At your church, maybe the learning is mostly done, maybe there isn’t much discernment or decision-making left. Maybe the only thing for you to do is simply inform your people of what has been decided and begin to try to live together with the decision.
In other words, what’s left is announcing a decision to the church and doing so in a way that (you hope) helps people stay engaged and connected, even if they have some concerns or misgivings about what was decided.
Now, if the decision has been made by a broader assembly, like Synod, and especially if you have your own misgivings about that decision, the temptation at announcement time can be to despair and/or disparage. The decision may feel like it is something that is being imposed on your community.
Meanwhile, if the decision is one made by your council, the temptation can be to stand squarely in the prophetic box. You’re delivering the truth. People can take it or leave it. This is God’s will.
And I get it. You or someone else did your best to discern God’s will. Your council or classis or Synod has the authority to make decisions that impact your church. But exercising authority does not mean you must be authoritarian. What I mean is, it’s entirely possible to be pastoral and gracious even as you announce big decisions.
Curious and Authoritative
The way Next Steps encourages this is through listening circles. Instead of saying, “Here’s the decision; love it or leave it,” we suggest that you share the decision in the form of a letter. The letter briefly explains the decision and what it means. And then, here’s the key: when you share the letter with your congregation, you also invite them to participate in a listening circle. This one-off small group is a place where 6-7 members can sit around literally in a circle, and take turns giving feedback to what they read in the letter: What do they affirm? What are they concerned about? What’s the hardest thing for them? What questions do they have?
One of the most important questions is this one: What do you need to stay engaged in our church? It’s an especially important question for those who inevitably feel like losers of the decision. Apart from completely changing or undermining the decision, is there anything the church could do or say to help you stay engaged?
Not Every Disagreement Requires Separation
The critical reason we ask this question is that not every disagreement means that we separate. Sometimes it does. But sometimes what a dissenter needs in order to stay engaged in the church is something the church is happy to provide. For the human sexuality-type discussions, maybe a dissenter says, “I’m uneasy with this traditional position; I’m afraid you’re just using it to draw a line and say those are the bad people and these are the good people. And I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. I fear the lines are going to get tighter and tighter. But if I knew our church was really committed to loving and enfolding and discipling LGBT folks, I could stick around.” I think most CRC councils would say, “Oh yeah, we’d happily do that. This isn’t about bright lines of good and bad people, this is about pastoral care and discipleship.”
Or someone you says, “I’m not as certain as the people making the decision seem to be. Is it okay for me to stick around even if I’m not as sure about this issue? Can I stay if I have questions or misgivings?” And again, I think most CRC councils would say, “Absolutely. 100% certainty is not a prerequisite for membership in the body of Christ.”
Don’t Assume, Ask
And that’s it. When you ask, “What do you need to stay engaged?” you don’t have to guess how people will respond or what they need. You begin to get a clearer picture of what it might take to live now together despite this possible disagreement. Of course, if someone asks for something the council or denomination can’t or won’t provide, at least you can be honest about that and now leadership knows what’s at stake.
These listening circles can become places where people feel heard and cared for. It’s a small thing, really, but what it says to the congregation is that we, as a council, have a direction we’re heading, but we want to go there with you.
To learn more about how Next Steps can help your leadership announce or share your church’s position on a contentious issue and then begin to live well together, check us out at crcna.org/NextSteps.