Issue Number 18
How very good...
Peace, Unity, Purity
Signs of Life
We began the Project in faith that there can be healing. With the formidable skills, commitment, and insight the Plowshares Institute has brought to bear, we believe now more than ever that our faith was justified. An additional element has been the context in which the RDP works. We are not working alone the Presbytery's Peace, Unity, and Purity group has been working in the same spirit, and with wonderful results (see John Webster's article).
While there remains a lot of pain among LGBT folk and their families, still often unexpressed and unheard, there is also a new spirit of hope and possibility abroad in the land. This issue of Presbyterian Promise News provides some detail about the work toward reconciliation in this presbytery.
The Reconciling Dialogue Project began last September with a dialogue retreat for the Pres Prom board at Crossroads Presbyterian Church. Next we invited the wider gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to join us in conversation at First Pres, New Haven. That was an all too short but truly moving experience for those who were able to join us.
Most recently, with the endorsement of the Presbytery's Council, we invited pastors to retreat together for a day at Westminster Presbyterian in West Hartford. Here are three perspectives on that event. We begin with the Plowshares Institute perspective and follow with reflections from Revs. Ann Beams and John Sandel.
As the Presbyterian guidelines for "Being Faithful Together During Times of Disagreement" point out, "every congregation has conflicts." What matters most is not the presence of conflict, but rather the degree to which we're able to deal with conflict in productive and healthy ways, and to look for the opportunities that conflict offers. As in the case of South Africa, conflict often provides an opportunity for deeper understanding of one another, stronger relationships, and transformed structures.
During the recent pastors' retreat, Plowshares Institute and Presbyterian Promise reached a significant milestone in the year-long pilot phase of our joint project on pursuing reconciling dialogue. Retreat participants commented that the day provided "important and vital skills and insights for all persons interested in the future of the Church" and that "similar training should be required for all seminary students, students under care, and pastors coming into the presbytery!"
Present for the day-long event, which focused on building pastoral skills to minister effectively in divided congregations, were a thoughtful and influential group of church leaders including seasoned clergy, recent seminary graduates, youth ministers, and other members of the presbytery, including the executive presbyter. This diverse group of young and old, theologically and socially conservative and liberal, held differing beliefs and varying understandings of what it means to be faithful. Yet what all those in attendance had in common was a shared interest in the health of the Church and their respective congregations. We gathered with a common mission of deepening our understandings of controversial issues and enhancing our abilities to be "mediating presences" among our constituencies and to minister across the divides.
During the course of the day, participants studied congregational conflicts through a case study about the Iraq war; deepened their capacities in skills of active listening; articulated positions contrary to their own - often finding new
As the General Assembly (1992) stated, "We realize that our perspectives are limited, so to help us affirm each other, enhance our community, stay open to the viewpoints of others and be sensitive to cultural diversity, we commit ourselves to [being faithful together through disagreement] in a spirit of prayer, trust, and love, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit."
As the Presbytery of Southern New England and the rest of the Church continue to discern God's will on a number of issues that bring us into conflict with one another, please join us in a prayer for God's grace and guidance. Thank you for your continued participation in this ministry of reconciliation.
Entitled "Peace Skills for Transforming Congregational Conflicts," Bob and Alice introduced us to their understanding of the nature of conflict, the use of listening skills to build and sustain dialogue, and the use of the case study method to stimulate conversation about controversial topics. We tried our hand discussing issues ranging from the placement of the American Flag in the sanctuary to a 17 year old boy "coming out" to his parents. Their emphasis upon the requirements for creating a safe environment for open, healthy discussion is one that has borne fruit in their many years of consulting with organizations throughout the United States and overseas in South Africa and Indonesia.
Through anecdote and role play, lecture and discussion, Bob and Alice led us on a journey into the complex work of the ministry of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:18). They encouraged us by their example to face conflict bravely in order that we might be able to seek to understand the needs, feelings, and interests which lay beneath and fueled the behavior of those locked in conflict with one another. Teaching with the authority that only comes from a wealth of experience, they were able to communicate that reconciliation is not an impossible ideal; it is a very real possibility in the midst of anxiety, anger, and pain.
