Over the past 6 months, I have personally led or coached numerous churches through helping their people learn about and discuss the way forward for United Methodism using the material provided in Unafraid and Unashamed: Facing the Future of United Methodism. The large majority of these conversations have turned out to be extremely constructive and surprisingly enrichening for the participants. Pastors have reported to me after the conversations their congregations exhibit less anxiety about the future and a greater commitment to their local church.
In a couple instances, however, the conversations have turned into less than helpful debates that have created unnecessary tension between participants. In each case, I’ve tried my best to figure out what makes the difference between a constructive discussion and destructive discussion. Are there any commonalities we can identify between conversations that went well and discussions that turned out to be unhelpful?
Interestingly, I have found one factor that all the unhelpful discussions had in common and it has nothing to do with whether the pastors and churches self-identify as traditionalist, centrist, or progressive. In the unhelpful conversations, the leader of the discussion came across as explicitly trying to convince the group that their opinion regarding LGBTQ inclusion was correct (or in one instance the leader allowed a participant with a similar agenda to dominate the discussion.)
I know right now some of you may be thinking: But how we think about LGBTQ inclusion is important. In fact, it’s crucial to our witness and it has a direct impact on many lives. How can you say we should not have an agenda when it comes to talking with people about it?
It’s true, how the United Methodist Church addresses LGBTQ inclusion will impact millions of lives and it is crucial to our witness. However, when we invite our congregations to talk about the future of United Methodism and they discern that our invitation contains within it a hidden agenda to get them to think more like us about LGBTQ inclusion, they feel threatened and defensive.
I’m not saying it’s not important to share how we feel about LGBTQ inclusion and even try to persuade others to do the same. There are settings where that is exactly what needs to be done. I am just saying the place to do it is not in a conversation about the most faithful path forward for the United Methodist Church given the different viewpoints on LGBTQ inclusion within it.
Every single United Methodist Church will have and needs to have conversations about the future of United Methodist and LGBTQ inclusion. The question is will these conversations take place prayerfully in the church building or heatedly in the church parking lot.
Instead of going into such conversations trying to convince others to think like you, go in trying to help each participant understand how others who love Jesus and love people could think differently than they do. Take your que from the full version of the serenity prayer which encourages us to “take, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have.” When it comes to talking about the future, let’s discuss our beloved and imperfect UMC as it is not as we would have it if we ruled the world. Focus on understanding the various perspectives of sincere disciples within our denomination and then help your congregation ask: "Given our varying viewpoints and the mission of our church, what is the most faithful way to move forward?"
I think you will find when you approach a conversation from this angle the participants will be more likely to truly engage the issues because they do not feel the need to constantly defend their current position. You might be interested to know that a few participants in discussions based on Unafraid and Unashamed have changed their opinions about LGBTQ inclusion after the discussion which I found quite surprising since I had rarely if ever seen individual opinions shift in numerous church and clergy conversations solely about human sexuality over the years. I can’t tell you everyone who shifted their opinion shifted in the exact same manner, but I can tell you they all felt they were able to find a deeper sense that their opinion about the issue stemmed from their faith rather than simply the dominant culture views of their locality.
These results remind me of something a wise mentor said to me a couple decades ago: “The more you try to control others, the less you influence them. The more you try to understand others, the more you influence them.”
In writing Unafraid and Unashamed, I attempted to be brutally honest about the future choices facing our denomination and unrelentingly honest and charitable in my representation of the differing viewpoints within the UMC. I did this because I have found the best way to place ourselves in the path of God’s miraculous power is to be brutally honest about our current path and unceasingly loving to those in our lives. Perhaps if we can help our people have wholly honest and kind conversations about the way for the UMC, we will place ourselves in a position to discern God’s holy way forward for the UMC.
Your people will be having these conversations no matter what happens. You can allow these conversations to happen haphazardly with misinformation or you can proactively help shepherd your church through the issues of our day and age just as faithful leaders have done in previous eras.
In my next post, I’ll focus more on why our churches need their leaders to help lead these conversations.
For now, please accept my sincere wishes for a happy new year and blessings to you and your churches!
Wil Cantrell serves as the Associate Pastor of Concord United Methodist Church in Farragut, TN. Wil’s driving passion is to help people live an authentic life while experiencing a real growing faith in Jesus Christ. Previously, he served as the associate pastor at Middlebrook Pike UMC and as the pastor of Lebanon Memorial UMC (Lebanon, VA) before coming to Concord UMC in July 2015.