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Kipcor

Sometimes God amazes us: congregational consensus

Twenty-eight months ago, I wrote that my community was in pain. Like many other Mennonite congregations, we were struggling to relate to our LGTBQ brothers and sisters, and a congregational meeting had just ended badly.

‘Badly’ is an understatement.

Somehow we managed not to split the congregation. Unfortunately, many people were devastated. Many people left. As for me, the months that followed were some of the hardest that I’ve experienced in church life. My emotional trauma made me physically ill when I was in worship. Congregational meetings were even worse.

Sometimes you pray; sometimes you cry and groan and let the Holy Spirit do the praying for you. In the midst of our pain, we managed to seek the help of KIPCOR, an organization devoted to conflict resolution. During the last two years, three different individuals from KIPCOR have helped us to work at reconciliation; to process what the congregation wanted to do about membership for LGBTQ individuals; and to find ways to continue to be church together despite opinions and beliefs that were all over the map.

Personal healing was not easy, but in some ways it was very straightforward. I knew that I needed to be reconciled to some people, and I intentionally (and successfully) worked at that. Perhaps more importantly, there was bitterness hiding deep inside me, and a very important dialogue circle facilitated by KIPCOR helped to get rid of that. That’s a story that I’ve written before.

But what about congregational healing? The questions about who’s in and who’s out aren’t unique to my congregation, and the stories generally aren’t pretty. If you go to the Mennonite or Mennonite-related publications, you’ll discover that the whole denomination is struggling. And of course, it’s not just Mennonites. This story is constantly repeating itself right now within the “Church-with-a-capital-C”.

At the urging of KIPCOR, we entered into a discernment and consensus building process. Consensus sounds a little crazy, given the deep divisions in the congregation, but it’s useful to be clear about what consensus is, and what it is not. This description comes from KIPCOR:

Consensus is a process for making a group decision without voting. A group reaches consensus when all members agree upon a single alternative and each group member can honestly say:

“I believe that you understand my point of view and that I understand yours. Whether or not I prefer this decision, I support it because 1) it was reached fairly and openly, and 2) it is the best solution for us at this time.”

Consensus is not unanimity. Consensus is about consent. Group members can agree to accept a proposal and still not all feel the same about it. This is because within any group, there are levels of agreement (or consent) that range from strong support to strong opposition.

In our recent congregational meetings, we’ve described our support for ideas and proposals on a five-point scale. A ‘5’ indicates full support. The amount of support decreases down through a ‘2’, where one has serious concerns but would still consent to the decision. A ‘1’ indicates that a person does not give consent for something to proceed. Those who are “at a 1” are always asked to provide information on what could be changed to make something better.

We have spent time – a long time now – generating ideas and refining them, trying to seek a solution to our membership quandary and our desire to continue to be church. Last month, we had a meeting where we seemed to be focusing in on one particular proposal. It involved two parts. First, we would shift the way we think about congregational membership, regarding it as a centered set, rather than a bounded one. In other words, we’d create a core set of beliefs, but allow for diversity of opinion on matters that aren’t in the core. The focus would be on the center, rather than on patrolling the edges, and broadly speaking, Jesus is our center.* The second part of the proposal embraced a covenental model of membership. Our core set of beliefs become the basis for our covenant with each other. Individuals who embrace the core beliefs are free to sign the covenant and enter into membership. And we’d annually reaffirm our covenant with each other. I’ve been in congregations with this membership model before, and I think that there are a lot of positives involved.

* For simplicity sake, I’m leaving out the details. But if you’re interested in discussing them privately, let me know.

Despite widespread support for this solution, we did not have consensus at our September meeting. And to be honest, I left that meeting doubtful that we could reach consensus in a short amount of time. And yet, we had a tentative plan in place to formalize this plan at our October meeting. We had a fallback option if consensus couldn’t be reached (which consisted of a traditional vote, with various percentages of approval needed depending on the exact proposal), but in my gut I was feeling tense. I could imagine many ways in which a vote could go badly, creating more pain and division like two years ago. And I didn’t see a clear path toward full consensus.

So I waited. And prayed. As did the whole congregation. The team from our congregation that is leading the discernment with KIPCOR worked on modifying and improving things. And I was still tense when our next meeting began today.

But when the facilitators from KIPCOR tested the proposal for the first time today, we had reached consensus.

You could hear an audible gasp from the congregation.

