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!

What’s wrong with the way we make decisions?

Recall some recent decision points

Think back to your last big church meeting decision. It may have been about building a new sanctuary, firing a youth worker or starting a second worship service. As you think back on the debates and discussions about that issue, which image below best describes your experience?

(a) A ‘shootout at the OK Corral because some members want to win at all costs; or
(b) A positive experience of Christians conferencing together to discern the will of God?

(a) A meeting where the lid is kept tightly tied down on creative options that have not been thought of first by a vocal leader; or
(b) A space where all feelings, hopes and ideas are encouraged to come forward?

(a) A discussion dominated by a few articulate, domineering people; or
(b) A meeting where all voices are empowered, listened to and respected?

What happened at the time?

Perhaps a reasonable solution was offered to resolve a matter. Yet someone blocked its consideration with a passionate battle cry of “not in my church!” Then the meeting ground to a halt.

A crucial issue is addressed. However its discovered that the final decision was made in the parking lot after the official meeting ended.

Situations like these, which undermine true community, highlight unhealthy patterns in religious organisations.  Have you experienced that it’s not what we decide but how that makes the difference?

Churches are experiencing growing incivility as members engage with each other around matters about which they have very strong feelings. So we see people shout at each other, keep information secret, overgeneralize, and argue for their ‘side.’ Frequently it seems that there is little or no concern for the perspectives or feelings of others. Therefore churches lose valuable time and resources because of pervasive conflict. Is this your experience?

What is happening to us?

Sadly, people have become accustomed to this kind of behavior. So they leave it unchallenged even while knowing, deep down, that it isn’t right. They know that a “winner take all” mindset and the subversive tactics that make it possible are wrong. Yet they tolerate it by their silence. It’s time for the church to stand up and challenge this prevailing culture.

Trust in society, and in the church, is in short supply. So is discernment. The polarized atmosphere of many church meetings has led to a breakdown of trust and to people disengaging from the life and mission of the church. Therefore younger generations shy away from leadership. Older members bear emotional scars.

Let’s be clear. The prevailing meeting rules that are used in many churches and community groups actually foster disharmony and encourage negative outcomes. What is this adversarial style that is causing so much pain and harm? It is known as “Parliamentary Procedures” or simply: “Robert’s Rules of Order.” It was actually intended to help people complete an agenda in an orderly fashion. How’s it working for you?

How Robert’s Rules of Order work

In a parliamentary process of decision-making, primacy is given to succinct reason and logical argument, which validates a conclusion. Many times we hear it said with disdain in church meetings “Oh, I wish he would just get to the point!” It is as though emotion, story, reason, and experience have nothing to offer in the search for wisdom and meaning. How far this is from the truth! In fact, emotion, story, experience, and reason have moved to the very center of how people find and understand true insight.

Not only does Robert’s Rules create “winners” and “losers,” it also ignores spiritual ways of developing insight and making decisions as disciples of Jesus Christ. This process cares little about supporting the values for which the church says that it stands. For example being humble, gentle, and patient or bearing with each other in love.

The alternative

Fortunately, there is an alternative way of reaching a decision that is theologically, socially, culturally, and relationally more appropriate today. It has its roots in Scripture. Also it is engaging and easily understood.

Clues to this alternative approach come from multicultural communities. They make decisions through processes that are very different to a parliamentary process. Careful conversations take place before action is decided. Options are wisely considered.

Also the increased participation of women and young adults in the leadership of the church has led to a significant number of people wanting a more collaborative rather than combative or adversarial way of making decisions. They recognize that a divided community eventually falls.

The case for using a fresh approach for making decisions is getting urgent because:

  • 95 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “People on opposite sides of an issue demonize each other so severely that finding common ground seems impossible.”
  • 75 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that we should give moderate voices more emphasis and “stop letting the people on the extreme ends of the issues dominate the discussion on important issues.” (Research released at the Q Conference)

A consensus-building approach can assist a congregation or organization to discern the will of God for its life. It does so in ways that are inclusive and consistent with Christian values by:

  • creating a respectful environment where people are able to name what is important for them
  • assisting everyone to have a full understanding of the issues and the implications of their decisions
  • collaborating to generate better options
  • helping participants come to a place where they can accept the views of the majority even if they are not their first choice
  • allowing people to know that they have been heard and taken seriously.

