Posts

Can We Talk?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Don Meeks

Background
I am currently in my 17th year as the Pastor of a medium size, predominantly white, conservative church located thirty-five miles west of Washington DC. The changing cultural landscape in recent years has left many of our folks in a somewhat confused and anxious place, often feeling disconnected from the larger denomination.

In 2012 our Session voted unanimously to affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians (now The Fellowship Community). Overall, this affiliation has been a positive experience for our church and has (mostly) helped folks to calm down.

With some training in Bowen family systems theory, I have been trying to offer non-anxious and self-differentiated leadership. One critical strategy for keeping myself calm has been an intentional effort in the past several years to reach across the theological aisle at our presbytery in an attempt to build relational bridges and mutual understanding.

A Calculated Risk
Like many, I followed the June 2014 General Assembly with keen interest. The night the marriage overtures passed I received an email from Jeff Krehbiel, a colleague from the ‘other side of the aisle’ whom I had begun to know through some shared presbytery work. Jeff acknowledged, with a gifted pastor’s touch, that the same news being celebrated at his church was likely to be a source of disappointment in our church. He was right.

Jeff offered himself in support of me in any way he could. In reply, I took a calculated risk and invited Jeff to address our Session and Deacons on how he makes the case from Scripture for same-sex marriage. This experience began a rich conversation and collegial relationship that grew as Jeff and I committed to facilitating an on-going conversation within our presbytery. We simply called this effort, “Can We Talk?” Jeff’s untimely death earlier this year has been a huge loss for so many, including myself, as we had begun to extend this conversation beyond our own presbytery, including an Ignite presentation and workshop at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta.

Beyond Either / Or
It’s no secret that the growing polarization in our culture tends to push us towards a binary paradigm that views things in terms of ‘us/them,’ ‘conservative/progressive,’ or ‘for/against.’ One of my greatest challenges has been to find a way beyond the ‘either/or’ dilemma that many denominational conservatives like myself believe we are faced with: either seek dismissal from the PCUSA, or stay and face membership defections and leadership battles.

Not surprisingly, I am finding few examples and fewer colleagues with the appetite for doing the relational work necessary to move beyond this ‘either/or’ mentality. For some it may be a lack of vision, imagination, or desire. For others it may be asking too much to abandon deeply embedded patterns of binary thinking.

I have also found a real tension lingering at the edges of this work: Can we be in meaningful relationship across the aisle without also being seen as a traitor, of sorts, to our own convictional community? Or from another angle, will our convictions be an honest stumbling block to others’ living out their own theological convictions?

Quite frankly, many times I have wondered if this is all a fool’s errand.

A Modest Attempt
I believe the implications for this work are profound, not only for the health of our churches, but also as a witness for Jesus Christ in our polarized and fragmenting culture. I have been greatly encouraged by the warmth and receptivity by the NEXT Church community and a pilot coaching cohort experience following the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City.

Is respectful and robust theological conversation about issues that divide possible? I think so. Could it ever be more than conversation? I hope so. But unless we first learn to sit and talk, it’s going to be virtually impossible to see ourselves as ministry partners in any meaningful way.
As I have continued to ponder and pray on all this, I believe the place to begin is with some kind of simple covenant that I would quietly commit to in my own life. I think it would be a covenant that commits to live toward unity with other Christians, that acknowledges the ‘log in my own eye,’ that honors the intentions of others as noble and just, and that respects the convictions of others even when they stand apart from my own convictions.

In short, I find myself wanting to make a modest attempt to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem with our denomination and our world. And I would be honored to have others join me.


Don Meeks is the senior pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. He is active in the Fellowship Community within National Capital Presbytery.  His vision for ministry is to invite people to experience and express Christ-likeness in all of life. He is an avid golfer, psalmic intercessor and songwriter.

Map, Message and Mission

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Utley

The answer is contemporary worship. That’s what people want. That will bring people into the church. And, for some, it did. Until it didn’t.

The answer was mega church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer was emergent church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer is missional church. The jury is still out…

I think the answer will be the same. Mission alone won’t save God’s church.

Most of our congregants have lived through a religious anomaly. In our lifetime, most everyone belonged to a church. Folks who didn’t were looked upon with pity or suspicion. Every politician, every businessman (gender purposeful), every good mother and wife belonged to and participated in a faith community. Protestant was privileged at the time, but if you had to be Jewish or Catholic, we could understand, though we prayed for you.

This was our world. This shaped our assumptions and our understandings of who we were as church people and how we interacted with our neighbors. It’s not our world any more, thanks be to God. But, it’s no wonder we don’t quite know what to do with our declining churches.

Being a disciple of Christ had a particular focus in the first century, quite a different focus during the reformation. The in-our-face-challenge today involves being part of a people who were “trained” in one religious culture but find themselves neck deep in a different one.

We may feel like we are at the beginning of a Mission Impossible movie. “If you choose to accept this assignment,” the tape says, only we really don’t have a choice — not if we want thriving, meaningful communities of faith.

The answer will not be some kind of magic evangelism…but we are learning to ask the questions. We are better understanding our current culture and its need for God’s good news of transformation, redemption, and reconciliation.

It will take all of us in the conversation, all of us committed to exploring the issues, all of committed to “throwing spaghetti against the wall” until we discern God’s will and way in our time.

We invite you to come and throw spaghetti with us at the National Gathering.

Map, Message and Mission is offered on Monday during workshop block 1 of the 2017 National Gathering.


Beth Utley is the director of Christian formation at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in High Point, NC. She has worked in faith formation for almost 20 years. Her work with skeptical youth and young adults and her congregation’s commitment to evangelism honed her knowledge and skill.