Our task in this essay is to outline where we see agreement in approaches, where we have concerns, key questions avoided by the other institutions, insight gained from reading about their processes, and finally, any surprises. Thanks to Jeff and Jessica for their excellent essays. I appreciate their approaches to dialogue and am grateful to be part of this group.
From my discipline of Communication Studies, I teach that communication competence involves three aspects: knowledge, skill, and motivation. In all three of our cases, we desire to be in good relationships, and those relationships are dependent on competent communication. I will use this model of communication competence to examine our processes.
In all of our approaches, we recognized a need for additional knowledge. I was particularly impressed with Jeff’s approach in seeking knowledge, intentionally seeking out knowledge from a wide range of sources and opinions, from articles to YouTube videos. All the while, digesting the material within a community of diverse opinion. In a similar fashion, Jessica’s church helped each individual to identify his or her own preconceived assumptions about truth through a number of interesting activities. This provided an opportunity to increase self-knowledge, as well as build knowledge within the community.
In terms of my concerns regarding their approaches, I hold both in high regard for taking such a thoughtful approach to the conversation. Each had deep knowledge of the culture of their particular community and found ways to open opportunities for dialogue within culturally-appropriate ways. We all face different internal and external pressures; I believe each congregation pressed into the difficult conversation in a way that was unique to their individual community identities. Effective communication and solutions we seek through communication must be local. Even though we all may recognize and celebrate the universal and eternal truth of Christ, how we understand and live out that truth must occur at the level of the local community. Figuring out “what it means” and “how to do it” is the role of the local faith community.
Perhaps my concern is also the insight I’ve learned from going through the process at Eastern, and now reading their stories. Neither Jeff, nor Jessica mentions that any of the key members involved are LGBT. One of the reasons we all have to build our knowledge in this area is that we are not LGBT. I remember as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s that I sat on a faculty committee whose job was to develop the first sexual harassment policy for the university. As luck would have it, one of the members was sexually harassing me. When I asked the chair of the committee about it, he said that it was not considered sexual harassment since this faculty member was in sociology, while I was a 19-year old student in communication. Ha! This seems ridiculous now. We know so much more about the dynamics and consequences of sexual harassment and its connections with all manifestations of power. The point of my tangent is that the one in power (male and the chair of the committee) could not begin to understand the situation from my (female and student) perspective. Without voices at our tables who represent difference in sexual orientation and gender identification, we are not able to grasp the whole story because we “do not know what we do not know” because of the limitations of our experiences and perspectives.
Just because one develops knowledge in communication, does not mean they will be competent in communication. One must also have the skill to engage with one another. Both congregations took care to practice the skills of engaging in dialogue. Jeff’s church practiced modeling the conversation, especially during “Family Meetings.” Jessica’s church was particularly impressive in the practice of skills, teaching and modeling how to dialogue with each other. Clearly a value of the Mennonite church community, they found strategic ways to practice engagement. Their spoken and unspoken rules focus on dialogue, not debate.
What could we learn about developing skills? I can hear my philosophy colleague reminding me that debate has a place in our conversations. My philosophy colleague is wonderful at debate. It is never personal with him; he always focuses on the issues. We can engage in an “active debate” and still go for a beer afterwards. Debate demands that I am knowledgeable about my position and that I can support it with evidence that BOTH parties agree “counts as evidence.” Does the scientific literature on the nature of homosexuality “count” for a given community? Does it inform their position and offer support for it. So, I would ask both Jessica and Jeff what was “allowed into evidence” in their efforts at discernment. That can shape the debate a great deal.
In debate, I am challenged to think more critically and to understand all aspects of an argument. Debate is not about attacking one another. Contrary to media coverage of the political debates, it is not about making fun of one another. Televised political debates are entertainment, not real debates. I appreciate my colleague’s perspective and wonder if we all might include it in our process as a way to sharpen our arguments.
Another key aspect of communication competence is motivation. An example will help explain how motivation plays a role in competence. I have studied communication for more than 30 years (knowledge), and I have developed a large skillset to participate in communication from dialogue to debate. Yet, at times my motivation can wane. My marriage is important and my husband is wonderful, yet I can, despite knowledge and skills in abundance, take him for granted, not muster up the energy for a kind response or active listening. We can take community for granted. We can undervalue the “other” despite rational knowledge and appropriate training. We must be motivated to connect even when it is hard, even when we assume we’ll “have tomorrow.”
But motivation is not just effort. It is the “why” behind the effort. Scripture reminds us that the heart is the greatest of deceitful things and we must be honest about why we are doing what we are doing. What is the motivation to engage in this dialogue? I think both Jeff and Jessica correctly point to the centrality of relationships in the process. Regardless of the context, whether university or church, we see relationships as central to living well in the body of Christ.
Recently, my co-author and I submitted a chapter for an edited book that included a discussion of the dialogue on Human Sexuality. The copy editor for the book took real issue with our discussion and make editorial comments throughout the chapter, including, “Gay-sex is a sin. No discussion needed.” The comments were mean-spirited and inappropriate from the copy editor. In reflection, I think it was easy for the copy editor to make the comments because she doesn’t have any relationship with me or my co-author. I want to believe that it was easier to write these comments to strangers, than to friends.
How does our motivation change when we are in relationship with people who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity? Perhaps we learn, as Justin Lee reminds us, that people are more than just sex. Perhaps we are more motivated to listen to one another when we are motivated by our love for one another.
In Jessica’s essay, she mentions that people could only participate in the second session if they had participated in the first. Their community understood the importance of building community and trust, before pressing into difficult dialogue. Jeff doesn’t mention how they strategically included more members of the church. I suspect that people who were motivated to participate were the ones who showed up for the “Family Meetings.” I wonder how we could increase motivation to participate across a broader spectrum. I wish more faculty had participated in our events, but I am not sure how to increase participation. Required attendance does not increase motivation. But as Eastern comes to the end of our process, I am sorry that more faculty weren’t actively engaged throughout the process.
What has risen for me as I’ve reviewed all three cases as summarized in the essays is that there is no one right way to process these difficult issues. How local communities create safety, authenticity and accountability will be unique. But the efforts to do so must be present. I also can imagine that each of us must be willing to lose members as a result of this process and not call the process a failure. That will hurt, but I’m not sure it can be avoided. We must treat those who choose to leave because of we’ve become “too _____” as believers still on their journey as we all are and not judge or try to convince them to stay. Convince them to continue to seek Christ and to be Christlike.
Finally, have I changed my view of either institution? No. I did not know them well enough before hand to form a view in need of change. But, my view of local communities of faith has changed in that I think each institution must be as proud of its process as it is of its positions. I am left wondering if Christianity might be more attractive to outsiders if we seemed more clearly like we were “figuring it out” rather than seeming to have “figured it out.”