In light of what you have learned from your experience at your institution and the approaches taken by the other two institutions, what refinements would you propose in the approach taken by your institution if you could do it all over again?
I appreciate reading the case studies and responses from both Jeff Lincicome, Senior Pastor at Sammamish Presbyterian Church, and from Jessica Schrock Ringenberg, Pastor at Zion Mennonite Church. I have learned from both. While both pastors represent church communities, and Eastern is a university, there are some similarities and lessons to be learned.
What would I do if I could do it all again?
Let me start with some observations about the process.
Both Jeff at and Jessica took approaches that were consistent within their cultures, i.e., their local communities of faith. Both were bold to engage in such difficult dialogue, especially since many churches have experienced splits in the community over the same issues. Theological dialogue about interpretation of scripture raises the stakes for communities of faith.
What was it about these churches that allowed them to engage without splitting? I think one critical aspect was senior leadership. Both Jeff (senior pastor) and Jessica (pastor) modeled compassionate dialogue. Both modeled genuine listening and engagement. At Eastern, the task force was appointed by the university President. Certainly, his leadership provided the opportunity (and perhaps the safety) to engage in the dialogue. The appointment of trusted leaders to the task force was also critical to our success. One in particular modeled compassionate dialogue. The idea of “trickle down leadership” seems to be a good fit when evaluating our processes. These leaders were able to create dialogue, whereas other leaders have simply dictated the policy of the church, with no engagement of the community.
Building on leadership, another key aspect in evaluating these models was relationships with those who are LGBTQ. The motivation to re-evaluate our understanding of scripture is informed by our relationships with others. When we know same-sex married couples, committed to one another, raising children, who seem to be blessed by God, we are challenged to evaluate our understanding of scripture. Because of our policies at Eastern, one of our limitations was actually including faculty/staff who are LGBT on the task force. Without their voices at the table, our committee discussions, and ultimately our recommendations will be under-represented by this group.
Throughout the process, motivation to engage varied from person to person. Our data confirms that those who engaged in the process learned from it, and some even changed their position. Those who did not engage, did not learn, nor did they change their position. While “changing positions” was not the goal, becoming informed and thinking critically in an academic environment matched the culture of the university. I don’t think the answer was to require attendance, but I wish there was a way to get more people involved in the process.
If I could make another change, it would be that we would do a pre-test survey, and then a post-test survey. We tried a pre-test questionnaire, but our approach did not work. We wanted to survey the community so that we could describe our church affiliations, and our beliefs on issues, with more accurate data . Unfortunately, our response rate was low, and our questions were muddled. (Too many cooks in the kitchen). We did a survey at the end of the period of discernment, and it was much more structured and provided excellent data. If I could, I would use that survey and go back in time in order to find out how much we have changed our opinions. The changes are likely a result of many factors, including the dialogue, societal changes, and so forth. But it would be interesting to measure those changes within our community.
Other changes? Eastern University faces a great deal of pressure to figure out our policy on marriage, and same-sex benefits. Will we lose our accreditation? Will some (or all) of our professional programs lose their accreditations? Will our students lose federal funding? If we change our policy, will we have to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU)? And, if we have to leave the CCCU, what does that actually mean?
Do I wish we could engage in this dialogue without these external pressures? No. While we did not choose this conflict right now, the internal and external pressures motivate our community to figure this out. Our task force is committed to due diligence in writing our report to the President. After an 8-hour meeting on a Saturday and more meetings planned, it is clear that the members of the committee care deeply for one another and for our university.
I hope that we can find middle ground for our community. Jeff seems to have found a way to balance his need to continue his journey, while acknowledging the differences within his community. Embracing that diversity is unique. There is growing fear within our community that if we become more inclusive (and Eastern is historically more inclusive), those who hold a traditional view of marriage will be viewed as hateful. Finding a way to include all perspectives within the community requires commitment and creativity. We are working towards that goal. The decisions we make today have the potential to determine the future survival of our university.