Fortunately, because of my deep love for baseball statistics, I had kept a detailed record of plate appearances, innings pitched, and other measurements that I was able to use to demonstrate that his son had actually played slightly more than my son, and despite the fact that his batting average was far lower than anyone else on the team, I had continued to ensure that the opportunities he had were no less than other players.
(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.)
I remember gathering the remaining parents together at our next practice and talking to them about what had transpired, emphasizing my openness to talking with them about any concerns they had. There was no need to take drastic measures like this, I told them; just talk to me and we can have a healthy conversation about your concerns and work together to craft a path forward.
This experience taught me the value of implementing something known in minor sports as The 24-hour Rule: If a parent has a concern or complaint, they are asked to wait 24 hours before approaching the coach. When you combine the love you have for your child with the atmosphere of competitive sports, there are so many emotions involved that a little time can go a long way to avoiding the kind of situation I experienced as a first-year coach.
Following my sermon last Sunday morning, the way I interacted with my inbox changed dramatically. The little tab in my browser transformed from being a place where I would simply go to correspond with people to a place where I would have my identity as a pastor confirmed or challenged; where the future of our church would stand trial. The first email that came in following my sermon was an easy one to open. The subject line read, “encouragement.”
I'm sure this is to be the first of many emails that you'll receive this week, and can hopefully join the collection of positive feedback and not the negative…
In fact, this was the first of a number of encouraging emails I received that night and into the next day. Those who had concerns with what I had shared went even beyond the 24-hour rule before sharing their concerns and fears. I am grateful to my community for this window of grace, which allowed me to recover from the emotionally draining experience of Sunday morning.
It was two full days until I received an email expressing concern over what I had shared. The individual, a faithful and long-time member of our community, expressed concern that I had preached, “not only an unbalanced message but a one-sided message”; that this “was not the appropriate use of the pulpit.” He let me know that, having already been part of a church community that ended up splitting over this issue, he would not be participating in the follow-up conversations we were planning—an early sign that he and his wife may already be on their way out the door. It’s all so disheartening to think about.
And so this is how it has been in the early days following my sermon: swinging back and forth between expressions of encouragement and support on the one hand, and words of caution and concern on the other. And we’ve only just begun.
Four years ago, a young adult in our congregation sent me a YouTube video where a pastor was talking about being a church where members could accept one another’s different beliefs about homosexuality. She was wondering if ours could be a church like this.
I told her about an experience I had a few years earlier at a conference where one of the presenters shared about her first experience being in an environment where LGBTQ believers were worshipping together and what it was like to realize that LGBTQ people are people who love Jesus just like heterosexual folks do. This concept was hard for me to wrap my head around at the time, given the clear understanding I had about how this “lifestyle” fell outside of God’s design for human relationships. But I left that day feeling that what I needed to do was give my permission to hold on to my theology while allowing others to hold on to theirs without judging their faith for it.
As I continued to correspond with this young adult about the possibility of having a conversation about this in our own church, I started to see that while there was definitely a risk in cracking hot issues open, there was also a risk in ignoring them altogether. Eventually, we got together in person to talk about what it would look like for us to have a conversation about this theme and ended up planning a series of “Community Conversations” in the fall of 2014 that would give us an opportunity to practice having dialogue about issues people didn’t see eye-to-eye on before diving into the deep end of the pool.
I had read enough excerpts from various Facebook threads to know just how volatile this conversation could be. While people seem well-equipped to mock those they disagree with and destroy relationships in the process, it appears that few people are equipped to talk about this topic in a healthy, generative manner. With this in mind, the team that was curating these “Community Conversations” decided to ramp up slowly to the theme of homosexuality. We started with the theme of “Origins”—exploring our different understandings of how the world began. Creation versus Evolution was about the least potent topic we could think of, recognizing that, while people would certainly have different views, it was not exactly the kind of theme that would stir up things on an emotional level. From there we explored different views of the afterlife, and then the different ways we had been taught to read the Bible.
Each month’s conversation had its own flavour, but by the end of this trial period, the small team that had been giving shape to the process had a shared impression that, given the strong reactions to the themes we had been discussing so far, it would not be a good idea to continue down this path. We ended up shutting the experiment down, afraid that if we waded into the conversation on homosexuality as planned, things would blow up quickly.
With this piece of our recent history in mind, our Staff team has been spending the last week brainstorming how we can be even more cautious as we prepare to lead people in some guided dialogue around the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith on the other side of my sermon. Some of the principles from our “Community Conversations” experiment seemed to work well, such as being clear about the focus of each conversation and spending time reminding people of some guidelines for healthy dialogue around contentious issues. But we know this one is going to raise the stakes considerably, so we’re doing our best to think about this from every possible angle.