Periodically, we need a reminder of why we write this blog and what our hopes are for church boards. A recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) serves as just such a reminder.
The PRRI report announced its findings last week with the headline: “Survey Shows Political Divides Between Mainline Clergy and Churchgoers.” Relationships between pastors and their congregations are nearly always a balancing act, and the newest data adds to the challenge of pastors working with their congregations – and particular, their church boards.
The data has some limitations. First, it is taken from mainline (predominantly white) congregations. Secondly, it does not report the exact same trends among rural pastors and congregations as it does among those in urban areas. And in some cases, the divide is as much between pastors and denominational offices as it is between pastors and church members.
Having said all that, the challenge of these findings remains: we are living in a time of immense cultural and political division. And it falls on pastors and church boards to navigate the divides for the sake of a church’s witness to the world through its ministry and mission.
Chapters 14-17 of John’s Gospel are known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” and offer something of a crash course for the disciples on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Among the themes Jesus presents, the need for unity is front and center.
I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples] but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. – John 17:20-21a
Unity is what Jesus prays for. Unity, it seems, comes through the power of God at work in us. And, as Jesus continues, he emphasizes that Jesus’ followers love for one another is how the church will bear witness to God’s love in a broken world.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have
loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know
that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35
Still, we know that, when a church board gathers, people enter the room affected by the divisions of our society. “Love one another as I have loved you” can be obscured by strong emotions about Trump, Biden, abortion, immigration, guns, LGTQIA+ issues, poverty, war, and more.
If a board meeting proceeds directly to tackle a “hot button” issue – be it a national political topic or a congregational topic that has sown division (think buildings, budgets, staffing) – usually, before discussion begins, many members of the board have chosen sides and pre-loaded their opinions. Is it any wonder that boards struggle to talk well in such moments?
We believe that church boards need to build capacity over time to talk with one another deeply across differences. The regular practice of reflecting together on short complex texts like scripture and poetry can help build that capacity in quite remarkable ways. Such texts naturally invite multiple readings and responses and do not offer a single answer to the questions they raise, while also helping the group develop and use a richer theological vocabulary for its work. The habit of reflection on them can build capacity for that day when the “hot button” topic arrives.
There will be times when a difficult issue has to reach quick and clear resolution in a board discussion. But the board will be better able to resolve it, having built capacity to sit with complexity, listen to alternate viewpoints, accept that we live in a pluralistic society, and not leave the room.