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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.

Wandering in the Desert

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Thornton

We were a people wandering in the desert – grieving, aimless, keeping to our own; bewildered after a season of dissention, debate, distrust, and dismissal. Eleven of our sister churches were gone, several more were discerning their futures, and we were left to wander brokenhearted.

We were a people connected by membership in a diminished presbytery. We were from Korean, Hispanic, Indonesian, Kenyan, Chinese, Anglo, African American, Taiwanese, Formosan, and Vietnamese congregations. We were from Not Church in Mexico and an RV Chapel near the Pacific Ocean.

We were so different. We were from churches large and small, rich and poor, long established and recently birthed, conservative and progressive. We worshipped in many styles. We read scripture through varied lenses.

How could we heal this wound? How could we fill this emptiness? How could we build trust? How could we bridge the theological divide? How could we arrive at the Promised Land? We did not know how.

We were a people longing to connect, aching for community, missing what had been, afraid, yet daring to hope.

We went to committee meetings and worked through the business. We came for presbytery gatherings that felt contentious, where groups competed for power, advocated for their own causes, and fostered an atmosphere of winners and losers. It felt wrong. We knew we could be better. We did not know how.

In the midst of our desolation, the Holy Spirit was on the loose. In the summer of 2015, a small task force was commissioned to study the presbytery meetings. They were too long, too boring, too impersonal. The group recommended:

  • Spend less time on business, more in worship.
  • Invite speakers to inspire and equip presbyters and congregations.
  • Focus on building relationships.
  • Create opportunities for conversation.
  • Establish a Presbytery Gathering Team to plan and implement gatherings.

The Spirit “blew through the wilderness” calling us a new way of being. Every minute of each gathering is now carefully planned around a portion of our vision statement. We gather around tables for more than a quick meal. We sit with people we do not know and share stories, answer questions prompted by special speakers, and provoked by careful listening. We are getting to know our brothers and sisters, acknowledging our differences and celebrating what unites us. We look across the table and see the image of God in one another.

We are on the mend. We dare to hope and to trust. We are still wandering, but we journey together and rejoice in our new and renewed relationships. We are on the way to the Promised Land. We are Los Ranchos.


Susan Thornton is a ruling elder at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and a member of the NEXT Church strategy team.