This event was part of the year-long project on Reconciling Dialogue sponsored by Presbyterian Promise. In the near future there are two very exciting opportunities for pastors and laity alike to work with Bob and Alice. During the week of June 19 Hartford Seminary is offering a week-long course entitled "Becoming Agents of Reconciliation in Congregations, Communities and Countries: Lessons from the United States, South Africa, and Indonesia." Another version of the same course will be offered at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico the week of July 17. These courses will use a resource developed by Bob and Alice when working in South Africa entitled Peace Skills for Community Mediators. Spiritual, moral, and cultural resources are included to promote understanding of conflict and the development of constructive approaches to address divisive issues. For more information please look at the Plowshares website: www.plowsharesinstitute.org. I heartily recommend both of these opportunities to learn how to engage more fully in the ministry of reconciliation.
Rev. Dr. John Sandel
Milford Pastoral Counseling Center
The Plowhares Institute workshop for pastors, held in our Presbytery on March 15, walked us through the first steps of working through conflict in a good and faithful way, those first steps being how to truly hear one another as we work through a situation of conflict. We practiced 'active listening' in the form of paraphrasing the 'other's' feelings, values, and position. We learned to build on areas of agreement, even as we also addressed ways in which a pastor might fulfill both prophetic and pastoral duties amongst those she/he is called to serve. This workshop was designed to help pastors address any controversial issues in their churches; gay, lesbian, transgendered concerns being only one of many that are potential 'hot buttons' in our life together. Though it is unlikely to ever find unity of agreement on controversial issues, this workshop has helped me to realize that we can, in our congregations, hold up a unity based on our common faith and mutual respect even as we take different positions.
Alice and Bob Evans were wonderful leaders, and we learned a lot. It was also very nice to enjoy the hospitality of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, and to spend some time with clergy colleagues that we see too rarely, and then usually in passing.
The workshop was sponsored by Presbyterian Promise, and endorsed by the Council. As the Council Chair, and as the pastor of Valley Presbyterian church in Brookfield, I am grateful to Presbyterian Promise for giving me this educational opportunity.
Our presbytery's Peace, Unity and Purity group was a Moderator's initiative taken with the knowledge and blessing of the Presbytery Council. Up to the Moderator's Conference at Louisville in January 2004 I had paid little attention to the General Assembly Theological Task Force and expected little from it. However, both its co-chairs, Gary Demarest and Jenny Stoner, first told us that the Task Force had decided not simply to issue a report with some recommendations, but to try to model in their life together what the peace, unity and purity of the Church might look like. They also testified that this had been a transformative experience for all of its members and
Our time together is devoted to personal sharing, to worship, to Bible study, and to planning ahead when necessary. We alternate leadership of worship and Bible study; the leader is free to lead as she or he sees fit. At the end of our very first meeting, during which we devoted almost all of our time to sharing where we were coming from in joining this group, we took the decision to pursue this further together rather than to immediately organize something for the presbytery. This, to be honest, was not what I had expected or planned for, but it had marks of the Spirit's leading upon it and so we have continued in that pattern ever since. We have done some work for the presbytery, bringing Jenny Stoner to last February's meeting and leading worship afterwards. My Moderator's sermon at last May's meeting was a direct outgrowth of our experience together. In November we led a Bible study for the presbytery and will do so again at the February meeting. At the May meeting we will be trying to lead the presbytery in a study of the GA Task Force report. At our last meeting we decided to expand the group by each of us inviting one person to join.
Our group resembles the GA Task Force in that we have sought to discover and to model in our life together what the peace, unity and purity of the Church might look like. I think we would all agree that we too have been changed
in the process. We differ from the GA Task Force in three respects I wish to highlight. The first is that we meet privately instead of in front of the press or other spectators. This has enabled us to be closer, more spontaneous, more open with one another than might otherwise have been the case. Personal bonds are important and real; getting together is something we look forward to. Secondly, we are not a theological task force. We do not feel called upon, yet, to review the confessions of the Church and do heavy theological thinking for you all. Our job has been more existential: to place ourselves under the authority of the texts for the day in order to discern what obedience requires of us. It is a head trip to be sure, but it is not primarily that so far. It is a gut journey, a soul journey. And third, we are under no external mandate to recommend anything to guide the presbytery in any way. So far we have simply shared out of our experiences and let the Holy Spirit do with that what God wills in this presbytery.