And then they worked on improving things, and the consensus got even stronger: twos became threes became fours became fives.


I’ll end my story for now, but the story is far from being finished…

  • Are we an “open and affirming” congregation? No. That would have been my ideal, but I also know that my ideal would rip apart the congregation right now. We’ve taken the “open and affirming” language off the table. But we will welcome anyone who is moving toward the center – toward Jesus. We are a group that has somehow found a way to stay together despite our differences.
  • Are all of the hurts healed? Not by a long shot. In my mind, this is where we may have the most work to do. The congregation has had some success in healing its own hurts, but some remain. And I think that we have much to do in order to be reconciled with people who have left the congregation permanently.
  • Do we know how this new covenant model will work? Nope. But since I’m on our congregation’s ministry team, I’ll be working on this quite a bit in the next few months. But we are moving in that direction together with a lot of hope.

It has been said that “if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough.”

Thank you.

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Being born again: Connections

Every Wednesday night, my congregation has a potluck and prayer/meditation time. This fall, we’re considering on various spiritual practices together. Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on ‘imagination’. Last night, another person reflected on ‘connections’. In part, he said:

In thinking about our theme tonight — “Connections” — my mind traveled to the statue of Christ that stands high above the city of Rio de Janeiro. I’ve long felt drawn to this particular depiction of Christ.

To me, Jesus’ open posture captures how he connects and reaches out to all people during his ministry. It captures his vulnerable posture on the cross, bearing upon himself our sins and reconnecting us with God. And it captures his welcoming posture in the encounters that follow his resurrection.

Jesus calls us to imitate his posture of connection — with God, creation and those around us. After our own birth, we seem amazingly receptive and able to do so. But painful life experiences often change our posture from one of desiring connection… to one of fearfully protecting ourselves and closing ourselves off from others instead.

(Image by Pedrohiroshi.)

My personal reaction was simple, yet deeply felt. I was powerfully drawn to the idea that young children are receptive to connections, but that as we age we construct protective barriers in order to protect ourselves from pain. Immediately, I said to myself, “You must be born again!” (John 3) I continued reflecting along these lines, how this process of being born again, of reforming connections, and of being reconciled never stops. It’s the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, bringing new birth and life. And I thought about how that’s what I’ve experienced myself in the last year.

Reflecting on healing gone right

Today, one of my friends directed my attention to a blog entry I wrote in January. It was the day before a dialogue circle at my congregation – a chance to share my story of hurt and to try to hear other people’s stories, as well.*

I don’t remember if I ever followed up on my experience – probably not, since we have a confidentiality agreement. But I was struck by a few things as I re-read it today.

1) The description of my pain that I gave in that post was the clearest that I think I could give. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change it.

2) The circle was the single most healing thing that I have done. I needed to share my pain in a clear way, and I needed to hear the other people in the circle.

3) I thought I knew what I needed. I was wrong. This is what I wrote:

First, I just want the moving-forward process to begin.  I spent last summer and fall taking care of the personal processing that needed to happen and mending a strained relationship.  And when I look forward, I see a long climb ahead.  I’m anxious to get started.

The second thing is that I need to be respected.  I don’t need people to agree with me – just  understand that I’m trying to act with integrity.

I completely missed here – and this may be what I find most fascinating. I feel perfectly content to wait now. Not that I’m content doing nothing – it’s an active waiting. Perhaps it’s the “bearing with one another” that Chuck Neufeld talked about.

And frankly, I don’t care much anymore about respect. I don’t need to impress you. I don’t need to be right.

4) I expected the dialogue to last a “few hours”. Ha! That was an understatement. But I’d do it again.


* The January post is here. The background is here. (Warning: there’s a lot of background.)

Congregational update – more work toward reconciliation

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve talked about how things are going at my congregation.  Given some stuff happening this weekend, I thought that this might be a good time for another update.  As always, this is very much an update from my perspective.  Probably much of what I interpret as the congregation’s experience is really just me projecting my own reactions.

(For anyone who doesn’t know the story that I’m telling here, I invite you to read the blog posts filed under ‘Kipcor‘.  You’ll get the idea.)

So – the facilitators from Kipcor (Robert and Kirsten) visited with us twice last year.  The first time, they gave us some guidance and encouragement about storytelling: how to tell stories, how to listen, how to be sensitive to the multitude of perspectives.  After that, they spent a significant portion of time gathering the congregation’s stories, trying to establish a coherent picture of what conspired to result in such a disastrous meeting on Pentecost Sunday.  Finally, they visited with us again to try to give us some idea of the big picture.  I think that many people really appreciated that second meeting, either because they began to see the big picture for the first time, or because they felt like their story was finally being heard.

