all opinions
Opinions posts

Practicing compassion in churchwide disagreements

1.30. 2017 Written By: John Paul Lederach 2,287 Times read

This piece grew out of a request for counsel from Mountain States Mennonite Conference as they considered the request to ordain a pastor in a same-sex relationship. On Dec. 11, Theda Good was ordained at First Mennonite Church in Denver. John Paul Lederach is professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) and an international peace practitioner. Photo by Larry Bartel, Hesston College. 

Your questions [from the MSMC Ministerial Council] have been bumping around in my heart and head for the past few days, and have generated a fair number of reflections and further questions.

In the wider church, and in and across our country, we seem caught in divisive turmoil that has left us emotionally frayed and without a doubt frustrated no matter which side we may fall on.

Unfortunately, these divisive challenges tend to express themselves in ways that would be hard to describe as loving kindness. Rather they track toward defensiveness, blame, escalating polarization, and at times painful dehumanization, and this is experienced on all sides.

Your questions hold a challenging paradox: The need to make a decision knowing that there is no perfect answer that will attend to the deep feelings on all sides of this issue while showing respect and honor. The reason this becomes such a challenge emerges from the concern and fears that the decision will precipitate further separation and mostly likely, in and of itself, will be experienced as a lack of respect for heartfelt belief and practice on one side or another.

Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe or a perfect decision on matters of deep difference around cherished belief. However, there may be ways to frame, or perhaps re-frame the ideas about respect and honor in terms of how ‘we’ envision and hold our very notion of ‘we,’ which I think is the core dynamic at play. Here I cannot help but offer a few observations.

Observation 1: Blessing in Separation

Our Anabaptist tradition did not equip us with constructive rituals of separation. This may be also true for wider Christianity, but we seem to have had a genius for separating over divergent belief while carrying the trauma of harm we have felt and inflicted as we sought to stay true and pure. This probably constitutes a trans-generational trauma that plays itself out in different ways across our wider church body and in our individual journeys.

We simply have not developed an ethos of living healthily alongside embodied difference.

A constructive ritual of separation resides in the kind of love that blesses even those who wish you harm, and harder yet, blesses those from your own church family with whom you disagree. These latter tend to be deeper wounds, the ones Zechariah referred to as “wounds suffered in the house of a friend.” We might look to Jacob and Esau, both in the ways they found the face of God in the other they feared and even in their choosing to follow different paths.

This is our challenge: To not lose sight of our humanity wherein the very image of God resides. While painful, a ritual of separation as blessing might suggest a single quality: May the blessed love of God touch your life, shine through you in all you do and with all you meet. Go and be true to the quality of love God has expressed in your life.

Observation 2: The unintended tyranny of process

I have spent a vocational lifetime trying to develop, design, and facilitate processes for people to find their way through deep division and pain. In this I have found two things. First, we never get a perfect process, there is always more to learn, things we could have done better and things we simply do not control. I think this is particularly true when whole body polity brings together people of deep faith and genuine concern who find they cannot agree on matters they consider fundamental to their faith.

Second, commitment to process must also acquire the wisdom to recognize when more talk will only replicate and potentially embitter the divisions it was designed to ameliorate. Tyranny is a hard word. It essentially means to dominate. We feel trapped by the lack of options. When commitment to process works well, it helps offer clarity of participation, deepening of understanding, potential ways forward, and increased respect for those participating.

When dealing with differences around deep belief and cultural patterns, we find that these rarely lend themselves to a single consensus. At the same time, growth and direction of lived faith requires us to take steps.

Tyranny of process is often experienced as delaying a difficult decision that will not be fully embraced by all.

So we fall back to common pathways yet another time. We commission a new study, we establish another committee, we propose that we re-listen to what we have already heard, or we bring a new amendment that gets hung up in debate at the annual meeting. Signs that this has gone round enough emerge when the process serves primarily for people to defend more creatively their deeply held convictions, paralyzes the ability of leadership to make decisions and offer directions, and requires endless discussion at the expense of learning our way into practice and polity.

The weight of tyranny usually has subtle forms of fear-primarily around exclusion and feeling judged-though the greatest sign of process tyranny shows itself when the conversation no longer holds the promise of being meaningful to people, nourishes relationships or brings forward shared decisions. When we arrive at a place where commitment to process is experienced by most as unproductive, I think it wise to seek a shift of landscape and vision.

