Learning to lean into disagreements with love and truth
When it comes to controversial topics within the church, there tend to be three groups of people: those who agree, those who disagree, and those who aren’t sure how to talk about things and so they remain silent.
Pastor Brian Keepers is the first to admit that his church, Fellowship Reformed in Holland, Mich., has too often taken the third position.
“We’ve realized that tensions can tend to get buried,” he said. “I think it’s something a lot of congregations struggle with. We’re not sure how to move toward each other and have really honest conversation.”
Linda Milanowski, one of the church elders, concurred:
“We seem at peace, but we just don’t tend to bring difficult topics to the surface.”
This attitude may make for a congenial atmosphere, but Brian and other church leaders recognize it as both a barrier to the church’s spiritual development, and a potential threat to its future. Like many denominations, the Reformed Church in America is facing internal divisions over its stance on homosexuality, and it’s a hot topic at Fellowship Reformed as well.
Linda recalls how shortly after becoming an elder, she was asked by people with multiple viewpoints what the church’s stand is, or would be, on homosexuality – both viewpoints, she said, indicating a tenor of “we need to make a clear stance and communicate it well.”
The problem is that some congregants want the church to take a stand, but no formal conversation has taken place about this issue, and the church isn’t necessarily equipped for such a tough conversation.
“Our concern is to figure out a way to have a conversation that isn’t polarizing, and to avoid falling into the same kind of well-worn, unhelpful ways of talking about this,” Brian said.
“We need some tools to be able to do this differently and help us move in a more fruitful direction.”
So when Brian learned about The Colossian Forum’s pilot of its Colossian Way curriculum, he volunteered to have Fellowship Reformed host a workshop on sexuality. Linda and another church member, Rodger Price, will be leading it.
Rodger sees in this workshop, if it goes well, a means of strong development for both the church and its leaders. “I’m a leadership coach, and this is the No. 1 thing all leaders need to get better at – how do we disagree well, so we can stop avoiding things that then blow up later?
“And when we do lean into disagreements, how do we do that with love and truth? Learning this is going to help all of us to grow.”
Both Linda and Rodger have significant business facilitation experience. But they recognize that the TCW workshop calls for a different approach. “I’m used to leadership development, which is typically more of a teaching scenario,” Linda said. “So when you hear people say something back, it’s usually about reinforcing skills you’ve taught them. With this workshop, I’m not 100 percent sure yet what my role as a facilitator will look like. When I get a conservative person who says, ‘The Bible clearly states …’ and another person says, ‘Have you listened to this person’s story?’, what is my response to that as a facilitator? How do I guide the discussion?”
Brian, Rodger and Linda are fairly confident that Fellowship Reformed is ready to have a respectful, loving dialogue on this topic, and to move past its tendency to sidestep tough issues. But they also recognize that, as with any controversial subject, this has the potential to create division.
“These are really hard topics, and there are no easy solutions,” Brian said. “There’s a risk in stepping into this. Avoiding the conversation may not be healthy, but it feels safe.”
Before the group begins, Rodger is working with Linda and Brian to establish the ground rules for behavior (for example, he said, “respectful, honest, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, quick to pray, quick to seek biblical guidance”), and also the group’s purpose and desired outcome.
“A bunch of people will have great hope and a bunch of people will have great fear when they hear that this workshop is happening. We need to understand there’s going to be all kinds of emotional reaction,” he said. “Our purpose in doing this is to understand how we as Christians can have virtues even when we disagree vehemently, and I hope when people understand that, it will calm things a bit.”
Brian, Rodger and Linda all believe the potential reward is worth the potential risk.
“When things are not in the open, that’s when they have a lot more power over us,” Rodger said. “Let’s put this in the light of day and in the light of Christ, and see what happens.”
Added Brian: “We’re so afraid to take on hard topics. What if we said, ‘Look, this wasn’t so bad? It was hard at times, but it was actually beautiful. Some great things came out of it.’ What if we could get to a place where we don’t have to be afraid of these conversations, but we can move toward each other and stay in relationship with each other, where conflict could really be a blessing and part of our growth as disciples?”