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Dancing Through Thistles in Bare Feet

Today is May 4, 2018. Last week, I got in the car and drove for two hours to meet with a retired pastoral couple who, more than a decade ago, walked down a path similar to the one I’m currently on. I came across their story in the book, Dancing Through Thistles in Bare Feet, a short memoir written by Gary Harder, who was pastoring a Mennonite church in Toronto when his associate pastor told him that she was a lesbian. Her announcement led to a year-and-a-half long discernment process by the church, culminating in a decision that the congregation would seek to be more open and welcoming to LGBTQ individuals, but would not allow them to serve in a staff capacity.

(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.)

Even as I write that, I feel like I’m dishonouring their process, as I’m learning first hand just how complicated and nuanced these things actually are; how many gruelling hours they would have spent trying to keep things from falling apart; how many tears would have been shed; how many lives were deeply affected. The thing that struck me about Gary’s story, though—the thing that led me to search him out online, eventually resulting in an invitation to join the Harders at their home for lunch—was the way he described his reaction to his church’s decision and his newfound awareness that his co-worker would have to resign. When announcing the results of a vote to his congregation, he said, “My pastoral heart is broken.”

There’s a certain bond between pastors, knowing that we share a unique vocation that most people don’t really understand, but that is such a core part of our identity. Sometimes we ignore this bond, choosing to keep things at the level of reputations and accomplishments; but on a good day, when we focus on what we have in common, pastors can dive in pretty deep with one another without much pretense. The journey I’m on right now is stirring up a near-desperate need for affinity. I’m always on the lookout for someone—anyone—who can identify with my challenges and help me find a path that will help our church avoid any unnecessary pain, especially the self-inflicted variety. And so it was with minimal formalities that my afternoon with Gary and Lydia Harder began, and it was with warm affection and some heartfelt prayer that our conversation wrapped up a full two and a half hours later.

Their church’s story was similar to ours in many respects, but there were also some marked differences. One area of tension they did not experience as they walked their Mennonite congregation through its discernment process was personal angst over what they believed about the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith and how they wanted their story to end. Both of them held an affirming view and wanted to see their church land in that same place when all was said and done, though they were careful to prevent this from unduly affecting the church’s discernment process. In one sense, having a settled conviction with a clearly defined end in mind is a burden in its own right, but they didn’t have to navigate all of the questions themselves while also leading their congregation through its own process, which is the situation I find myself in. It’s only natural to desire whatever you don’t have, so as I listened to the Harders share their story, I couldn’t help but wonder how much easier this would be for me if I ‘knew what was right’ and could just walk in that conviction and let the chips fall where they may.

Over lunch, we talked about the relational damage that conflict can produce. Gary shared a story of how, one morning, while he was greeting people as they arrived at church, he stuck out his hand to a long-standing member of the church who did not reciprocate the offer. The man looked him in the eye and said, “I will not shake your hand. I have nothing to say to you, and you have nothing to say to me.”

I haven’t experienced this degree of coldness, but I’m keenly aware of the distance that has been growing between myself and certain members of our community. I’ve been able to express this to a couple of them as an acknowledgement of how difficult all of this has been, hoping that some honesty will keep the lines of communication open.

Gary’s story didn’t end there, though. Three years later, the man developed a heart condition, and as his pastor, Gary paid him a visit in the hospital, read scripture to him, and prayed for him. Not a word was said about the church’s season of conflict or about the rejected handshake. Two years later, Gary and Lydia were standing at the front of their church on the last Sunday morning before they entered retirement. Members of the congregation were invited to come forward and lay hands on them as the community prayed a blessing over them. “And who do you think was the first person down the aisle?” Gary asked me, rhetorically. “It was this same man. And he put a hand on my shoulder and a hand on Lydia’s shoulder and not a word was said. But that’s how he let us know that, despite all of the hurt of the past, he wasn’t holding it over us.”

As it turned out, not many people left their congregation during the most intense season of their conflict. They were surprised by this, just as they were surprised that, over time, some of the people who were most opposed to allowing LGBTQ individuals to serve in a pastoral capacity shifted their belief toward an affirming position. In fact, nearly a decade later, the church is now an affirming church and the Harders admitted they think the congregation is healthier now than it was before the conflict—not because of the stance they ended up taking, but because of the conflict itself, which drove them to prayer and led them to their Bibles and called them to love one another deeply if there was any chance at all of keeping this thing they called ‘church’ from falling apart at the seams.

I was grateful for the Harders’ hospitality and set off on the drive home to Waterloo where I was greeted by a flurry of emails from members of our Board. It’s one of the ironies of life that things can be holding together so nicely right in front of your eyes, but altogether unravelling just around the corner.

Our Board had been working together on an update—the one we shared with the congregation this past Sunday morning—and we were in the midst of revising a final draft of what we would read to the congregation. Somehow, between the time I left for Toronto and the time I got home, a few dozen new questions were raised along with a number of suggestions as to how we might do this differently, including a suggestion that we hold off on it altogether. My wife described it as “cold feet,” which I thought was probably true for the most part.

The notion of having a ‘statement’ out there was causing anxiety, especially so soon after a couple of families had left the church. It was just too easy to draw a line between what we would say and the departure of even more people. It’s not that our update was saying anything drastic; we would be sharing some of the comments received in our survey and indicating our desire to avoid taking a stance one way or another and commit to moving forward in diversity. In the end, we removed a paragraph about intentionally moving forward in diversity, leaving things a bit more open-ended. The idea was that, just maybe, this would help give people a little more time before they came to the conclusion that we would never land where they wanted us to—whether that was on a strong traditional position, or a strong affirming position.

Now that we’re on the other side of the update, I do wonder if some people feel like we didn’t say anything at all. One word I heard used to describe our Board was “waffling”—not exactly a flattering description of our leadership, to say the least. But it also revealed a lack of awareness of the complexity of what we are trying to do here. There were other voices, too; ones that expressed appreciation for how seriously we are taking this and for our desire to keep people informed about where things are at and where we see things going next.

The final piece of our statement, which we added late on Friday evening, was an expression of my need to step away from the flurry of conversations around this theme for awhile. One of our Board members suggested I set aside the month of May, so we communicated that to the congregation and I am now a few days into a brief season of reprieve from talking to people about this each and every day. My mind is still spinning—evidenced by this early-morning writing session—but I’ve already said ‘no’ a couple of times and will look forward to clearing my mind a little and seeking God without quite as many distractions.

I was listening to a podcast last week about the importance of managing energy during a time of personal transformation, and one of the illustrations they used was of working out at a gym. The point was that, if you do a leg workout one day, you don’t come back and do the same workout the following day. Instead, you give the muscle time to heal, to repair itself and gain strength. The implication was that, during times of stress or change, we need to set aside time for healing to take place in our lives and not just power through without any breaks. That’s what I hope this month can be for me, and I’m praying that by the time the calendar flips into June, I’ll be ready to knock out another killer leg routine.

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