First, I want to thank Julie and Jessica for telling their stories and the stories of the ministries they help to lead. It is encouraging for me to know that I am not alone in trying to lead these hard but important conversations, and that other sisters and brothers in Christ are leaning into the same conversations with care, intentionality, and grace.
As I read both of your entries, I found myself nodding my head over and over again in agreement. Julie, I’ve admired Eastern University from afar, and while I never knew the University's mission statement (“faith, reason and justice”), it seems to fit perfectly. One of the things I most appreciate about the conversation you all are having is the maturity of the President and the Administration to allow the hurt and concerns of students and faculty to come to the forefront and the willingness of the President to both apologize and to lean into the conversation. That to me is a sign of a great leader. I also appreciated your insights on the first event where your community came to realize that the faculty and students had a different filter for how to have this conversation. That is one of the things I’ve learned through our process as well—unless the entire body is brought in on the conversation on a regular basis with their filters, fears, and even ages taken into account, the leaders (or in your case, the faculty) can leave the rest in the dust. I appreciated how you all tried something, learned from it, and moved forward.
I also empathize with the sticky situation Eastern is in trying to balance ideologies. While our church didn’t do a formal poll, our congregants (like your donors) are a varied bunch. One fear that haunted me as a leader was what the financial backlash would be from the decision we were having to make. The challenge, of course, is that while you don’t want dollars to drive faith decisions, there is still ministry to do and it is people (and their generosity) that fund it. It sort of reminds me of the Super PAC conversations our nation is having right now—who are we (or our leaders) beholden to? I know there were multiple times people wanted us to just poll our congregation and figure out what decision we should make on these issues.
But the reality is that the harder right decision (which it sounds like Eastern is choosing to engage in)--the long, slow, listening discernment that just takes time--is always the right decision. The harder right is always the way to go, and I commend your community for taking this path.
One thing we found was that while the topic was at its anxious peaks (for example, right after our Denomination made its decisions on ordination and same gender marriage), if we waited a little bit, the anxiety would dissipate and we could have more rational, thoughtful discussions. I wonder how that is going for you and your community—if the anxiety is slowly lowering the more conversation and light is shed on it? Has the fear you so honestly talked about leveled out as the conversation has continued? I’m impressed with the amount of events you all have hosted, and the commitment of the University to have a balanced, honest conversation.
It is against my nature to criticize other people’s stories, especially when the circumstances are such that each community is just doing the best they can in the wake of anxiety and crisis. That being said, I would share your critique of not having the ability to have LGBT voices at the table when making these big decisions. I suppose in some ways this is natural—if the question to be asked is “Should a group have full communion with us?” one would assume that there are no voting representatives at the table for the decision. It reminds me a bit of James and the Jewish-Christian leaders voting for Gentile inclusion at the Council of Jerusalem. To move from a closed to a more accepting and inclusive society takes the work of the insiders predominantly. That being said, I wonder if it is hard in your system to get a fair hearing for the LGBT community when both history and conservative theology are on the side of those in structural power.
I also hear your concern on the disappointment of different groups not feeling like their perspectives mattered. In the end, it seems to me that what people need to know the most is that they are heard, valued, and have a place to stand in the community. I wonder if there is an implicit flaw in the University structure that makes it a challenge for those needs to be met perfectly. While it sounds like (and I believe) Eastern is a close knit community, it is likely different than a local church, where people live and work together for decades, not just 4 years of college, or from afar as alumni and donors. I also wonder if your community is rushing the decision a little bit. Steven Sample in his leadership book The Contrarians Guide to Leadership says,
“Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.”
In other words, sometimes we rush decisions out of anxiety or just because we want to close a loop, rather than being willing to wait and let the conversation run its course and we discover the right answer. I wonder if after this relatively short season of conversation at Eastern, the issue has been discussed adequately. These are not really questions I can answer, but just ponderings as I hear your story.
With all that said, I am pulling for and praying for Eastern as you finish your discernment! It sounds to me like your President and community have turned a challenging situation into something our Christian world desperately needs--faithful, loving, theological dialogue on a contested cultural issue. Nice work!
Jessica, I also found myself nodding my head in agreement at your story as well. We operate and serve in similar communities, and the blend of congregants that range from newcomers to established locals in a more affluent area was a familiar one to me. One of the things I really appreciated about the process you and your colleague Jeff took your congregation through was the way you located the conversation in the broader Mennonite context. It seems to me that any time we can say, “This conversation is natural because our ancestors have done this before us,” it lowers people’s anxiety and puts the congregation in a hopeful, positive frame of mind. That positioning unlocks the past (our theological tradition) in order to unlock the future (our congregation’s path going forward). I thought you and Jeff located the heart of the issue—Scriptural authority and hermeneutics—and used this opportunity to teach your people some important, foundational lessons that we often assume our people understand but don’t. One of the things I learned in this process is how important it is for us as pastors to take the opportunities life and culture affords to teach simple truths. I personally came to enjoy this conversation at our church, even if it was often tense and had big stakes. I think that happened because there was a refreshing joy in talking about simple truths with faithful people. Not only that, but I know I learned a lot in the process as well. It seemed to me from hearing your story that you took away the same joyful learnings.
I also loved it when you said that you quickly figured out that your people assumed everyone was on the same page on LGBTQ issues when they were really all over the board. For me, there was such a relief in having people I trust and love (like my brothers and sisters in the local church) who can talk to me about how they see Scriptures--maybe even disagree with me--and believe they will not walk away at the end of the day. This “aha” is a huge one, and you and Jeff orchestrated it masterfully. I also appreciated the fact that you didn’t mandate a certain ideology or position, or expect people to see things as you do. As a leader, that is often very hard to do. Instead, you provided room at the table for everyone to be where they were at and make their own discoveries. That inductive type of teaching and learning is the best kind, in my opinion.
I also really appreciated how you involved the whole congregation in your conversation, and yet required people to commit to be there for both sessions. When involved in tense discussions, it is important for leaders to set the playing field and protect the players for a clean and energizing engagement. Without that setting of the table, I wonder if you would have been as effective as you were.
If I were to offer one critique it would be that there was no official decision that was made on the subject of LGBTQ inclusion. While no decision is essentially a decision (for the status quo), I wonder if this will just rear its head later on and if in fact the anxiety is still underground since there is still no official position of the church on the issue. For us, Washington State’s legalization of gay marriage forced our hand somewhat to make a decision regarding these issues. While I don’t believe Ohio has that same state law in place, I wonder down the road if (or likely, when) it does, if Zion will have to face this issue again. I suppose the same Stephen Sample quote I used before could apply here—why make a decision when none is needed to be made. In fact, if I was in your position, I may have made a similar leadership move, but I wonder if this issue is done for your church family. All that being said, I so admire the process you went through, especially the way you dealt with an anxious issue and neutralized it, all the while growing your congregation in love, grace, and truth.
Thanks to both Julie and Jessica for their faithful leadership in the body of Christ! Well done!