Hospitable Families

The practice of caring for strangers
holds lessons for families as well

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 40
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Caring for families isn’t all social policy, of course. Victor Nelson, a pastoral counselor and marriage and family therapist, explains how enhancing the traditions and rituals families have used for ages can make families more nurturing for adults and children alike. He’d appreciate your comments at 505 Evergreen, West Lafayette, IN 47906.

In my work with families in the church and in family therapy during the past 14 years, I have learned much about the complexity of family life and the demands placed on it. Global concerns interfacing with daily concerns strain the family’s resources. Coping with change while maintaining family health is a delicate balance.

My own family may reflect something of the nature of this balancing act, and it’s likely yours does as well. We have a two-career household with the attendant demands on each adult. It’s challenging to work with families in therapy and come home to leaking faucets, a marriage that often gets too little attention, and teenagers navigating the storms of adolescence. And then I/we still seek ways to mobilize concern for the earth and develop an earth-sensitive lifestyle. How can you do it all and still maintain family health?

I have come to appreciate the wealth of resources within families for solving problems, resolving conflicts, and managing the host of stresses that families face. We have learned that our children can offer solutions that work! We parents can change, be flexible! We can even work together, children and parents, to find creative and healthy solutions to challenges we face!

However, I have discovered that few families have developed intentional ways of nurturing family members during the normal and predictable family processes which all families experience. It is as though the family is placed on automatic pilot and the family members simply try to hang on as the family’s momentum carries it into the future.

One important reason for this absence of intentionality is the lack of readily available models for identifying and ritualizing family processes. I have come to view the sacred practice of hospitality as such a model for identifying and ritualizing family processes – key ingredients for strengthening and sustaining the family.


The practice of hospitality was a necessary aspect of nomadic life that insured goodwill relationships between clans, tribes, and villages. An offense to a stranger could endanger the safety of the offending person or clan, but hospitality extended would most certainly one day be returned. Hospitality evolved as a central way of bridging distance, honoring differences, and building relationships. It was a fundamental attitude toward fellow human beings.

Hospitality included welcoming the stranger/guest, feeding and protecting the guest during the visit, resupplying the guest for the continuing journey, and offering a farewell blessing. These components of hospitality have counterparts in the life of today’s family.

People enter and leave families, prompting welcoming and blessing responses to these essential family processes. Childbirth, adoptions, in-home care for an aging family member, the forming of couple relationships, and homecomings are examples of family processes which call for a welcoming response to reaffirm family togetherness. Deaths, divorces, and children leaving home call for farewell blessings that recognize the process of separating from the family. These entrances and departures tend to receive greater attention and are more clearly ritualized than other family processes. Birthday celebrations, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals are all good examples.

The hospitality practices of feeding, protecting, and making preparations for leaving parallel the family processes of nurturing family members daily, protecting them by providing a secure space for growth and development, and equipping them to venture beyond the family’s boundaries. These processes are not as clearly identified or ritualized as entrances or blessings.

Nurturing involves providing for a person’s growth and development. Food is of central importance and has been the hub around which most nurturing rituals have developed. Holiday meals where extended family members gather are very significant food rituals, but even daily meals have their own ritual character – the seating arrangement at the table, the direction in which food is passed, whether napkins are used, and so on.

However, nurturing the evolving spirit and self in a young person is not so commonly ritualized by a family, even though it is as essential as eating. Families can expand their rituals to mark the key events in each member’s life. Pictures, music, story telling, and celebrations can highlight accomplishments, successes, learning, and discoveries. Events thus marked as nurturing are woven into the fabric of the family’s life and identity.

Family processes which protect are even more difficult to identify and ritualize. Sleep rituals are one common way of helping family members feel safe and secure. Reading bedtime stories, cuddling, snacks before bedtime, brushing teeth, arranging sleep companions, and turning on night lights all reassure and comfort family members prior to sleep.

This sense of security and safety is essential in other areas of family life as well, for the degree to which a child or adult takes risks, tries something new, and develops trust in self and others depends in large part on the environment which holds and supports each member, even (and perhaps especially) at times of failure and disappointment. Rituals of comfort and reassurance that reaffirm a person’s value and importance are usually spontaneous responses to some problem or crisis. The skinned knee from a bike accident gets caring attention, a band-aid, and encouragement to ride again.

Less common are protection rituals which reaffirm the family’s commitment to the support and affirmation of its members. These can be incorporated into mealtime rituals through prayer, remembrances, or blessings. Family members can identify what each likes, values, and/or appreciates about the family. The fabric of the family’s identity is strengthened and decorated by stories in which the main characters are family members and the central drama is an act of kindness, support, love, encouragement, thoughtfulness, or cooperation. Every family member values being valued. And such valuing of persons and family helps establish the environment of safety and security.


Family members are gradually equipped and prepared to leave the family. Rituals of equipping identify a movement toward independence, autonomy, and responsibility. The teen who gets a driver’s license gains a new level of freedom as well as a sense of accomplishment. The child who can walk to the store without help from a parent or sibling can have a similar experience. Passing a first aid class, taking a babysitting course, and progressing in youth organizations are all occasions which can be ritualized. The child who packs a suitcase for a week of summer camp is practicing for the time when she/he packs to leave home for college. Even learning to use the clothes washer can be ritualized as the kind of event which moves a person toward self-confidence and self-management beyond the family.

A family may have to stretch to ritualize events which equip a person to move beyond the family because such events emphasize separateness rather than togetherness. It is difficult to say good-bye to people we love. This is where blessing rituals become important.

Blessing rituals affirm the ongoing connections with the family while, at the same time, passing on something of the family to the one leaving. The daily departures for work or school are normally accompanied by blessing. "Have fun at school and I’ll see you tonight" may be a blessing sufficient for a child’s day away from home. A more elaborate blessing ritual is in order when a grown child leaves home, when a child marries, or when a death has occurred.

Hospitable families find ways to welcome, nurture, protect, equip, and bless those who enter the family’s realm – family members and guests alike. The ways in which hospitality is practiced and ritualized give families their unique and enduring character. Hospitality received in such a family will most certainly be extended to another.

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