In short, this new process provides a credible Christian witness in the world even when considering complex issues.

The way forward

We believe that church leaders want a new way of making decisions. A way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative, builds a sense of real community, and uses time wisely. However, what is lacking is a step-by-step guide and training that assists leaders to articulate their experience and vision.

Leaders need to know:

  • how to prepare for an alternative way of decision making
  • the meeting procedures and tools to can use to build consensus
  • how to make decisions they can implement

We step into that void with a process that has three distinct phases:

  1. Information Phase
    2. Deliberation/Consideration Phase
    3. Decision Phase.

Through various methods, including small groups, these phases create spaces where listening, creativity, respect, vulnerability, and collaboration are fostered and expressed. You can read more in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Robert’s Rules tend to be more condensed and focused on the decision phase. It gets confusing when used to generate fresh ideas.

Christians deserve a new way of making decisions in their congregation and throughout the church’s decision-making systems. They yearn for a way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative and strengthens community. Many churches around the world have changed their business procedures away from the parliamentary style because of the damage that it was doing to their life. They have developed processes that create a healthy culture that is consistent with Christian values.

Can we do anything less? Please comment on this post with stories, good and bad, from your church experience about how important decisions get made. Do you follow parliamentary rules?  Or have you switched to a different process when considering significant strategy, changes or opportunities?

Enough! It’s time to show some courage.

Where are the leaders who are ready to show some courage? Where are those who will risk losing everything for the sake of the reign of God?

People are tired of the fighting

I talk with a lot of people from around the world. Many come from churches where there are major disputes. Most Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive, disrespectful way in which debates happen. So, they want leaders who will find a way to resolve problems in the church without trying to control and remove their opponents.

Framing debates as “yes” or “no”; “left” or “right”; “liberal” or “conservative” is not helping. Forcing people to argue from the extremes is proving to be ineffective in resolving conflict. Yet people in many churches seem to be rewarded for being warriors for their extreme position. However this is alienating for people inside and outside the church.

People are looking for leaders who have courage. The church needs people who have the courage to take the risk of not fighting! People in the pews are tired of the paralysis that afflicts their church when disagreements go on and on.

What does courage look like?

Courage is being prepared to

  • give up my desire to control others
  • value relationships over power
  • trust that God knows best and so be open to change
  • believe that God desires the unity of his family
  • acknowledge that I have made God in my own image when God hates all the same people that I do
  • do unto others as I would have them do to me
  • love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me

Please add to this list from your own heart. What is hard for you to do in support of fostering a faithful, loving, quality Christian community?

Seek relationships instead of control

The only way to get past the paralysis that comes from hyper partisanship is by seeing the other person as a fellow human being.

There are many examples of where constructive and life giving options have been generated as people stop seeking control and work on the relationship. Perhaps the most powerful and common example is in divorces and setting up parenting plans. When a couple have a toxic relationship it harms the children; makes them bitter for longer; it is destructive and costly; makes later adaptations to the plan difficult;  and limits the number of options. As couples focus on the children and take time to understand the needs of the other person, they generate better solutions that are easier to live with.

It’s the same for disputes in the wider society and the church. Of course it is not easy for people to just switch off their desire for control – that’s why mediators are needed. It isn’t easy for some Christians to stop wanting to demonise their opponents and to get their way -that’s why facilitators are needed. Taking up the alternative of showing respect, de-escalating the tension and looking for alternative solutions does not come easy.

Seek relationships over control. You don’t have to change your mind on the issues in dispute. But you should change your attitude to the other person and the issue.

Will people seek relationships over control?

