Exploring the freedom to disagree without tearing things apart.
It began with the best of intentions.
At Southside Vineyard in Wyoming, MI, a church of about 150 attendees, Pastor John West told the church board in June 2015 that he was concerned members of the congregation had the wrong impression about his feelings on how best to pastor people within the LGBT community. The Supreme Court had just announced its ruling on same-sex marriage, and the pastor had found himself in conversations where people were upset and he remained silent, while in fact he was in favor of the ruling. He felt the need to clarify his position.
John had a brother-in-law who was gay, had been in a civil union with his partner, and had died of AIDS, which had prompted the pastor to start looking at Scripture in the context of pastoring the LGBT community. He asked each board member if they felt it would be good for him to be authentic about how his views had shifted.
The timing seemed appropriate. The board had been on a similar journey, wrestling for a year with the question of how to minister to all people, including LGBT people. One board member, Patricia Draper, had been married to a man who was gay. She emphasized the need for the board to have first-hand information, not just discuss this in the abstract, and had introduced them to her ex-husband, who in turn introduced them to others in the LGBT community. For about a year, the board had met with Draper’s ex-husband and his friends, seeking to understand: What is it like to be gay and Christian? What is your experience? How should the church minister to LGBT people? Not everyone on the board agreed in their thinking about same-sex attraction, but they all agreed it seemed right to ask the congregation to join in this discussion.
The pastor talked to the congregation on Sunday, June 28, about his feelings that there might be room for other interpretations of the Scriptures addressing homosexual acts.
“Our pastor’s intent was to demonstrate authenticity, invite conversation and challenge us to look at Scripture in the context of what the Holy Spirit was doing in our midst and in the world,” Patricia said. “Unfortunately, it had a very polarizing effect.”
Within two weeks, a quarter of the congregation had left the church. Within two months, more than half had left. By Aug. 30, the board decided to close the church. Southside Vineyard had its final service on Sept. 27. A church that had existed for more than 20 years was no more.
“From an emotional standpoint, it was like watching someone you love receive an injury and bleed out in front of you,” said Neil Wimbush, another board member. “I chalk it up to my own naiveté, but I really had no idea it would be this explosive.”
After the talk on June 28th, the board attempted to meet with groups of people to hear their concerns and “let them hear what we felt was our position, which was to back John the pastor because we felt he did what he did out of integrity,” Neil said. “We hadn’t proposed performing same-sex marriages, and we didn’t know that we would get to that point. We just wanted to have the conversation about it, and whether there might be another way to look at this.”
Patricia had attended a forum on human sexuality that The Colossian Forum held in 2014, and had been impressed by how prayerful and thoughtful the participants were, even during moments where the discussion was tense. John, who had also attended the sessions, reached out to The Colossian Forum staff for help in July 2015, but the church was splintering too quickly. However, TCF invited Southside representatives to participate in The Colossian Way small group curriculum pilot in the hopes of, as Neil said, “bringing together a number of people from Southside who are extremely wounded, and hopefully helping them with the process of healing.”
Although the church has dissolved, nearly all the former attendees are still in touch, many via the church’s Facebook page (renamed “Formerly Known as Southside Vineyard”). Neil and Patricia aren’t worried about finding enough people from both sides of this issue to participate in the small group. They are concerned about having the discussion undermined by other issues that contributed to the church’s unraveling.
“I think what The Colossian Forum is seeking to do around these issues is so important, because it’s really what’s behind the issues that is the reason we don’t value our fellowship with one another enough to hold together,” Patricia said. “We talk about the Fruit of the Spirit, we talk about the virtues, but when it comes to one another, we can so easily walk away. We walk away from jobs, we walk away from neighborhoods. We’re not investing in one another. Unless we do that, we can’t develop the qualities God wants us to have in Christ.”
During the training for small group leaders, Neil was struck by TCF’s view of conflict as an opportunity to draw closer to one another. “My hope is that we can get people to see, it’s not about winning or losing, but caring enough about the other person that they can have the freedom to disagree without tearing things apart,” he said. “It’s OK for people to be absolutists in their views as long as they say, ‘We still see this is what the Bible says, but we understand you don’t agree with us. How do we co-exist?’”
In some ways, the fact that the church has dissolved is freeing in that there is no pressure for this workshop to drive quick resolution. Instead, Neil and Patricia hope it can transform the dissolution almost into a diaspora, where workshop participants take what they learn about holding to the Christian virtues and to each other through conflict, and live that in their new churches.
“Now we’re not trying to restore our church, but restore the body of Christ,” Patricia said.