Have you and your congregation heard? There is an election coming in just a few short weeks. If your congregation is like most I’ve seen, not only are members aware that an election is coming; they have some opinions regarding the outcome. What strategies and skills are needed to navigate a charged election season within a congregation?
I would suggest starting with scripture in general and with Jesus specifically. In Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum. Upon entering the house, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing en route. His question was met with silence as they recognized that somehow a discussion concerning who was the greatest fell outside the norms of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.
In response to the disciples’ silence, Jesus invited a child into their midst and asked them to re-imagine their idea of what it meant to be great. Jesus, committed to the community of disciples, knew that there needed to be a change in the conversation. I’m wondering if Jesus’ ability to change and reframe conversations might be a useful tool for congregational leaders in these days.
In addition to the example of Jesus, I would recommend the work of Katie Hyten and her thoughts on bridge-building and creating new/different coversations. Hyten maps out the pattern of conversation that often ends in conflict and might sound familiar to some congregation leaders in a political season.
A person(s) is triggered by an off-putting comment that feels like a personal attack. And make no mistake, politics is more personal than ever. In her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, author Lilliana Mason traces how political affiliation moved from one of a variety of ways people identified themselves to becoming the primary way that many find identity and meaning.
This personal attack then calls forth a vigilance which includes heightened listening, since a person’s character and sense of identity have been attacked. Once the attack to character has been confirmed, the offended party is moved to either attack the attacker or at least defend his or her belief, candidate, or position. The problem with this pattern of conversation is the fact that it becomes a pattern. The conversation style feeds upon itself, and it can become impossible to escape.
What Hyten suggests, much as Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel, is changing the conversation. First, she invites conversation partners to listen. The listening suggested is not a listening so that an appropriate response can be formulated, but instead it is a listening for understanding. What values, life experiences, and emotions have caused this person to believe this way or support a particular candidate?
Next, Hyten asks those who are trying to change the conversation to do something very counter-cultural: to reflect. After listening to someone who may have very different politics than your own, what would it look like to pause, slow down, and think about what you’ve heard? Is there any bridge between your life experience and the experience of your conversation partner? In a rapid-response world, reflecting and pausing may be a most revolutionary act.
And when you respond, do so in such a way that shows your desire to understand the other. Hyten also suggests that you assume good intentions. In recent work with a group of denominational and congregational leaders, we decided that we needed a covenant to guide our time and work together. Through thoughtful conversation, one of the most important gifts we decided we could give each other was the assumption of good intentions. In today’s highly charged partisan environment, we can’t take anything for granted.
Finally, Hyten reminds us of the powerful gift of asking questions. Perhaps by listening in order to understand, by pausing to reflect, and by giving a kind response, a door might be opened for authentic questions to be asked and mutual learning to be obtained.
Call me a pessimist, but I’ve had a growing sense that political culture is doing a better job of creating disciples than the Church of Jesus Christ. A look at fellow church members’ Facebook pages can be used to prove my point. Rather than a healthy exchange of differing opinions, it looks more like elementary school children vying to win an argument in order to obtain more friends. It must be asked: What sort of witness does this give to a particular church and, more importantly, to Christ?
Yet, we are not without a choice. The broad way of partisan idolatry stretches out before us. We know the vocabulary; tactics; and, sadly, the outcomes. We know the broad way that fractures church families and moves congregations toward political homogeneity. It invades our family gatherings and follows us to our places of employment.
There is another, more difficult and narrow way. It is neither easy nor without risk. When practiced within a congregation, this way can give life-giving witness to a fractured world and hope to broken communities.
The choice is before us. It’s time to vote.
Kyle Reese is the Executive Director of the OneJax Institute at the University of North Florida.