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When the topic is tough, we need to talk — and listen

When the called session of General Conference convenes in February 2019, delegates will consider a report from the Council of Bishops growing out of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. The 2016 General Conference authorized the Council of Bishops to create the commission to provide recommendations addressing questions around human sexuality, mission and unity that would move the denomination from its current impasse.

As they prepare for and learn the bishops’ recommendations for how The United Methodist Church can be in ministry with, by and for LGBTQI people, many United Methodist churches and annual conferences are creating settings for people to engage in meaningful dialogue about sensitive topics. Those who are considering developing similar events may benefit from the strategies of others already active in the process. 

Define the goal.

It’s important to set a reasonable expectation and understand the goal of the event. Before and after healthy dialogue, people will hold differing opinions. Defining “success” in advance may avoid disappointment. Planners may benefit from identifying the reasons for engaging in conversation.

The Rev. Gray Southern, a district superintendent and chair of the 2019 General Conference delegation from the North Carolina Conference, has participated in several events considering the commission’s work. Each, he says, was designed “to allow folks to come together to voice their view points for the sake of the gospel and the church.”

Southern thinks churches sometimes avoid challenging conversations out of fear “that you’re going to cause debate or conflict,” but really, he said, “you’re helping people work toward deeper understanding.”

He sees difficult conversations as opportunities to “help people understand the pitfalls that lead to misunderstanding and disunity” and to model “ways to remain in communion with each other even when you disagree.”

Marcia McFee, worship designer for “Table Talks,” a series of events happening in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, mentioned two goals: deeper love and deeper spirituality.

Being willing to talk about the things that matter helps us “begin to accept ourselves so that we might love each other better,” she said. “As long as things stay taboo and uncomfortable, the less opportunity we have to really deepen our spiritual lives. And in the end, that’s the important thing.”

The Rev. Jessica Moffatt, lead pastor at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a trained mediator who sees her life work as guiding people to “discern the will of God” and to “help people not hurt each other.”

She says the process of discerning the will of God together requires “holy indifference,” which involves “suspending everything you think you know,” as well as identifying your biases and laying them aside.

“If we can’t suspend our ideas,” she said, “perhaps we are hindering the work God wants to do.”

Create an invitational space.

Setting an environment that feels safe and welcoming is one crucial part of any meaningful dialogue process. Some churches find it helpful to create a covenant for how people will treat one another.

For events in the Greater Northwest Area, the covenant asks participants to: “stay curious; be kind; listen with the same amount of passion with which I want to be heard.”

McFee suggests another way to create safety is to invite sharing, rather than require it.

“I think more people end up sharing if they are allowed to not share,” she said. “Give permission to interact as needed. If people don’t feel coerced, they are more likely to do it. People always have the option to pass and not share.”

One fundamental principle Moffatt has observed is that “every person wants to be fully heard.” Allowing space for sharing and for empathetic listening — also called active listening or reflective listening — is key to conducting healthy conversations.

“Speak carefully, using language about you, not about the other party,” Moffatt said “Describe what you experienced and how you feel. Describe the outcome you would like to see. Take care not to inflame and accuse. Listen carefully. Restate what you are hearing. Ask questions. Listen with empathy.

“You would be amazed at how much new information comes out when people listen to each other,” she said. “People are able to tell their stories and why they feel the way they do. You sometimes learn that the motive for what they are doing is not the motive you thought it was.”

Find shared values.

When people disagree about any topic, it can be helpful to search for common ground. Regardless of points of difference, finding shared values can create a positive foundation for further conversation.

Southern noted the importance of allowing “space for the Holy Spirit to be made known in hearts and minds.”

He said it can be helpful for church members to remind one another that “they all claim the same Christ and the same missional mind. They just see these topics differently.”

McFee finds it useful to utilize a common ritual or story to emphasize what people have in common.

“Coming to the table is a common story,” she said, noting that Holy Communion “binds us as humans in the midst of our differences.”

Community can be another shared value that helps people work together, Moffatt said, adding that there are biblical encouragements about “remaining in relationship and being in the body of Christ.”

“That’s what does the work of the kingdom,” she said.

Emphasize renewed connection.

At the conclusion of some conversations Southern observed, he said participants left with “new understanding and appreciation of people who have a different view point.”

In designing worship, McFee chose Communion as a symbol to help people remember that everyone encounters difficulty and also provided an activity to encourage participants to hold one another in prayer after the event.

“We all find ourselves in moments where sometimes we just want this cup to pass from us,” she said. “It’s so hard to be in community in this situation. The cup can’t pass from us, but we are not alone.”

Though conflict can be challenging, Moffatt said “managing conflict well can actually improve the relationship between the parties concerned.”

Moffatt encourages participants to offer gratitude as the conversation comes to a close.

“At the end, whether there has been full agreement or not, allow for a time of gratitude,” she suggests. “Express appreciation for the listening that has been done and the care that has been given for the relationship or friendship itself. Acknowledge if there has been anything new learned.”

— Emily Snell is a freelance writer and editor living in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is also on staff of The Upper Room, a part of Discipleship Ministries.

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