Since then, the congregation decided to continue working with Robert and Kirsten during the next phase of this reconciliation work.  Beginning with their visit this weekend, we will be telling our stories to each other, naming the places where we need healing, and (hopefully) doing the real hard work of forgiving and reconciling.

As part of this story telling, I will be part of a story circle tomorrow (Saturday).  This is a small group of people who will gather to share and listen in a very intense way.  We have been asked to consider two questions:

Describe from your perspective the central behaviors or events in the recent difficulties which caused hurt, frustration, or conflict for you.

What do you need to help you begin to heal, let go of negative feelings, and move forward?

For the longest time, I’ve had trouble articulating the hurt and frustration that I’ve felt.  My emotions often caught me off guard and were most raw during worship and during meetings with Robert and Kirsten.  I have expressed this in my blog once before: how, in theory, I really wanted to be a part of these meetings and to work at reconciliation.  I think this is vitally important.  Yet, when the meetings occurred, I just couldn’t bring myself to be a part of them.  Emotionally, I was sick.

Recently, I think I was able to pull my story together in a way that I could begin to understand it and share it in a way that is clear to others (or at least to Ordinary Spouse, who is the only person to hear my story so far, and who had trouble understanding before).  It goes like this…

On one hand, my very close friends were no longer in my congregation.  When they finalized their decision to go to a new church, they sent a letter explaining  their decision.  In it, they thanked four friends for walking with them.  Of those four, I was the only one present on the Sunday that Robert and Kirsten shared “the big picture”.  Another one of the four was out of town, but two others had chosen to leave permanently.  In any case, the result for me was a feeling of great loss mixed with loneliness and isolation.

On the other hand, I’ve been very committed to my congregation.  Ordinary Spouse and I discussed this commitment long before the trouble began.  We view our membership like a covenant, and in that way it is much like a marriage bond.  Because we value it so highly, we also want to encourage the whole group in working toward healing, and to help with that whenever possible.

On top of these two competing influences, there was “the big picture”.  I haven’t tried to describe it before, and I’m not going to try now, either.  Suffice to say, we had a perfect storm of sorts, with many different stories converging at once.  Most of the congregation was unaware of all of the stories, but when Kirsten and Robert shared them during their second visit, I didn’t learn anything new.

So – these three things (the loss and loneliness, the longing for healing for the congregation as a whole, and the weight of holding all of the stories) combined to cause the cauldron of emotions that I couldn’t articulate.  When I finally put all of this together the other night with Ordinary Spouse, I described feeling as if I were being torn in many directions at once.  Just getting to that description was in some ways very healing.

From there, I can consider the second question.  What do I need in order to move forward?

Two things have come to mind.  First, I just want the moving-forward process to begin.  I spent last summer and fall taking care of the personal processing that needed to happen and mending a strained relationship.  And when I look forward, I see a long climb ahead.  I’m anxious to get started.

The second thing is that I need to be respected.  I don’t need people to agree with me – just  understand that I’m trying to act with integrity.

So often, when this conflict comes up in the broader Church, I hear one group of people claim to be Bible-believing.  If we could just study the Bible (they say), we’d come to a sound decision.  The implication is that some other group (the group that I’m now a part of) isn’t Bible-believing.  I have never been addressed personally, but I’ve been guilty by association.  And it’s incredibly hurtful.  If I can’t be respected, then we can no longer be a community – not because I’m leaving, but because I’ve already been pushed out.

Anyway – that’s what I hope to be able to share tomorrow.  I hope that I’m heard, and I hope that I am able to hear the others in the circle, as well.  It will be a tough few hours, but by God’s grace they’ll also be a healing time.

Congregational update

I’ve been meaning to give an update on the state of things in my congregation for a while now.  I know that some of my earlier posts may have been confusing to those looking in from the outside, so I’ll try start with a very brief summary of things.

Those who have read my blog before know that the congregation was going through a process to discern whether to extend membership to same-gender couples in committed relationships.  We had a very painful meeting on Pentecost Sunday of this year (May 31st) that ended badly.  However, despite what might have been assumed from reading my reactions to that meeting, our process did not conclude with that meeting.  Rather, the process continues, although it has been put on hold for a time.

