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RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SMALL GROUPS WHO WISH TO ENGAGE IN FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT HUMAN SEXUALITY ISSUES OR ANY OTHER CONTENTIOUS ISSUES

In my November 11, 2018 Musing titled “Pivoting from Respectful Electronic Conversations (eCircles) to Face-to-Face Conversations About Human Sexuality Issues or Any Other Contentious Issues,” I reported on an unfinished local face-to-face small group conversation about my book “Respectful LGBT Conversations” that “started well but then deteriorated.” That series of face-to-face conversations has now been completed. The following recommendations for orchestrating future face-to-face conversations about LGBT issues or any other contentious issues emerged from reflections from those who attended this completed conversation on LGBT issues as to “lessons learned” (what worked and what didn’t work).

ATTENDEES

In order to avoid the conversation becoming an “echo chamber,” it is important to “recruit” attendees who will represent a fair balance of differing views about the topic at hand. This is best done NOT by issuing a broad invitation (to members of a church or community) and “hoping that a good balance will emerge.” Rather, a better approach is to decide beforehand on the differing types of positions that can be taken on the issue; then issue personal invitations (one invitation to someone known to hold each position). When such initial invitations are accepted, then ask each such person to identify other church or community members who he/she believes will hold to a similar position, to whom the planners can then extend similar invitations (while encouraging that first person to encourage the new invitees to accept their invitations)

If the results of the conversation has the potential to significantly impact the well-being of one or more groups of church or community members, then representatives of such groups MUST be “at the table.” For example, despite the strengths of the procedures used in the case studies presented in the Respectful LGBT Conversations book, all three persons who provided leadership for these case studies reported that a flaw in their procedures was that gay persons were not adequately represented “at the table.” Therefore, the conversation too easily became an exercise in into talking “about them” rather than “with them” (as if they were “issues” and not “persons”).

Because of the logical flow of the conversation sessions that will be recommended below, it is important that all attendees attend all the planned sessions, with no attendees allowed to join the conversation after the first session (except under very unusual circumstances)

TWO EXPECTATIONS THAT ALL INVITEES NUST AGREE TO UP-FRONT BEFORE BEING ACCEPTED AS PARTICIPANTS IN THE CONVERSATION

A. AGREEMENT AS TO THE PURPOSE OF THE CONVERSATION, AS FOLLOWS:

  • Although participants will be expected to present their views on the issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction, the purpose of the conversation is NOT to “win the argument.” Rather the purposes are:
    • To give a “fair hearing” to all points of view by focusing on “listening well” to viewpoints you do not share in an attempt to adequately understand the reasons that the “other” has for his/her viewpoint.
    • After all the differing viewpoints are “out on the table,” the conversation will move to attempting to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, including illumination of disagreements sufficient to make ongoing conversation possible.
  • To model “respectful conversation” among person who have strong disagreements (made possible by the second expectation now presented)

B. AGREEMENT TO ABIDE BY A SET OF “GUIDELINES FOR CONVERSATION – For example, the guidelines that were agreed to by all the conversation partners in our LGBT conversation, with one possible exception indicated below, were as follows:

  • I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
  • I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
  • I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
  • In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
  • In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.

Unfortunately, in our LGBT conversation, there is some question as to whether one of the two the two “late arrivals” who held traditional positions on same-sex relationships adequately understood or actually agreed to either of these two expectations, because he was not present the first session where these expectations were reinforced (which deficiency will lead to one of our further recommendations below).

GETTING THE CONVERSATION STARTED: INSURING A “SAFE SPACE”

The first session together is the most important in that is sets the stage for the modeling of respectful conversations in all subsequent sessions. The first thing that must be established in this first session is that each participant, whether he/she holds to a “conservative” or “liberal” viewpoint on the issue, will be provided with a “safe space” to say whatever is on his/her mind without fear of being personally attacked or demonized.

Our recommendation for creating such a “safe space” is for the first session to begin with a review of the purpose and guidelines for conversation that all participants have already agreed to, to be followed only by time devoted to “getting to know one another” without any presentations or conversation about differing viewpoints on the issue at hand. This can be accomplished by the Moderator posing the following questions to each attendee, with a time limit presented (possibly 4-5 minutes) for each response, without allowing for any interruptions by other attendees.

  • Who are you? (Briefly introduce yourself to us)
  • Why have you joined this conversation? What do you hope to get out of this conversation? What is at stake? – wherever possible draw on aspects of own “story” that inform your response to these questions

The most valuable lesson we learned from our LGBT conversation is the importance of “building initial personal relationships of mutual understanding” (which hopefully leads to mutual trust) before embarking on the presentation of and discussion about differing viewpoints on the topic at hand.

