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.”