(On the other hand, some people have left our congregation.  My friends, who were most directly impacted by our congregational process, needed to leave for their own health.  Others left based on conviction one way or another.  Some people decided to take a vacation from the congregation, but returned later.  And so on.)

Since our congregation is pretty mobile, especially in the summer, we put off further action until the fall.  In the interim, we decided that in order to move forward we needed some new tools – new ways of communicating, of telling our stories and listening to others tell theirs.  We have brought in two mediators from KIPCOR to work with us. 

Their first visit was earlier this month on Sunday, October 4th.  I had a somewhat unsettling experience that day.  Our meetings were during the Sunday school hour and then again after potluck.  As I came to our meeting space, I struggled to join the group that had already started meeting.   Mentally, I just had a very hard time.  Finally, I found a chair in the corner and listened from there.  The meeting after the potluck was even harder – I never did join that one, although I was able to listen because the sound system was on.

I’m not exactly sure why I reacted the way I did, and I wasn’t pleased with myself.  In theory, I was glad that the mediators were there, but I felt tired – like I had dealt with things all summer, even though the congregation as a whole was waiting for fall – and didn’t want to go through things again.  It is also possible (though I discounted it then) that returning from Australia only twelve hours earlier had something to do with my emotional state.

The folks from KIPCOR will be back in the middle of November, and they’ve asked us to consider this question:

What is the one story you would like to share with others that will help them be able to understand your experience related to the events of the past 12 months?

Again, I don’t particularly look forward to this time, and I’m not at all happy with that feeling.  Partly, I don’t know where to begin with my story.  Partly, I don’t want to tell it again.  And I’m still tired.  So I’ve got some preparation to do.  Here are the other questions that I (we) have been asked to consider between now and then:

  • What is God saying to me in the midst of struggle?
  • What is the one thing I am doing to help the congregation resilient?
  • Am I cultivating a sense of respect and humility?
  • Can I maintain a sense of wonder?
  • Where am I seeing God at work?
  • Am I taking care of myself?
  • Did I laugh with others today?
  • Am I spending time in prayer with the freedom to be honest with God?

Humility

A few days ago, I read a blog post by Donald Miller, reflecting on self-promotion.  I read Don’s autobiographical book, Blue Like Jazz, a few years ago and really enjoyed it.  Or rather, I think I enjoyed it.  I actually can’t remember many specifics any more, but I still have this sense that I really respected his story and life, and that he lived out an authentic faith.

Don has written a new book and is currently out on a book tour, and his blog post had some really insightful things to say about the motivations of those of us who like to think of ourselves as bloggers…

Half the time, if not more than half, I am full of bullshit. I share what will make me look good. If I am vulnerable, I share just enough vulnerability to be perceived as vulnerable, rather than to actually humiliate myself so that others can talk more openly about their own insecurities. I also leak in my accomplishments, and I’ve become a master at it. I don’t even know I am doing it half the time, and the other half I strategically list my accomplishments so that they come off as dismissive or “in passing.”

Not all of Don’s post is this negative (negative, but insightful!), and he says some other interesting things about blogging, so you might want to check it out.  Anyway, it got me thinking about pride and humility and motivation, and I had to think some more when the topic of humility came up again at Bible study last night.  (Usually, two occurrences of the same topic constitutes a blog entry waiting to be written.)  Our study was on this week’s lectionary reading from the Psalms, which includes this verse:

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
   let the humble hear and be glad.

Psalm 34.2, NRSV

And I got to thinking – I’m not very good at humility.  I like my ideas.  I like my beliefs.  I tend to think that I have things right, and I tend to get defensive when I’m questioned.  I like the sound of my own words, and I’m probably pretty good at self-promotion.  But the psalmist instructs us to boast in the Lord…

My congregation is going through some hard times – the fallout from this episode.  So we’ve asked some skilled mediators to help us find the tools for moving forward.  One image that they’ve used to describe a story (or truth, if you will) is that of a lake.  If you’re standing on the lakeshore looking out, you will have a particular view.  But if another person stands on the far shore of the same lake, that person’s view will be completely different.  And so to gain the whole view, we must take the time to walk around the lake.

So I suppose that the message to myself this week is that I need to learn to hold my “truth” lightly and not defensively, being well aware that if I’m good at anything, it’s at being wrong.

Humility.

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