The month of May is typically set aside for First Lutheran celebrations; for graduates among us; for our Preschool at Springfest; our mothers on Mother’s Day; and our beloved war dead on Memorial Day. In May our choir sings their top 5 songs, our confirmands celebrate a year of instruction completed, and on May 24 we celebrate Pentecost (wear red!). In the wake of Easter, we live into abundant life in many ways.
It may be tempting, though, this May to ignore our celebrations and the many ways God unites us and instead dwell on how First shall respond to the question, “Is God leading us to permit same gender weddings at First Lutheran?” We must admit that although there are many opportunities for growth as we consider this question, the question itself is simply divisive. First Lutheran is of one mind on many things that matter a lot. We are not, however, in unanimous agreement about the same-gender wedding question. If we are not thoughtful and wise about how to voice our opinions, about when and how to decide the question, this question holds great potential to create real problems for a church that is otherwise thriving in its witness to the gospel.
Personally, I am far less concerned with the result of our community’s discernment than I am with how our church chooses to handle our disagreements. Our culture has taught us to be consumers. When we find ourselves wronged by a service provider, we drop them. When a restaurant gets our food to us too slow, we don’t return. When we have a bad consumer experience, we broadcast it so that everyone else knows, too.
Are we consumers of ‘Church’? Does God call us into Christian fellowship so that we enjoy a like-minded country club where we all vote the same ways, live within the same social class and are secured from being forced to think differently than we already do? Or is ‘Church’ a messy counter-cultural community where it’s safe to vote differently, be of all social classes and share a diversity of thought? Could ‘Church’ be safe because none of those things matter nearly as much as what unites us: the love and grace of Christ given to sinners, conservatives and liberals alike.
For a significant percentage of our membership, our congregation’s response will be the opposite of their personal feelings. I suppose an individual could choose to ignore all the ways we are made one in Christ and dwell, instead, on the fewer ways we lack unity. The result of this line of thinking could be a consumerized response: “I’m leaving for another church.” To that response I would ask, “Will you agree with that church about everything?” I have yet to hear of a church where everyone agrees on everything.
Another way to handle disagreement is to deny it exists. Just ignore it. Some may call this the passive/aggressive way of disagreeing. Ignore, let resentment and frustration build, ignore, let resentment and frustration build… repeat, and then repeat again… until uncontrollable emotion explodes.
A third option for how to handle disagreement within the church was presented to us by Bishop S. John Roth at our learning session April 19. He presented a handout including three points about “Disagreeing Well”.
- Fairness. I am disagreeing well when I can state the position of the person I am disputing accurately enough that the other person recognizes that position as genuinely his/her position.
- Intellectual integrity. I am disagreeing well when I can state the strongest, most compelling argument against my position. In other words, I am disagreeing well when I can recognize and acknowledge where my own position is most vulnerable and where a contrasting position makes valid points.
- Honest humility. I am disagreeing well when, after thinking through my position and expressing it with true conviction, I acknowledge that as a fallen, flawed human being I myself may be wrong.
As your Pastor, this is my homework for you as you consider whether God is leading us to permit same-gender weddings at First Lutheran. First, discern your own response to the question. Consider the voices of Scripture, tradition and your own experiences. What does your brain think? What does your heart feel? What is God saying to you? Instead of simply considering your response amidst your political leanings, or your personal feelings, consider the question as a person of faith.
After discerning your own response, state the position of someone who would disagree with you. Be fair and assume the best of their intentions. Open your heart to the idea that those who disagree with you are not simply selfish, wrong-headed or ignorant.
Then, state the strongest, most compelling argument against your position. Admit that the other position is possible if you weigh the merits of this other argument more heavily.
Finally, pray to God about the possibility of you being wrong. Listen to hear how God responds to you.
The congregation deserves thoughtful individual responses grounded in faith alone. Please take the time to walk through these steps so that we can all learn how to disagree well.
I have written my newsletter in two parts this month because I have two messages to share with the congregation. First and foremost: please don’t let the divisive nature of the question of whether God is leading us to permit same-gender weddings at First keep you from celebrating our Christian fellowship… in the short or long term. My second message has to do with explaining the Vision & Leadership Team’s unanimous decision to decide this question through a team vote rather than a congregational vote.
We did not come to this conclusion lightly. I have asked for advice from dozens of pastors, multiple bishops and lots of other faithful people about what serves our congregation’s future best: a congregational vote or an elected-leadership vote. Although my informal survey has gathered a variety of responses, almost everyone agrees that a congregational vote has the greatest potential for creating the greatest harm. Here’s what can happen (and usually does) when the entire congregation is asked to vote:
Sides are formed in preparation for such a vote. People stop listening to each other and instead listen only to those who agree with them. All this makes sense, because in the end, there will be only one side that wins and another that loses. Guaranteed. And no one likes losing. So, each side feels the need to fight for victory! The entire issue fades away from being about how we should follow Jesus and instead becomes another opportunity for people to divide themselves based on conservative/progressive labels (or whatever labels we want to put on each other).
Thank God there are other—more effective—ways to hear the will of the congregation than a simple vote! A vote doesn’t encourage conversation or discussion. In fact, in Robert’s Rules of Order, the best way to stop all conversation and discussion is to “call the vote!” Your Vision & Leadership Team is not interested in stopping conversation. To the contrary! More than anything, your elected leadership wants to talk this thing through until the time is ripe to move forward. That is why over these first couple weeks of May each member of the V&L Team as well as your pastors are making themselves available for one-on-one conversations. Expressing your discerned response to the question through words is much more meaningful to our fellowship than a simple ’yes’ or ‘no’. Please e-mail or call the V&L Team member of your choice.
In addition to these conversations, the V&L will gather information about the will of the congregation through a survey. From May 3 through May 14 surveys will be made available to all members. The question: “Is God leading us to permit same-gender weddings at First Lutheran?” will have 3 possible responses to ‘check’: 1) Yes 2) No and 3) Undecided. There also will be three follow up questions so that you may elaborate on your response. Although optional, it is hoped that all respondents will include their name so that the V&L Team may be able to follow up with individuals to clarify comments, because this is not a vote. And none of us need to remain anonymous. First Lutheran is not a conglomeration of voting blocs. We strive to be a mature family of faith who talks our way through disagreements instead of shutting down each other’s voices through votes.
If, after the one-on-ones and after the second survey, the Vision & Leadership Team believes the time is ripe to make a decision, they will. Each person on the team was elected without any dissent. Each person, in my estimation, faithfully considers their task (burden) as a call from God. Our V&L Team has been studying Scripture, reading the ELCA Statement on Sexuality, talking about this question in monthly meetings and praying about this since last June. They have opened their hearts to people on both sides of the question while studying and praying the whole way through. I have complete confidence that any decision they choose to make will be a faithful one.
Please participate in this process! Share your perspective with a V&L Team member. Complete the survey with thoughtful comments, so that our family of faith grows stronger through this disagreement. And know that our unity rests in the grace and love of Christ who is risen indeed! Alleluia!