a child of God.

Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, Professor of Church Administration and Educational Ministry: 

I’m Norma Cook Everist, addressing living together with our abilities and disabilities. We are all differently abled. Wartburg is a caring community where people try to live thoughtfully, respectfully and in solidarity with people with disabilities.

How can we do this even better?

By really seeing each person, rather than pretending not to notice. By asking, rather than presuming a person’s need: “What is helpful to you?”

By using person-first language: Not “a blind person” but a “person who is blind.” I have a disability; I am not my disability.

And by using inclusive language in worship. Our ELW does not say, “Please stand,” words hard to hear for those who cannot. Thomas Schattauer and Melissa Waterman encourage us to motion with our hands when the congregation is to stand. People with disabilities who were on the hymnal planning committee encouraged, “The Assembly stands,” an inclusive phrase which means the congregation stands for those who cannot. We’ve been doing pretty well this fall. It is important we remember as we are formed as leaders for an inclusive church.

Inclusive language matters: So we motion, or we say, “The assembly stands,” or we say, “Please stand as you are able.”

Nicholas Rohde and I conferred, discovering we’ve both been tempted to respond when we hear, “Please stand”: “No thank you, I can’t.” Let’s try that. I’ll say, “Please stand,” and you respond, “No thank you. I can’t.” [The people at tables did.] Now say after me: “The Assembly stands.” [“The Assembly stands.”] “Please stand as you are able”   [“Please stand as you are able.”]

Thank you very much.

Mack Patrick, 1st Year M.Div. Student:

To start this conversation off, one must understand a few basic things about transgender. The first is that transgender is commonly spelled as trans*; this is an important piece in the trans* experience. The asterisk represents that trans* is a spectrum covering a wide variety of experiences. Some are a bit more clear-cut than others. There is the complete change over: Female to Male or Male to Female, but there is also the non-conforming, non-identifying side of gender.

Along with recognizing that trans* is a spectrum—and you may not always know how someone fully identifies—it is important to realize trans* are still people. Asking if they have surgery, or inquiring more about their chosen gender, is not cool and rather offensive. No one cares about your private parts. You should not ask those questions of those who are trans*. That is a private matter.

Pronouns identify who we are on a paper form, but correct use of pronouns is also a good way to show someone that you care about them and want them to be included in a community. While society has focused on the popular pronouns of male and female, there are yet two other known sets of pronouns that someone may identify with. One of those other sets is the gender neutral set. It is commonly used with individuals who do not identify with a specific gender. [This set includes:] Ze (zee) commonly referred to as the subject, Hir (here) known as the object and possessive adjective, and Hirs (heres) for the possessive pronoun. While these are not commonly known and used, as the popularity and acknowledgment of the gender-neutral pronoun grows, they will be used more often. It is completely acceptable to ask people what pronouns they prefer.

For someone who identifies as trans*, asking about pronouns is a great first step. Admitting that you have no clue what to do or say is good, but first and foremost ignore their gender and focus on the person. I know that hearing the correct pronouns being used when talking about me, is huge, as acceptance is growing. Even though I identify as trans*, I feel full included and accepted in the Wartburg Community. Inclusion starts with the ability to recognize you may encounter individuals in your community that are different from you. Take the first step and get to know them as a person.

Rev. Dr. Stan Olson, WTS President:

My privilege today is to talk with you a little about language for God. The topic of this convocation is inclusive language. I could talk about inclusive language for God, pointing to the importance of speaking of God in ways that allow all to be included.

I’ve given that talk. However, over the years I’ve concluded that it’s far better to speak of expansive language for God or, simply, appropriate language for God. Speaking appropriately of God is an expression of faithfulness.

Sixty years ago, J. B. Philipps wrote a book titled, Your God Is Too Small. He challenges the reader to think more expansively about God as made known in Jesus Christ, to embrace the depth of meaning. The book was very important in shaping my early thinking. I recently reread it and can’t now say that I commend the book to you. I do, however, commend the title. Let that title push you firmly as you do theology, preach, teach, counsel, write, and pray—your God is too small.

To embed this push in your thoughts, I invite you to shift from the second person pronoun and use this as a response: Our God is too small. Say it with me now, Our God is too small, and then in response.

If we speak of God using only a few of the words and images available, Our God is too small.

If we use only the language of the New Testament, Our God is too small.

If we use only the language of the Hebrew Bible, Our God is too small.

If our talk of God uses only masculine images and pronouns, or only feminine images and pronouns, or only combinations, Our God is too small.

If we limit our language for God only to words actually used in the Bible and neglect the church’s rich history of devotion and thought, Our God is too small.

If we casually and carelessly use familiar hymnic and devotional language that conveys limited or false images of God, Our God is too small.

If the God we convey seems distant and unknowable for any to whom we speak, Our God is too small.

If we think that God is ours alone, Our God is too small.

If we ever allow ourselves to think that we have arrived at language that is finally and completely appropriate, Our God is too small.

God is not too small!

Gus Barnes, 3rd Year M.Div. Student: 

I am Gus Barnes Jr. I am one of a kind, created by God and my parents. I am a fifty-three year old man in seminary. I am a tax-payer. I am a product of the sixties. Here is the shocker surprise: I am an openly Gay African American man. In my time in this temporal place we call earth, I have had many doors shut in my face because of the things that describes who Gus is. Here at Wartburg Seminary I assume when people speak of Gus being Gay, it’s because often I am happy as Gus; I am welcomed here as Gus.

I am thrilled to have lived a lifetime to see a Black President in office, and this week I met the ELCA’s first openly Gay Bishop. The ELCA has struggled with sexuality issues. And after its decision in 2009 to be more open to gays and lesbians serving in ministerial leadership, it has lost many congregations. Sadly I am reminded daily when I look in the mirror as I prepare my day that I need to ask,”What doors will be opened, and which doors will be shut because of who Gus is?” Spend some time to get to know me and others. I promise if you stay out of my closet, I’ll stay out of yours!

Susan Ebertz, Director of the Reu Memorial Library and Assistant Professor of Bibliography and Academic Research:

I’m speaking on inclusion of a variety of denominational backgrounds. I think that there is only one student here who is not Lutheran and she is a TEEM student. I think I am the only faculty member who is not Lutheran. There are a number of the staff who are not Lutheran. I mention this because sometimes it is easy for some of us to forget that not all of us are Lutheran.

At one time we had more non-Lutherans here. The other faculty member and the students would talk with me about some of their experiences. I’m not at liberty to share those stories. It wasn’t a secret club but it did create a bond between us.

I don’t think that the difference in denominational backgrounds is as hurtful as other sorts of discriminations. If we all realize that not everyone speaks Lutheranese and not all of us believe Lutheran theology, we go a long way into including those of other denominations.

I know that some of you grew up in a different denomination and the transition to Lutheran theology may be difficult. I think it is important for you to know and understand Lutheran theology and to live into that. That is okay. That is not what I’m talking about.

Many of you will be ministering in communities where you will need to work with ecumenical partners. Understanding what they believe or how they “do worship” can be an important learning experience while you are in seminary. Figure out ways to experience that.

If you want to talk more, I welcome conversation with you.

Table Question for Communal Conversation:

  1. When have you experienced “exclusion” in a community or church setting?
  2. What practices have you observed to be some of the most helpful for facilitating authentic inclusion and openness in faith communities? How have they worked?
  3. As leaders, how can we go about being allies or advocates in the communities we serve for inclusion concerning some of the issues named this morning?
  4. As leaders, what do you think will be some of the most pressing issues of inclusion for which we will need to be advocates in our unfolding ministries?

You may also appreciate the following previously published posts: