1. General Christian

Disagreements in Faith Communities

         When the PCUSA made the decision in 2013 to ordain LGBTQ+ people, there was a strong push back from many people in our churches.  Many people who had wanted this inclusion had hung in with the church for a very long time before the decision was made.  They had chosen to stay within a body even when things were different from what they believed to be right, to be moral.  They stayed, and worked for change.  However, when the decision was made to open up our ordination limitations, many people who disagreed with this new decision left their individual congregations and many congregations left the denomination.  Many people grieved that loss of those members, but more, I think they struggled to understand why they were expected to stay despite disagreements when other’s had their way, but those same others would not in turn stay if they did not have things going their way.
       Regardless, the choice for those other churches to leave has, in many ways, made other decisions in the national church easier.  As a denomination we are more on the same page now, the great differences in our opinions and beliefs are hugely lessened in the wake of those who have left.  While the decision to leave made a big statement, it was a one-time statement that left no room for any weigh-in on any future decisions.  And that, then, is the cost of leaving.  Once you have left, your voice no longer carries the weight it had when you were willing to still be in conversation with those with whom you disagreed.  You can no longer impact decisions, you no longer have sway or persuasive authority.  Your last vote, your last voice, was cast when you left.  The denomination as a whole has swung, has moved, because the “center” is now in a very different place than it was before congregations and individuals left the church.
         One of the things I find interesting about this, though, is that while we have fewer disagreements within our denomination now, in some ways those disagreements are now more heated.  It seems that when the church mirrors yourself more fully, the disagreements are more painful.  There is more “buy-in” when the body is less diverse in opinion and looks more like you in terms of values.  And so when that body disagrees, that disagreement seems more painful.
         All of this is true on the smaller scale as well.  I remember reading somewhere that by year five of a pastorate, a congregation tends to look like its pastor.  I also remember thinking as I read the article that I didn’t think this was actually accurate for most Presbyterian churches.  Certainly it has not been accurate for the churches I have served.  Presbyterian churches, for those who don’t know, aren’t run by their pastors.  They are run by sessions, or boards, that make the decisions for the congregations.  Pastors are “teaching elders” which means we teach, we preach; our power is persuasion and not ultimate authority.  In contrast, the elders who serve on our sessions are “ruling elders” – they make the decisions for the congregation.  I have yet to be part of a congregation in which every decision made by the session was something I agreed with.  And that remains true no matter how long I’ve been in a church.  I served one church for 8 1/2 years and at the time of my leaving there were still decisions made with which I disagreed.  That was also the case with the next congregation where I served 6 1/2 years.  And this is true of the church where I have been serving for the last five years as well.
            And what has been interesting to me is that, just as debates in the larger church seem more painful when the body tends to be more homogenous in terms of beliefs, decisions in the more homogenous congregations (theologically) tend to be impacted at a deeper level too.  My last congregation was extremely theologically and politically diverse.  When decisions were made that some people did not agree with, it was easier to shrug them off, to delight in the diversity of opinions and differences.  For myself, besides enjoying the different voices and remembering that the body of Christ contains all different parts, I would remember that as the pastor, I was a servant to the congregation, but that I was not a member of the congregation.  The church was the people who made up the membership of the congregation.  And I was there to pastor them, but it was, ultimately, not my church.  Pastors come and go, but the church remains the people. That distinction may feel strange, but it is and was a necessary distinction.  I was there to guide, to encourage, to give my insight from a theological perspective.  But I was not there to control, to insist or even to “lead” in the sense of taking charge and determining the future of the church.
           But I see that in my current congregation, which in many ways is more theologically homogenous, when disagreements do arise, the pain of difference, the pain of disagreement, seems so very much harder to take for everyone involved.  And again, I think that’s a symptom of the homogeny that has been shared.  Is this a good thing?  There are definitely gifts in hearing voices of difference.  There are also definite gifts in being like-minded in terms of being able to make a difference and impact the world around us in a more definite way.
           I think the trick in all of this is to find balance, always.  And to learn some tolerance for different opinions.  We can’t grow unless we hear other voices.  And we can’t make a difference unless we are saying something in a different way or with a different voice than others have inside their own heads.  So the questions of who we want to be in the world, what kind of difference we choose to make, and how we want to be in relationship to one another are important.  Especially in this time of increased polarization, sitting around the table with different opinions and voices is necessary and invaluable.  When we leave the conversation, we can no longer contribute in that way.  Maybe your reason for staying in a church community should not be because that community serves you, supports your beliefs, and validates your thinking.  Perhaps your reason to stay should instead be because the church needs you, your voice, your opinions, and your vision.   Are we here to give or to receive?  Are we here to serve or to be served?  I understand that this does not always make our communities and conversations comfortable.  But is the goal really our comfort?  Jesus never called us to be comfortable.  Jesus called us to heal, to bring justice, and to be willing to lose our lives in order to gain them.  Therefore, these questions are the questions we must ask as people of faith.

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