A marvelous testimony to the central importance of “getting to know” a person who disagrees with you was the report from our married lesbian couple that “with the passage of time” a local doctor who was originally strongly critical of their same-sex relationship and not “friendly to them” has now become “friendly.” Our educated guess is that a good part of this change in attitude is that he has “gotten to know them better” by means of doctor/patient relationships.

THE SECOND SESSION: UNINTERRUPTED LISTENING TO VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS ABOUT THE ISSUE AT HAND WITHOUT DISCUSSION

Now that the stage has been set to promote respectful conversation about differing viewpoints, it is time for each participant to briefly present, without interruption (possibly in 5-7 minutes) his/her response to a question or two posed by electronically by the Moderator prior to this second session; questions intended to help all attendees to understand his/her position on the issue at hand. For example, for a small group conversation that Harold is beginning on March 13, 2019 on the topic “President Trump and Visions for America,” each of the 8 participants from the local community, equally divided between “general supporters” of President Trump and “general non-supporters of President Trump, each attendees will have 5-7 uninterrupted minutes to respond to the following two questions:

  • What is your vision for the future of America?
  • To what extent do you believe President Trump is facilitating, or not, the accomplishment of your vision for the future of America?

THE THIRD SESSION AND BEYOND

After this second session recommended above has been completed, the discussion group will now be well prepared to sort through their agreements and disagreements about the issue at hand in a respectful manner that is informed by a good preliminary understanding of the initial viewpoints of all the participants.

Some “heavy lifting” by the Moderator must now begin. To facilitate this, it is necessary that the presentations in the first two sessions be recorded and possibly transcribed for the Moderator’s careful review for the purpose of formulating a set of Leading Questions for the third session that will attempt o identify points of agreement and illuminate remaining areas of disagreement. (to be distributed electronically to all participants prior to the third session)

This formidable task for the Moderator needs to continue for the fourth and subsequent sessions, with the Leading Questions for each subsequent session emerging from the substance of the previous session.

READING MATERIAL FOR THE CONVERSATION.

No consensus emerged as to the suitability of the Respectful LGBT Conversations book as background material for this conversation. One of the attendees who was undecided as to same-sex relationships suggested that this book was very helpful to her because of her “undecided” status, in that it fairly presented both sides for each subtopic on the part of two conversation partners who had the competence to cogently present credible opposing viewpoints; both of whom held to a strong belief in the full authority and inspiration of scripture (while disagreeing on the best interpretation of certain biblical passages).

On the other hand, the author of the book (Harold) wondered out loud whether in this age of increasing “tribalism” (an “us-versus-them” mentality where me and “my people” have all the truth about the issues at hand and “you other folks” are all wrong), this book will only make both sets of tribalists “mad” because they are not interested in listening to a point of view other than the one they already hold, which appears to have been the case for the traditionalist who joined our group for just two sessions who bluntly stated that he had absolutely no interest in reading this book.

Obviously, more conversation is needed as to the best choice of reading materials for future conversations about LGBT issues.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS ABOUT THE VIABILITY AND IMPORTANCE OF BEING A 3RD WAY CHURCH

Recall that a 3rd way church is one where no church-wide position is taken as to the appropriateness, or not, of same-sex relationships, but, rather the challenging attempt is made to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in the midst of disagreements about this issue.

Although no consensus was reached as to the viability of trying to be a 3rd way church, the following compelling observations were made during this last session:

  • It is relatively easy for a “straight” Christian to transfer to another local church, but where can a gay Christian (“like me”) find a loving place to worship if there were no 3rd way churches or “affirming” churches available?
  • A cogent concluding observation for an “undecided” member of this class was that she was hesitant to agree to attend this class because she loved the lesbian couple that agreed to attend, and was fearful as to how they would react to her honestly saying that she was “undecided.” She is still undecided at the end of this class, but now feels “liberated” because her gay sisters in Christ have, in this class, expressly given her a “safe space” to declare herself as “undecided” (all three of them being members of a 3rd way church in Orange City).
  • This observation fits well with the suggestion made by Mennonite Scholar Carolyn Schrock-Shenk that a conversation about contentious issues, like human sexuality, may not “change minds” about the issue at hand, but could have the marvelous result of changing one’s perspective about the person holding to a differing viewpoint (which is no small accomplishment).
  • A strength of being a 3rd way church is that it models the possibility of maintaining the “Christian unity” for which Jesus prayed in the midst of disagreements as to issues related to human sexuality, which is no small accomplishment in this day and age when many churches and their denominations are “dividing” over disagreements about such issues.

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