Magazine article The Christian Century

Explosive Issues

Magazine article The Christian Century

Explosive Issues

Article excerpt

Sometimes society faces issues that seem to defy rational solution. They excite extraordinary tensions, and participants in debate find that simple language is misunderstood and motives are vilified. In the 20th century this level of irrational hostility has exploded around such issues as the right of labor to organize, women's suffrage, desegregation and abortion. Welcoming homosexual people into full membership and positions of leadership in the church is this kind of "killer" issue.

Speed Leas, an experienced consultant in congregational crises, describes the highest level of conflict as an emotional condition in which one side wants to destroy the opposition, literally to kill the enemy (Moving Your Church Through Conflict, Alban Institute). He identifies a slightly lower level of conflict which is the "fight or flight" condition: each side is willing to engage the other, but both still have the freedom to withdraw from conflict.

When questions of accepting homosexuals into mainline churches arise, many people have such powerful and unexamined emotions that the conflict immediately reaches those high levels of intensity. Homosexuals, like abortion doctors, have been murdered in raw outbursts of emotional resistance. In fairness, we have also seen strong emotions at the staunchly liberal end of the spectrum--but never at the "kill the enemy" stage.

Church leaders should not underestimate the challenge of developing constructive communication in the midst of such irrational and explosive conditions. Managing conflict in such situations can be likened to trying to worship when grenades are rolling under the pews. In the congregations we know best, we have found an irrational anger that often overwhelms efforts to explore differing views on sexual orientation.

Our argument is this: leaders cannot expect church members, with their unexamined sexual identities and unrecognized passions, to welcome homosexuals into the church through a customary process of deliberation. Congregations cannot broach such an issue as if it could be settled through rational discussion and democratic decisions. Until church members, gay and straight, deal with their own gut feelings, they will not be able to use their heads about homosexuality.

Using time-tested governance procedures, congregations often attempt to assess the facts, examine scriptural and historical precedents, consider alternatives, encourage participation in open debate, allocate responsibilities to proper authorities, and finally reach a decision. Then they are surprised when the congregation explodes.

Until people's emotions have been engaged in a pastoral way, "facts," "research," "open forums" and especially "issue-debating meetings" are likely to contribute to escalating confrontations, polarizing power struggles and ugly exchanges that leave deep wounds in the hearts of both individuals and groups.

Some pastors trigger members' explosive responses by acting on their own to accept homosexual persons into the congregation. When such actions take the congregation by surprise, members can feel confused and betrayed. Such independent gestures by pastors and lay leaders have polarized churches, inflamed irrational and unconstructive conflict, and resulted in membership loss and pastor relocation. Since the action has already occurred, it's too late for negotiation or compromise. …

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