Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Pastors - It's Time for the Talk

I don't like conflict. I don't think anybody becomes a pastor because they look forward to conflict. Yet if we are going to lead - and an effective pastor must lead - conflict is inevitable. One mark of a leader is how we handle the conflict that arises.

Friends, we are in the midst of conflict over the future of the Church. The reality is that 99.9% of our churches are also in conflict. I don't mean to say every church is in crisis. The amount of conflict is different in different places. In one place it could be a true crisis with a 50/50 split about staying or leaving in the denomination. In another it could be just one or two voices speaking in one direction - or even just our own internal conflicts over leaving a denomination we love or an impending end or change to relationships. Wherever the church you serve is, the reality is that conflict has arrived.

As peacemakers, our temptation is to avoid the conflict. We may do that by delaying conversation about it ("We'll talk about it after General Conference makes a decision"). We may deny it ("I think everyone in our church pretty much feels the same way.") We may relocated it ("The real problem is those other people.") None of those approaches demonstrate leadership. If we are going to lead our congregations it's time to have the talk. Delaying and denying the obvious serves no purpose.

I've had the talk in two churches - one after the 2019 General Conference and now a second after a July 1 appointment change. The first church is relatively young and a reconciling congregation. The second is an established "big steeple" church that is more theologically diverse. For what it's worth, here are some principles that have been helpful for me.

Name the Reality

I'm convinced that we all agree on 90% of the same "stuff." You can name that. It is also important to name that we don't all believe exactly the same. I introduced this most recently by telling the congregation that I gathered together in the sanctuary all of us who believe exactly the same things in theology and politics. Then I showed them a picture of our empty sanctuary. Everyone on both sides of the division laughed because we all recognize that where two or three are gathered there will be differences of opinion. Naming the reality disarms some of the anxiety that your congregation is undoubtedly experiencing.

Name Where You Are

Everybody knows you have an opinion. You may have hidden it well, but they still know that you have it. If they are not certain of your opinion then you can be sure they are guessing at it. Why not end the uncertainty and just say where you are? You might say something like "If you listen to me preach long enough your bound to disagree with me on something. This may be one of those times. For many reasons, this is what I believe..." You might also include a number of beliefs that you know everyone shares as a reminder of what holds us in together. Name where you are but only if...

Give Permission for People to Believe Differently

I'm convinced that people will give us permission to believe differently than they do as long as we give them permission to believe differently than we do. Don't say, "At this church we all believe...." If some don't believe that way you have excluded them. If everyone does feel that way then it probably doesn't need to be said. You might instead say, "Here's where I am. I know that you may not be in the same place. Regardless of what you believe about this or any other subject I am glad we have been able to serve God together and I am grateful for the opportunity to be your pastor."

Prepare the Congregation for What's Next

It's hard to prepare for what's next when we don't know for sure what is next. You can still do some preparation. For example, we do know that something will happen at General Conference. Even if nothing passes it has become clear that we will not continue to live in the same denomination as we have before. You can say that. You could also say, "The plan getting the most attention right now is the Protocol. If it passes, then our annual conference will most likely vote to.... If we want to stay with the other churches in our conference we don't need to do anything. [Most churches will stay in the same conference and will never need to vote. That knowledge alone could deescalate some of the anxiety people feel]. If you think we should do something different then we would have until  the end of 2024 to take a vote. So we will have plenty of time to decide what we need to do." [We get more anxious when we have to make a quick decision].

Give Permission to Grieve

This is hard for all of us. We all will lose something. Change really is hard. It is not helpful to pretend that this is not true.

Give a Word of Hope

John Wesley's dying words were, "Best of all, God is with us." That hasn't changed. We are still called to be Christ's witnesses in the world. Our mission is the same and our God is the same. That's Good News, and nothing that happens in the denomination can make that change!


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