Observation 3: The “I have a dream” speech

Difficult decisions where beliefs are confronted subtly descend toward the need to defend positions. In Church circles, this seems to play out a bit like biblical verse tennis. The dynamics become very reactive and can easily lose sight of basic humanity and vision.

Instead, taking the advice of Edwin Friedman, people (leaders in particular) should be encouraged to openly share their I have a dream speech. An I have a dream speech in the context of your Council requires each of us to envision and articulate more openly how we would like our local congregation, our wider church, and our society to embody the love of God in our midst. It is not a speech built around what I believe in terms of doctrine and dogma, the citing of 10 verses that indicate my belief is correct, or the right church policy on any given issue. It asks you to imagine how the love of God will be embodied in our relationships.

One of the most tragic outcomes of tyrannical process emerges when leaders feel they cannot make their I have a dream speech because they must respect and facilitate process.

Making the speech does not mean a decision is made. The key is to create the environment where all of us are encouraged to engage in imagination and the shift toward proactive, inviting conversation that permits us to deepen respect and honor difference.

Observation 4: The deficit of compassion and the need to befriend

When process tyranny sets in, we need less formal process with highly charged events and pronouncements and we need smaller commitments that embrace friendship and recreate the promise of meaningful conversation.

This ties into practicing compassion with each other in a context where we essentially face deep differences.

I think we have a deficit of compassion expressed across the current divisions in our church where, quite frankly, we seem to emulate society-wide polarizations.

One suggestion for how to practice compassion: Give yourself the gift of finding one person with whom you disagree and commit to having coffee once every few months with each other for the rest of your life.

When I have suggested this in a few contexts I find that people are startled. The proposal simply points to the idea that the purpose of your coffee encounter is informal, not oriented toward convincing each other of your beliefs or a making a decision, and requires a caring and honest relationship. You commit to just be together, to have an everyday conversation, and to bear witness to your lives in friendship.

It’s simple enough, this idea that we can be friends and be different. We do this all the time in Mennonite Central Committee assignments in far off lands. We do it in Mennonite Disaster Service when we show up in places where people are suffering from lost homes due to floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. We do it on our college campuses. We just have not found a way to do it within our local church families and conferences.

We are better at outsourcing compassion than we are at practicing it at home. No formal council, church, or conference decisions or process replaces the need for compassion and friendship. But friendship may contribute to more meaningful large polity process and conversation. Our deficit of compassion requires us to find ways to reignite this simple verb: To befriend.

My wild, concluding, and likely not-so-helpful thoughts

  1. I think we should declare a moratorium on formal church and conference processes for a couple of decades on questions of same-sex relationships. I would suggest decommissions on all commissions on the issue for a while.
  2. At the same time, I think we should encourage local churches to proceed with conversation around difficult issues and decisions in the context of discernment where they have the proximity of face-to-face relationships. I suggest we as a wider church polity agree to respect local congregational discernment for the coming two decades. Specifically, if a local congregation has found that an individual in a same-sex relationship displays the gifts, character and responsibility to be ordained, let her be ordained. If another congregation in another location does not find this to be true for leaders within their congregation, let them proceed on the basis of their best discernment as they ordain leaders. We entrust those decisions for the next 20 years to those closest to the people and relationships.
  3. I think we should encourage churches and individuals to develop a vow of friendship with someone who is different and does not agree with us, and to commit to regular informal conversation that attends to being with and alongside each other for the purpose of friendship and not for the purpose of debating and arguing. Let us take a few decades to practice compassion and friendship. Maybe we can learn our way into the ethos of being alongside embodied difference marked by a quality of care and compassion.
  4. I think wider gatherings of the church should be marked with dozens of I have a dream speeches, more coffee and tea breaks and rare processes of seeking wide consensus on polity.
  5. Finally, I think we should take the word respect back to its latin root. Specere: a term that means to look and watch, as in spectator. Re-specere, or respect, suggests we commit to looking and re-looking again, something that may happen better in the vow of friendship. I think we honor God when we seek and hold relationships that are both honest and marked by unconditional love, even and most importantly when we are different and disagree.

This “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.

Show/Hide Comments

To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments and comments don't appear until approved. Anonymous comments are not accepted. Writers must sign posts or log into Disqus with their first and last name. Read our full comment policy.