I like to think that the Holy Spirit will make it possible! But faith is an act of will, as much as it is a gift of grace. People have to choose to be obedient to Christ.

God has created a community through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are incorporated into that community through trusting (faith) in what God has done in Jesus. Our responsibility as disciples is to live in this community that gathers around Christ. This community is our primary identity. It is God’s will that we be one for the sake of the witness of Christ in the world.

When we are convinced that the quality of our discipleship as Christians is more important to God than our opinions on theological and ethical issues then we will choose relationships over control. The early observers of Christians did not say “Look at those Christians – see how they agree with one another.” Rather it was said “Look at those Christians – see how they love one another.”

People will seek relationships over control when they have the courage to believe the Gospel that we are one in Jesus Christ. However, this unity is not achieved by what we do, but by what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Does it happen in real life?

It is somewhat sad, but perhaps encouraging, that most of the examples of success come from outside the church. It is encouraging because if fighting spouses, political enemies, and hostile opponents on moral issues in society can do it then Christians should find it easier.

People move from control to relationships when they:

  • know that the present way of working is destructive
  • have a hope that things can work better
  • have a unifying principle, eg being citizens, family, fellow believers, etc
  • show courage by giving up power
  • habit disrupting rules are put in place
  • firm structures are put in place
  • thoughtful questions are offered

Mark Gerzon in The Reunited States of America, offers numerous examples of community organisations that are helping people to make the move from hyper partisan and aggressive approaches to healthy and respectful discussions. I recommend that you buy the book.

You can also look up some previous posts on this site for how change can happen, for example here. Or find examples of where and how change has happened in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Be of good courage, keep the faith, hold strong to the calling that you have in Jesus Christ.

Finding a creative solution in conflict

 

A creative solution to conflict is rarely found by living at the extremes. Usually the solution to a conflict needs the center – the “middle voices”. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein.

The “middle voices” – a creative center

Mark Gerzon in his book The Reunited States of America notes, at p. 19, that the largest political cohort in the US is neither Republican or Democrat. Rather it is Independents, and those who refuse to vote, that make up the largest groups.

In churches it is often the same situation. Whenever an issue becomes so contested that the extreme voices dominate the conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking that they form the majority views in the church. However that is rarely the case. Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.

It is among these “middle voices” that it is possible to find a creative way through a conflict. The non partisan members of a church are the key to a deeper insight into how to respond to a conflict.

Conflict – what keeps it going?

It is only natural that we want to have our views confirmed. Our opinions and values are key elements in how we define ourselves. For people of faith our convictions can carry the extra weight of being associated with what God wants. If we sincerely believe that something is the will of God then we will hold to it very dearly. The first thing that keeps a conflict going is that to change may mean changing our understanding of ourselves and God. That can be very hard to do!

Validating our identity and faith by having our views reinforced by others is a comforting place to be. “Confirmation bias” is seeking and valuing information that confirms our opinions and reinforces our preconceived ideas, while avoiding and dismissing information that challenges us.

Conflict often keeps going because people only listen to like minded people. This consolidates the rightness of their point of view. It hardens their resistance to receiving, and taking seriously, alternative views.

Conflict – what can diffuse it?

Gerzon (p.29) tells the story of people going on a 30 media fast. During the fast they stop listening to, and reading, their normal diet of news. They stay away from the information that confirms their bias. Instead they pay attention to the alternative news sources that they usually reject because they speak the “enemy’s” point of view.

He is offering advice for people wrestling with the problem of being hyper partisan around politics. But could Christians in conflict benefit from a 30 day media fast? What would it be like to attend carefully, respectfully to the people who have the opposite view to you on critical issues in the life of the church? The issues are many that have the potential to divide Christians around the world: abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQI ordination or marriage; what evangelism means; justice advocacy; etc.

This is not an encouragement to get educated, but to get empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another without having to make them your own. Empathy is about trying to understand the other person and their point of view – to walk in their shoes for a moment.

