As news and questions around the outcome of the 2019 General Conference spread, United Methodists continue to experience a myriad of emotions — individually and as congregations.
The debate and voting at the special session demonstrated United Methodists’ views on ministry by, with and to LGBTQ people and the role of church church discipline cover a wide spectrum. Some feel comfortable and safe discussing the subjects with other congregants, while others are afraid of bringing them up for fear of sowing discord. Even when members disagree strongly, no one wants to see their congregation become a battlefield. Most agree the local church should be a place of healing and reconciliation rather than a powder keg.
“When I go back to my local church the first thing I’ll tell them is ‘BREATHE. BREATHE. Slow down and let’s find ways to prayerfully respond that serve the mission of the church and care for all our people,” said the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional officer for the denomination’s Connectional Table on Feb. 27.
“Let’s be in relationship with people by understanding, listening and attending to how they are feeling,” she continued.
So, how can congregants who disagree internally prepare to continue to serve in ministry together and offer Christian love to all?
Name the disagreement
Louisiana Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey presided over the Feb. 26 session of General Conference. As the day came to a close, Harvey said, “A lot people will leave here hurt, harmed, disappointed. I think all of us have felt those emotions, sometimes all at the same time. Yet we still leave as the Body of Christ, broken people called to serve a broken people. Maybe that connects us in a different way to the people we serve.”
It is vital for churches to initiate conversations and activities to work through members’ disagreements around the decisions of General Conference as well as church teachings and law that have not changed. Ignoring pain, bitterness or anxiety will not make it go away. Acknowledge that some members are hurting and need reassurance that they will continue to be loved and respected within the congregation. Help those who are happy with the outcome of General Conference to practice humility. Urge all to extend kindness and compassion to each other.
Find the center
The Rev. W. Craig Gilliam is a nationally recognized consultant specializing in mediation and conflict transformation in churches. He says congregational leaders need to develop a “container” for dialogue that is direct and honest about the intention of the conversation, finds a “center” set of values to agree on and defines clear rules for the discussion. Sharing stories of the life of the church or having members talk about what drew them to the congregation can help.
Gilliam also recommends using John Wesley’s General Rules to frame how members engage each other.
- Do no harm. Sometimes people say or do what they think is right without regard to how it affects others. Recognize the potential for unintended harm and approach the conversation with extra intentionality.
- Do good. Ask the question, “Is what I’m about to say or do really coming from a good place and seeking the good of others?” If the answer is “no,” what needs to change?
- Stay in love with God. One way Christians stay in love with God is by sharing the love of God with others through the means of grace. This final rule directs Christians away from their individual concerns to a focus on their shared relationship as God’s children.
Remember who you are
“Remind the local church of its identity,” says the Rev. Junius Dotson, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries. “We are a welcoming place, we practice radical hospitality and we are a church that cares about people. We don’t have to be of one mind and agree on every single issue in order to maintain our fundamental commitment to making disciples of Jesus Christ.”
The Rev. Scott Hughes, director of adult discipleship at Discipleship Ministries, has adapted his Courageous Conversations materials into an outline for conversations specifically responding to General Conference. In Part One, churches engage in conversation that sets ground rules and allows everyone to express their feelings and anxieties in a non-judgmental environment. Part Two challenges participants to think critically about how God wants them to respond to the latest developments in the denomination and how they will continue to live out their mission as a church. As they ask these questions, churches might draw ideas from “The Movement Continues” resources online.
Know the purpose
The Rev. Stephanie Anna Hixon, executive director of JustPeace, says the purpose of difficult conversations is not to change one or more groups’ minds or even to resolve the conflict. The goal should be for all participants to get to know and understand one another more deeply. It means addressing one’s own perspective, assumptions and prejudices honestly while learning about those of others in a safe and loving environment.
“A community can be steeped in all the best conflict resolution practices and yet not engage well because of so many other factors including how persons perceive and engage with one another,” says Hixon.
Among the other practices church leaders might use to ease difficult conversations are traditional church rituals. Worship designer Marcia McFee includes liturgies for holding difficult conversations in her Table Talks series.
“I developed resources for holding difficult conversations during Communion or love feasts, but these liturgies can be adapted for other occasions as well, such as a potluck or a small group setting. I focus on moments throughout Jesus’ ministry where he sits down to eat with people from different backgrounds and who were not often of the same mind, yet Jesus called them all to his table.
“How do we stay at the table together even as we continue to disagree?” asks McFee.
Engaging in a shared mission or outreach project can also help a church come together and sometimes make conversation easier. Gilliam recognizes volunteering together as a way of letting oneself go in order to do selfless acts for others. As church members work together in a common effort, they remember the things that hold them together.
Conversations are a good first step toward healing, but congregations also need activities that reinforce healthy relationships. Regular communal practices are vital. Leaders might encourage participants in the conversations to form new small groups that meet regularly to support and pray for one another. Leaders should use worship and fellowship activities to reinforce shared values and commitments. Churches that are inwardly caring and affirming will be in the best position to make new disciples by showing this same kind of love to those outside their walls.
— Philip Brooks is a writer and content developer with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.
The United Methodist Church has many resources to help address conflict and broach difficult topics within congregations:
- Courageous Conversations (Discipleship Ministries) has resources on dialogue for churches, small groups, children and older adults.
- JustPeaceCenter for Mediation and Conflict Transformation assists United Methodists to engage conflict constructively in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation, resource preservation and community restoration.
- Living as a person of peace in a broken world (United Methodist Communications) by Joe Iovino shares insights from the Rev. Craig Gilliam for Christians dealing with polarization and brokenness within their churches and circles of family and friends.
- Rituals for Difficult Conversations by Marcia McFee provides liturgies and guidelines for conversation in the context of communion or a love feast.