Uniting The Church – Is it Possible?

Partisanship in the church is not an obstacle to uniting the church. Closed mindedness to the other person and enmity is what is fatal if we are interested in uniting the church.

United Methodist Church (USA) – A Case Study

For many years the United Methodist Church (USA), hereafter the UMC, has been tearing itself apart over a range of issues. The most polarising issue at the moment is the one that it shares with many other churches – the place of LGBTIQ people in the life of the church. In some churches the issue is about whether LGBTIQ people can be members, or even Christians. For other churches it is about ordination or whether the church should conduct marriages or blessings of their love for one another.

In 2016 the UMC General Conference in Portland had the opportunity to talk together about this issue in a new, respectful and collaborative way. The meeting refused to use a new process. There were many reasons for this decision. However a major reason the new rule was not used was because people preferred to fight rather than co-operate. People wanted a fight so that they could defeat their opponents and vanquish them.  They cared less about each other than getting the votes. “To the victor the spoils” was the driving agenda of too many at that meeting.

Later in the meeting the General Conference established a Special Commission on the Way Forward. The aim of the Commission is to bring a plan to a special “called Conference” about how the church can overcome its incessant conflict, splits and the destructive effects on its mission. Tragically the Commission seems to have used the contemporary political approach of bringing the opposing parties together to cut a deal. Inevitably this approach will not succeed in uniting the church. Rather it will entrench the differences as side each jockeys for its agenda to succeed.

Uniting the church is not going to happen through encouraging partisanship and political game playing.  However, it is still not too late for the UMC to deploy an alternative method of respect and collaboration.

Uniting the church – a cynics view

There are many in the UMC, and other churches, who feel that the divide is too great and the enmity too strong to make respect and collaboration possible.

The argument runs

  • trust has been broken
  • with all the power in the opposing camps there is no middle ground
  • leaders get positions of power because they are hyper-partisan
  • bias in communications is so strong there is no room for a middle voice
  • with opposing world views clashing, it’s impossible to respect the other
  • every discussion is framed as a binary “yes” / “no” choice
  • don’t be so naive to think we can respect each other – you’ll get used

This cynicism is rife in many churches. So, in the face of divisions the idea of uniting Christians again seems like searching for the prospector’s lost reef of gold.

Let’s get realistic!

In the American context the churches face a particular challenge. Their political leaders have become more and more disrespectful of each other. The once encouraging ability to work “across the aisle” seems to have disappeared. Hyperbole, denigration and demonising of those with different views is standard discourse in politics and the media. Christians operating in this environment are at great risk of being infected with this poison. That’s a real problem and it needs to be taken seriously.

Fighting each other in the church is destructive of the church’s witness. People can see a political fight anywhere at any time. When they see Christians doing it then they will not hang around. When Christians tell me that it’s important to destroy their opponents so that the true Christian message can be preached I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. People are desperate to see love, experience community, and to receive respect. People are desperate to encounter in their experience of others the love, community and respect that God has shown humanity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God through the church is undermined when Christians prefer fighting to loving one another.

To fight each other in order to gain the spoils of victory will result in a pyrrhic victory. The cost of a victory delivered through lies, power plays and political deals costs the victor so much that it is really a loss. So often we forget that the way we reach a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

Finding a way past hyper-partisanship is the only hope for the church.  Uniting and peace are possible for the church. The alternative of division and discord is depressing and defeatist.

Being realistic includes:

  • resisting the power of local culture as it seeks to shape the character of Christian communities
  • grieving over the way that Christians fighting pushes people away from the Christian faith
  • recognising that the way we win can cause more harm than good
  • continuing on the hyper-partisan route is hopeless
  • Christians are a people of hope who have the promises of God about what our future can look like
  • we have the Holy Spirit with us so that we do not lose the way

What are the options

1.   Treat each other as sisters and brothers

See each other first as sisters and brothers in Christ. Avoid the temptation to demonise each other. Yes that is a real act of will. Actually it is an act of faith too! Do you have faith that God has made us family? If so what are you going to do about that when you disagree with someone?

2.   Talk to each other about your faith

In the last 20 years one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in uniting Christians has been the Global Christian Forum. Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic Christians were not members of established national and international ecumenical bodies. In the case of Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians it was because they saw ecumenical Christians as theologically liberal and politically “progressive”.

Catholics and the other groups have had significant levels of enmity. Catholics considered that these churches were proselytising their members. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals did not regard Catholics as Christians. Their leaders attacked each other and distrusted them.

In the face of these harsh realities uniting these groups seemed impossible. The Global Christian Forum was established to address these issues. It’s methodology is very simple – meet each other as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. The structure of their fellowship is for people to share the stories of their faith – how they came to it, what nurtures it, what they hope for because of their faith.

3.   Learn from groups that are uniting their communities

I have just started reading the latest book by Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. Mark is a mediator and an expert on political bridge building.

In the book he takes a realistic view of the obstacles to co-operation that exist in the American political context. He tells exciting stories about grass roots action for change. Mark Gerzon has biases. He prefers one candidate over another. One set of policies are viewed as better than others. However he has chosen not to be hyper-partisan in support for them. One key insight that makes this possible for him is that he has owned that he both liberal and conservative. Recognising that we are not monochrome, but are diverse in ourself, makes it possible to be comfortable with difference in others. The self talk we do as we explore our internal differences can be applied to the dialogue we have with others.

