Background: Pastor Church Resources has launched Challenging Conversations: Next Steps Discernment, a process intended to help you hold grace and truth as you discern and decide what Synod’s decisions mean for you or your church.
Winners and Losers?
I often argue vigorously against the assumption that church conflicts can only be resolved by determining a group of “winners” and a group of “losers.” Often, when people start talking about “winners” and “losers”, I find that they do so prematurely. They’ve shut off their capacity for creativity; they’re not listening to understand others; they’ve begun to see those they disagree with as enemies. “Winner” and “loser” language is typically a fruit of despair or fear, fed more by abiding in the social media algorithm than abiding in Christ.
But as I talk with church leaders and pastors about life after Synod, I’m hearing the language of “winners” and “losers” a lot. So-called “third-way” or “win-win” solutions seem elusive.
And while I maintain hope and continue to pray that the unity of Christ’s church broadly (as a denomination) and narrowly (within congregations) will be preserved, the path toward keeping that unity is not yet obviously clear.
A Reason to Slow Down
Whenever I consult with a church that has begun talking in terms of “winners” and “losers” I ask them to slow down and encourage them to reconnect with God and with each other. When we’re anxious (“win” and “lose” language is as much a fruit of anxiety as of despair or fear), we often neglect some of Christ’s most basic commands. Thus, we need to slow down to reorient to those basics. At a minimum, in a season of anxiety, a church is wise to focus on the following:
“Abide in Christ” through spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and study. There is no fruit except by remaining in the Vine.
Love one another by listening to understand. Don’t just listen to argue.
Love one another by exercising your decision-making power in Christlike ways.
What If There Is No Way?
But what if God does not, in our time, reveal a way that we all agree upon to hold us together?
At the conclusion of a discernment process, it is possible that the council will make a decision that some people perceive as a “win” and others perceive as a “loss.”
That’s where following a process like Next Steps Discernment can still help. You see, if you’ve followed a process like Next Steps, those “losers” will have had clear invitations to communicate their concerns and council will have had clear opportunities to evaluate and accommodate those concerns. In other words, the “loser’s” concerns will have been honored or, at least, taken seriously.
Meanwhile, the “winners” (if they were listening) will have a much clearer sense of their decision’s potential hazards, blind spots, weak points, or downsides. The council is then in a better position to pay attention to those blind spots and avoid those hazards as it lives into its decision. In other words, the “winners” will be wiser.
I Become the Worst Caricature You Fear I Will Be
One of my worst fears is that our denomination and many of our churches will split into a “progressive wing” and a “traditional wing,” each representing the worst and unrestrained impulses their “opponents” fear.
I fear a “progressive wing" that peddles cheap grace and asks nothing of us as Christians, that blows with the winds of culture, explains away every unpopular teaching, and resembles a social club more than a community of those who have taken up their cross to follow Jesus.
I fear a "traditional wing" that retreats into a holy huddle marked more by fear and nostalgia than faith and hope, that reduces the mission of God to confessional compliance, that is more ready to tell me what God’s love can’t look like than show me what God’s love does look like.
And maybe behind both of these fears is my sense that should either “win,” it would not take long before they realized I wasn’t enough like them and they kicked me out, too.
What if the Third Way Is Not a Solution but a Process?
Partly because of my fear, but more so because of my faith, I helped design Next Steps Discernment to see if we could, in the words of Paul, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I don’t know if it is realistic to make every effort, but I hope that this can be a season to make an effort.
Even if God does not reveal an agreed-upon way that keeps us all together, perhaps the Spirit will work anyway. Perhaps, through our process of abiding, listening, and loving one another, the Spirit might restrain our worst impulses and keep us connected a little longer to parts of the body Paul dared to insist we needed.
This denomination, not just one part of it, but the whole, has introduced me to a God who is bigger, more faithful, and more interesting than any I could have imagined on my own or could have been conceived in just the small communities I came from. To me, she’s worth the effort.
If you’d like to learn more about how Next Steps can help your church...
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Read answers to frequently asked questions, by visiting our FAQ section.
If you have other questions, please email us at [email protected].