Conflict – be part of the problem or the solution

If you are in conflict with people then you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. One way to contribute to resolving conflict is to genuinely understand the people who think differently to you.

  • Stop listening only to those who think like you
  • Listen to the “other side” – not to critique them but to understand
  • Try to discover the grey parts of an issue and not just the black and white
  • Respectfully express in your own words what the other side is saying
  • Talk to people who are not at the extremes – why are they in the middle?

Conflict continues because we don’t value the other person or their point of view. Respect one another. Show respect by listening to those who have a different perspective. As this listening happens more people will understand that issues can be complex and solutions are not so simple. When this insight comes then more people will move from the extremes to the middle. In the realistic middle the issues are properly understood and the solutions can be found.

Relationships Undermined by Twitter

Australian politician Ed Husic has signed off Twitter because it is “an accelerant for hyper-partisanship”. Relationships are undermined when you only speak to people in bursts of 140 characters. The Twitter mindset is anathema to consensus building. Can Christians value relationships more than they value cultural practices like Twitter?

Thinking about Twitter, reflect on what practices work against the  relationships that Christ wants us to have with one another.

What does Twitter achieve?

1.  It saves time

Twitter is made for purpose in a world that is information rich and time poor. Sharing information in short, sharp bursts takes very little time to prepare or to take in. With only 140 characters to work with Twittees (is that the word?) can push out information fast. Even a slow reader can take less than a minute to read a Twitter post.

2.  Talking is more important than listening and relationships

A whole new collection of relationships are possible with the ability to deliver and receive information so quickly . Twitter users don’t need to actually know who is at the other end of the “relationship”. The important thing is to get out ones own message. Some people have millions of Twitter followers. Somehow I don’t think they are reading all those replies to their tweets.

3.  Oversimplifies issues

I don’t know too may great ideas that can be conveyed in 140 or less characters. Twitter encourages a lack of subtlety and attention to detail. Hyperbole thrives in the world of sharp and strongly worded tweets.

4.  Encourages aggression and divisiveness

Of course many Twitter users are respectful of their audience and take care not to offend. Yet there are some very well known examples of Twitter users who do not care the least for how readers will experience their tweet. In fact it is the more aggressive and confrontational tweets that get noticed and get responses.

Relationships need the opposite of Twitter

1.  They take the time that is needed

2.  The opinions of others are valued more highly than ones own views

3.  People in relationships understand that issues are complicated

4.  Quality relationships scale down tension and value collaboration

Break with the culture – support relationships

When Ed Husic indicated that he was withdrawing from Twitter people called to ask if he was OK. He was told how foolish he was in withdrawing from such an important tool of communication. To his credit Mr Husic said that the down side of Twitter was worse than any upside. Describing Twitter as a “bully pulpit” and a medium that fuels “outrage and argument” he quit.

Can Christians who value relationships within the family of Jesus be as brave as Mr Husic? Can we abandon the dominant practices of our culture when they do not serve to build up the body of Christ. Or do we fret that if we do not use the ways of the world then we will not get our message out?

I am not talking about Twitter here. There are many culturally accepted practices in the church that hold too many Christians in their thrall. They do so even when they oppose Christian values and character. Yet many Christians continue with them because they think they will lose influence, power and connections if they abandon them.

Far too many Christians embrace the aggressive practices of contemporary politics. They belittle, attack, lie and manipulate because that is the way to get things done. The way that the world works has infected the church.

Do you have the courage to break with the culture? If you understand that taking a political approach to church problems is at odds with the gospel – are you brave enough to leave that approach behind? If you do then people will wonder if you are OK. Some will say that you are a fool. Others will assure you that your enemies will step in and fill  the vacuum that you have left behind.

Resurrection requires a death. New life comes after an ending. Christ’s hope, and the discipleship to which we are called, needs us to take up a cross. The cross that the church needs to take up now is the abandonment of the way in which the world deals with difference and to carry – in risk and suffering – the cross of Christ’s way.