His four core strategies for uniting American citizens again across the partisan divide are:

  • reinventing citizenship
  • leading from across the borders that divide
  • championing the whole truth
  • serving the people

I highly commend The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. You can access a copy here. If you purchase anything through this link within 24 hours we receive a small commission. This helps us to cover the costs of this website.

4.   Apply consensus building resources in your church

Don’t just think about the problems – work on the solutions in your context. There are many simple things that you can do to change the culture and practices of your church. Use the tools that have been proven to be effective in uniting Christians.

This website is devoted to making resources available to people who want to do consensus building in their church. If you are newlease browse and find more support. For a comprehensive resource we recommend our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. You can purchase a copy  from Cokebury here or from Amazon.

Conclusion

There are many conflicts in the church. Many seem intractable. However relationships can be turned around – uniting divided people is possible. The good news is that God is committed to the goal of uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, faith to live out of, and many resources from inside and outside the church to resource us. Don’t give up!

1000 people tried consensus – how did it go?

WCRC General Council Logo 2017

The World Communion of Reformed Churches took a huge risk by using consensus as their way of discernment and decision-making. Around a 1,000 people met as the General Council in Leipzig June / July 2017 and consensus was new to the vast majority. How did it go?

What the Participants said

Martin Engles

Amy Eckert wrote a comprehensive article on the process, its goals and values. In it she interviewed a number of participants. Here are some of their observations.

Within the small groups the real work of discernment takes place. “Discernment truly is more about listening than speaking,” said Gradye Parsons. “It is important to listen to what others are saying. It is important to listen to what God is saying. And it’s important to consider your own thoughts with regard to the issue and in light of what you have heard.”

Rev. Lucy Wambui Waweru, minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa serving the Nyeri Church in central Kenya, values very much the input that ordinary delegates have on the process within the small groups.

“Discernment Groups include voices from around the world,” she said. “The groups also have a mix of older, more seasoned ecumenists as well as younger delegates. And every voice is heard.”

What is different?

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

Waweru agreed. She also appreciated that giving consensus did not mean that a delegate was 100% supportive or opposed to a proposal. Nor did it mean that the delegate envisioned a clear path toward adoption of the new proposal.

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

If you were at the General Council of WCRC we would love to hear your comments. Also any questions are very welcome.

You can read the whole article on the WCRC website.

Six things that work against consensus

There are a number of things that work against consensus being achieved. They need to be recognised and addressed.

Group Think

When being a member of a group creates pressure on members to narrow down the range of opinions Groupthink occurs. When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions. This risk is not limited to groups that seek to build consensus for their decisions. However when coming to consensus is highly prized in a group, there can be pressure to conform. Groupthink can be minimized by allowing individuals to first independently collect information before presenting their recommended course of action.

When there is no group

A collection of individuals who have no shared purpose or common interests cannot make a group decision. There must be something that binds  people together and there must also be a shared willingness to work on the project together.

A major challenge facing churches that want to move to consensus building in decision-making is a high level of conflict amongst their members. The level of brokenness in relationships, limited trust and major positional differences are significant challenges and work against consensus.

Nevertheless every effort should be made to find the common ground of some shared values or higher level shared goals.  Serious disagreements should not be used as an excuse to avoid trying to build consensus.

No agreed purpose for the meeting

If people think that a meeting is only a rubber stamp for the leadership’s preconceived ideas then you can’t use consensus processes. When a meeting is seen as a source ideas that will be decided upon later then genuine consensus will not be sought. In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together  we make the point that it works against consensus if participants in a meeting don’t agree about its purpose.

In emergencies

As the old saying goes “there are no democrats in a foxhole.” Different kinds of leadership are required for different purposes. A crisis needs swift action and usually a decision about which issue is most important to address at that time. Authority based leadership is most suitable in this context.

When there is no decision to take

Sometimes this occurs when a decision is particularly trivial. You don’t need a sophisticated process to decide the color of the table cloths in the church hall.

On other occasions it will be because not everyone has to agree on a given course of action. A church meeting might gather to consider mission strategies at which many ideas are shared. As interested people gather around the ideas that they support, they don’t need everyone to agree to do their thing before it can happen.

It isn’t the right time

Sometimes a group will not have all the information that it needs so it cannot reach a good decision. In such situations a pause should be taken. This allows for more data or resources to be gathered to inform the next stage of the conversation.

On other occasions people may have a clear idea on what should be done, but  will know that now is not the time. Many a good idea fails because it is planted out of season. Being willing to consider “when” is as important as the “what”.

Conclusion

Clearly there are obstacles to coming to consensus – where that means a unanimous decision. For other examples see here. Please share a comment  about when consensus building has proved to be difficult and what you did about it.

Even if it is unlikely that you will reach a unanimous view on a given subject – do not stop using consensus building techniques. Continue to show respect for one another. Listen carefully to all the voices. Seek common ground and be prepared to change your mind. Even if you don’t get to full agreement there will be many areas where consensus can be built. By identifying the areas of agreement it is possible to clearly identify continuing disagreements and to generate strategies for addressing them.