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Conferences and Conversations

April 20, 2018. I’m not actually much of a conference-goer, but based on my calendar this spring, it would be hard to convince anyone that was true. Somehow, I've got a string of three conferences lined up in the span of thirty days, which started last week when I hopped in a car with three pastor friends of mine and drove down to Dillsburg, Pennsylvania for the Ecclesia National Gathering. Last year, the four of us took in the Missio Alliance conference in Alexandria, Virginia and, after making it home with our friendships still intact, we agreed that we should try and make a road trip like this an annual thing. So I put my email auto-responder on and looked forward to completely disconnecting from my pastoral responsibilities for the better part of a week, anticipating that a good stretch of time spent with friends would be good for my soul.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

As valuable as I knew some disconnection would be, I also knew that the seven-hour drive was bound to provide an opportunity for me to process some of what our church is going through with people I trust who are not directly involved. The four of us don’t connect in person all that often and, to this point, I’d only brought one of them up to speed on our journey—the same friend whose church was starting to wade into similar waters.

The topic came up around the time we crossed the Pennsylvania state line on Tuesday morning, and I was the last one to toss my opinion into the mix. The others shared where their churches stood on same-sex relationships and what their own thoughts and opinions were—one holds a strong, traditional view, while the other two are a little less sure—and the whole time my chest was getting tight with the anxiety of being honest about the depths of our challenges and about where my own head was at these days. It was a safe space, though, and even though I probably came off a bit stronger than I would have liked—everything about this topic is super-charged these days—it was good to be honest with people who would understand just how difficult the path we were walking must be.

The conference ended up being a good break for me, although I almost stumbled right out of the gate. In the very first session, the host instructed us to get up from our seats, sit beside someone we didn’t know, and share something we were grateful for in this season of life or ministry. We weren’t ten minutes in and already my introversion was advocating for a full-scale retreat. To be fair, the conference organizers had asked us to come prepared to share something, so this wasn’t a complete surprise. I decided ahead of time that I would tell the story of a meaningful experience I had six months ago, but the fact that I had to go back six months to find something worth celebrating wasn’t lost on me; I'm not feeling grateful for very much these days.

The guy who sat down beside me seemed much more comfortable with the exercise than I was. He pulled out a postcard that his artistic wife had created for their church during a recent service, admitting that he actually forgot to prepare something ahead of time, but had noticed the postcard between the seats in his car and figured he could use it as an example of something he was grateful for. On the front was a hand-drawn rendition of Jesus walking on the water, surrounded by swelling waves and billowing storm clouds. Tucked off to the side you could just barely make out the corner of a small boat being overwhelmed by the storm. The image was taken from John chapter six, which was the same story I used in my February 11 sermon, reminding our congregation that, while a storm was looming, Jesus was in it with us, and that it was up to us whether or not we would invite him into the boat.

What are the chances? I thought.

On the back of the postcard was a liturgy that the man’s wife had written for their community:

When we think we are too far gone for rescue; Come near, Lord, come near.
When all we can see are the wind and the waves; Come near, Lord, come near.
When anxiety overwhelms our senses; Come near, Lord, come near.
Though your very approach frightens us; Come near, Lord, come near.
O Perfect Love who casts out all fear; Come near.

Regardless of the heaviness that is slowly bending me down under its weight, in that moment, I was reminded that Jesus was with me, and that he would continue to be with us.

Following this time of sharing in pairs, we were invited to take some time walking around some reflection stations that had been set up around the room. The first station was a table with a large set of ceramic hands, cupped together like they were waiting to receive something. There was a bowl of small black stones and a poster with the title, “Release.” Right from the outset, we were being invited to let go of the things that were weighing us down, symbolizing this by placing a stone in the open hands, so I followed along and tried my best to turn my attention to something other than my life back home for the rest of the conference.

We drove home on Friday and I was back in the office on Monday morning, catching up on email and preparing for a meeting with our Board that night. There was basically one item on our agenda, and that’s what we ended up talking about for four long hours.

A couple of weeks ago, I created a brief survey to provide an opportunity for those who had participated in our Listen and Learn sessions to reflect on the experience and share their overall thoughts about the process our church was walking through. I also created a separate survey for members of the congregation who had not participated, but who might still want to share some reflections with the church’s leadership. We received around one hundred responses, and almost everyone added personal comments, giving us a good idea of how our community was handling the conversation so far. When reading through the comments for a second time, I categorized them and found that exactly half of the comments expressed either a neutral opinion about the issue or did not express any opinion but focused on the value of the process we were walking through. The number of individuals who expressed ‘traditional’ or ‘affirming’ leanings were about equal, with a slight lean toward the left.

When our Board got together, we started off by sharing our reflections on what we had heard during the sessions themselves, and then started identifying patterns in the responses we’d received to the survey. It was clear to all of us that our church continued to express a breadth of diversity about the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith, and that most people seemed to appreciate the inquisitive approach we were taking. There were outliers, of course, and we acknowledged that it was important for us to listen to those voices as well.

We talked a lot about what it would look like for us to continue moving forward in a state of tension, rather than simply picking sides and letting the proverbial chips fall. I shared an idea that had been swirling around in my head recently: instead of rushing to determine a final position, what if we started off by describing a posture that would help us navigate the various decisions that would have to be made down the road? In other words, Because we think this way about A, B, and C, it follows that we would respond this way about X, Y, and Z.

We agreed that any decisions about how to proceed as a church would require a thorough explanation, so we set out to anticipate the questions people would ask before we got around to making those decisions. I grabbed a whiteboard and scribbled down a few foundational themes that were connected in some way to the specific theme of our church's understanding of same-sex attraction: sin, redemption, scripture, sexuality, leadership, community, truth, tension, acceptance, and diversity. Providing some clarity on how we tend to approach these key themes as a church might help us identify the options that should be on the table moving forward. For me, the first question our church needs to answer is, “Who are we and how do we move in the world?”

Toward the end of the meeting, one of our Board members who holds a strong traditional belief shared about their struggle with the path we were suggesting, offering to step down if it would help the rest of us move the process forward. While I think it’s fair to say that we all appreciated the gesture, the conversation shifted to the question of whether we could continue in a way that would honour the diversity of opinions around the table while not requiring everyone to personally affirm the direction we would end up going. After all, this is what we were asking our congregation to do—but could we do it ourselves?

A decision was made to acknowledge this tension the next time we provided an update for the congregation: that not everyone on our Board is in agreement about the direction we’re moving, but we are committed to staying on this journey together, even when we don't agree with one another on this particular issue. Time will tell whether our Board can continue to hold this tension, but at least we had an open and honest discussion and were able to acknowledge just how challenging this kind of decision-making is for us.

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