Do We Stay or Do We Go?
It was June of 2020 and we had a major decision to make. As we went around our group of elders, each was given the chance to give their opinion: do we go back to worshipping in our sanctuary, or do we continue worshipping online? As the elders began sharing, I could feel the anxiety growing inside me.
Why? it was clear that the group was deeply divided. While emotions hadn’t elevated significantly, the opinions shared were strong and the elders did not shy away from expressing themselves. As I like to say about the congregation I serve, “They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them!”
After every elder had spoken their mind, by a vote of seven to five we decided to remain worshipping online rather than returning to the sanctuary. If just one elder had voted differently we would have been at a stalemate. And so as the meeting ended I breathed a sigh of relief (that it was over) and a sigh of non-relief (knowing that votes like these have a great chance of being “resurrected” in the parking lot or elsewhere).
Our Tribal Headwinds
I know that I am not the only one who in the last three years has had to navigate a group of divided elders. It isn’t as though everything was going swimmingly before COVID, but it has seemed like disagreements became more pronounced and emotional after 2020. I have felt it with my elders, the congregation I serve, and, of course, in conversations with colleagues.
There is little we as leaders can do about the headwinds we face now and will continue to face in the days ahead. We have, gratefully, been reminded in this season that God is God and we are not. That said, I do think that there are ways we can prepare our elders (and congregations) for the inevitable disagreements we will have by doing just that; continually reminding them that we will have disagreements and that this is not a sign of an unhealthy church.
In the political, social, and religious culture in which we find ourselves, there is enormous pressure to conform to one unified thought and that, if we don’t, we must separate from those with whom we disagree. This experience has become so normative that it almost feels instinctual at this point. Far too many of us don’t even question this no-compromise dynamic until it is too late and schisms have already occurred. This form of modern-day tribalism is extremely damaging to the body of Christ and requires intentional teaching, teaching that can re-orient us towards the unity that we are called to throughout scripture.
For the last several years I have taken part in our elder orientation to clearly remind our elders that they will disagree with one another and that this is both okay and incredibly healthy.
Simply giving voice to this has relieved the immense pressure that they (and I) feel when we are wrestling with various and sundry issues.
Giving permission, and dare I say encouraging disagreement, allows all of us to breathe more deeply and to think clearly about the issue at hand.
I love repeating to our elders the story of this 7-5 vote and how our elders stayed unified even in the midst of these deep disagreements. I also like telling them about the time I was outvoted 12-1 on a particular topic because it makes clear that not only can they disagree with one another but that they can, and should, disagree with me at times. It may not seem like much, but this clear pronouncement has the power to cultivate more honest and deep conversations that would otherwise be squelched out of fear of offending those with whom we disagree. When this happens, fear ultimately wins and divisions remain.
Being an elder board that leads with this kind of honesty not only helps the elders, it also serves as an example to the larger congregation that disagreements are a gift and not something for which we should be fearful. In his book Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger shares a keen insight: just as anxiety is contagious, so too is calm.
When there is upheaval in society and in the church, congregation members will look to elders perhaps even more than pastors to get a read on how to respond to the challenging time. When elders are able to see that it is in working through the disagreement (not denying it) that the Spirit of God so often works it becomes a great gift to the congregation.
Much like looking at flight attendants in the midst of turbulence to see whether we should say our final prayers or sit back and enjoy the rest of the flight, by their mere calmness elders can lower the heat in most situations. Not only does this serve the congregation well, but it also allows us to be witnesses to a world desperate for communities that offer peace, not because they are centered around a common opinion, but because they are centered on the Prince of Peace.
Jerry Deck is the senior pastor of Zionsville Presbyterian Church, a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. His primary desire as a pastor is to help his flock grow in its understanding of how we (as individuals and as a community) fit into God’s greater story in this world.
Jerry is married to Megan and they have 4 daughters: Shaughnessy, Adelie, Bromwyn, and Liesel.
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