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Whenever you’re facing a contentious issue, it's important to learn about and understand the issue. In a lot of our churches, that learning happens through preaching, teaching, Bible studies, and committees reports. 

But one challenge we often face in contentious issues is that the learning is uneven. Maybe the pastor, or council, or sub-committee has debated the issue and prayerfully discerned at length, but the congregation hasn’t had a chance to wrestle on their own. And that makes sense. It is not as if everyone needs to know everything about every decision. 

You Need Trust, Not Just Right Answers to Lead

But with big issues, issues where we expect there could be division or pain, it’s usually a good idea to engage the congregation MORE than you normally would. That’s because when you share the learning, and sometimes even some of the discerning, you build trust with your people; you prove you’re taking this issue (and them) seriously. And the truth is, if it is a contentious or divisive issue, you as leaders are going to need more than just right answers; you’re going to need the trust of your people if you want to lead them into the future. 

Build Trust with Listening Circle Small Groups

The trust-building practice of learning that we encourage in Next Steps is listening-circle learning groups. Listening circles are basically a small group structure, led by a trained facilitator, using a script. And the script and structure are designed to get people leaning into grace and truth as they talk about issues that they might otherwise be reluctant to name or deal with. So, with human sexuality issues for instance, we’ll often ask a church to convene groups that read one chapter at a time of the Synodical Human Sexuality Report and then invite listening circles to engage with what they’re reading: What do they affirm about that chapter? What are they concerned about? What questions do they have? The goal with the listening circle is to create a safe yet constructive environment where folks can stop talking past each other and try to listen to each other as they wrestle with big issues. The other benefit of the listening circles is that they often give a council a really good sense of where their people are at–what are the pastoral, theological, biblical concerns that are going to require good council leadership to address in order to move forward. 

Learn More

To find out more about how Next Steps could help your church learn about and begin to discuss contentious issues, check us out at

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