Reconciliation with integrity? Yes, so far. Of course, I got to pick the members of the group and so I did not feel particularly alienated from any of them to start with. But reconciliation has meant a deeper, fuller knowing each other, greater trust for one another, greater delight in each other's company, a deeper awareness that when we are together doing what we do we are on holy ground. I do not feel that my Christian integrity has been compromised or even threatened, but perhaps we have not gotten to the really hard stuff yet. On the contrary, Christian integrity for me means engaging in precisely this kind of pursuit in search of reconciliation and deliverance from whatever forces of cultural or other bondage we may find ourselves captive to.
|Remarks to Presbyterian Promise Meeting
January 29, 2006
I think the most helpful way for me to begin what I want to say this afternoon is to tell you that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for a first step that I took more than a year ago.
That first step was to accept an invitation from John Webster, our then new presbytery moderator, to join him and a
When I said yes to John's request I did so not because I thought it likely that some great tectonic shift would occur and that a new consensus would emerge. I said yes because I was led back in my thinking to a core conviction that I have held for many years; namely and here I'm recalling the Apostle Paul's great doxology at the end of Ephesians 3 - that God always is doing "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us
I wasn't and still am not clear as to what it is that God is doing. But I can tell you that I believe God is interested more in bringing us together in Jesus and less in seeing us divide ourselves into groups and parties over perceived, imagined or real differences and embrace attitudes and actions that heap dis-grace upon ourselves and grievously wound our witness in the world.
For me, faith in Jesus Christ inspires and compels me to live a risky life. That means moving beyond the safety and security and comfort of likemindedness with people who hold the same beliefs about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, worship styles, musical preferences and human sexuality to name a few. If I can do this ecumenically and I can with people of other faiths, then surely I ought to be able and willing to do it with people in the church of which we are members.
But as many of us have experienced, it's often easier to get along with people who are your neighbors than those who are members of your own immediate family. And yet, that's precisely what I believe God wants us to do. So that's why I said yes.
And here's what I've begun to experience. I'm not sure what it will mean on the question of how our church lives obediently and faithfully to Jesus Christ with respect to who can be ordained and who can't. I haven't been persuaded that I must change what I believe and how I come to my beliefs. But I do see God at work in what to me is an odd, curious and yet wonderful sort of way.
The question that has brought our PUP group together has not been set aside, but I believe God has moved it and us to a place where I see God speaking to me and showing me that, differences on deeply important questions notwithstanding, what matters most to God is that I love Blair, Shirley, Meg and John as much as I love Don and Jim.
I don't believe I'm disclosing anything that is a secret when I tell you that in the months since our group has been meeting four of our members have either continued to experience or begun to experience serious illnesses personally or to close members of their families. Because these are people I am spending time with, I not only have come to be aware of their circumstances but also have come to have a heartfelt concern and deepened affection for them. Where each of these four persons is on the ordination question has no bearing on how I have come to feel about him and her in the last year or so.
You did not ask me to come today to preach to you, so I want to be careful. I will continue to speak in the first person and you can take from my witness what God may be saying to you. But here's what is happening to me. I love the people in the PUP group. I didn't before because I didn't know them. But as I am coming to know them better and better, I am caring more and more about them. And I look forward to our times together.
I am not going to forecast or predict what is going to happen in the coming months. That's much bigger than me or what I can do. But here's one thing that I believe I must do, and I invite you to consider it with me. Regardless of what plans God has for our church; or regardless of what we do with the church and I think we must admit the possibility we might not get it the way God wants us to - I believe there is one thing about which there can be no ambiguity or uncertainty. God wants us to move out beyond the comfort, safety and security of our affinity groups and step out in faith to humbly meet and be willing to know and become known by those who think, speak, believe and live out their faith in ways that not only are different but even threatening to us.
I might be wrong, but that's how I think I came to be here today. And I'm here not only because John asked me, and you asked him. I think Jesus may be in this in the same way I am seeing him at work in our PUP small group.
Paul A. Terry
Saturday, April 22 at 4 PM
United Church on the Green, New Haven, CT
featuring Lisa Larges.
Growing the Welcoming Church in a Wintry World
A hope-filled worship service celebrating
the gifts of the Welcoming church,
sponsored by Welcoming Congregations of New Haven
.God is still growing the welcoming church!
"Most miracles are accompanied by a great deal of hard work." Archbishop Desmond Tutu
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