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"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger

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Healing

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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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?

Jesus’ humanity

Let me preface this whole post by acknowledging that I don’t understand the mystery of Jesus’ dual human/divine nature.  I might make the mistake in this particular blog of ascribing too much to his humanity.  On the other hand, I think that there also might be a tendency by Christians to downplay Jesus’ human side of things when his deity seems to be under attack in our pluralistic society.  Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from stories where Jesus seems to be a bit too human for our own comfort – stories like the cleansing of the temple, for example, or the story I’ll discuss below.  Maybe we’ll learn a little about the nature of sin; about what God regards as sin; and about what masquerades as sin, but which really only offends our sense of politeness, social propriety, or political correctness.

Anyway, this morning I was reading this coming Sunday’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Mark.  At the end of Chapter 7, I have the impression that Jesus is just really exhausted and would like to get away from it all and go on a little vacation.  He’s gone to Tyre, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, and the scripture says…

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Sounds like me sometimes.  (Well, actually I probably want to take a vacation at the slightest hint of weariness.  I have the impression that Jesus got a whole lot wearier than I do.)

So Jesus is off on vacation, but he isn’t even able to rest there.  He’s found by some Gentile woman who has heard about the kinds of amazing things that he has been doing and wants him to heal her daughter.  At this point, Jesus seems to be a bit exasperated (and that’s putting it gently).  He tells her that his work is with the Jews and not the Gentiles, but he’s a bit more gruff than that (at least to my ear)…

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

But check out this reply:

Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Now this is where I don’t quite know how to understand Jesus’  humanity.  I wouldn’t suggest that Jesus needs grace, at least not in the sense that the rest of us do.  But doesn’t it seem like that’s just what he’s received in this woman’s response?  Hasn’t he just called her a dog?  And didn’t she just let that one slip by?  I know I’m interpreting this one from a 21st century middle-class North America cultural viewpoint, but still…

Anyway, maybe the woman has ministered to Jesus’ need.  Perhaps, in this time when he’s on vacation for some rest, she has reminded him of the faith that he inspires in people, and perhaps that is an inspiration to his own faith, as well.  (I do think that Jesus needed faith in his Father to achieve his work on earth.   I don’t think that is too much of a stretch or a threat to his divinity.)

Ok – let me move on to take a quick look at the next story.  Jesus is on his way home from vacation, and some people bring him a man who is deaf and who also has a speech impediment.  Jesus takes the man aside to pray for him and only utters one word, “Ephphatha”, which means, “Be opened.”  But look at what else he does – he sighs.  I’m not a scholar of Greek, but my understanding is that this is the same word found in Romans 8 where Paul describes how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.

What is happening here?  Does Jesus sigh because of lingering tiredness?  Does he not know what words to pray, or does he express a deeper prayer from the depths of his soul?  Does the Holy Spirit also intercede with the Father on behalf of the Son?  Do we learn that at times there are prayers that reflect the heart of God that just can’t be expressed with the words that we have?

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus’ humanity was not an impediment to his ministry, but rather a vital part of it.  It was only by becoming human that Jesus was able to show us the way back to God.

Healing, part two

Well, now… this is interesting.  I didn’t mention it in my previous blog, but Megan Ramer’s meditation on healing was strongly influenced by writings by Jan Richardson.  And so it is instructive that my Ordinary Spouse shared this insightful quote with me today, which comes from Jan’s blog:

Our healing must be linked to the healing of others. Healing is not solely a personal endeavor, this passage tells us; it occurs in the context of community. We seek it not only for ourselves but as part of the flourishing of the wider world. Our wholeness is bound together.

Community.  It is never the easy way.  But it is the way to being whole.

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