Friday, September 7, 2012

Knit Together by Differences

Whether as citizens of a nation or members of organizations or congregations, we tend to feel uneasy about people with opposing opinions, and may even see them as dangerous.

But why not see having a diversity of perspectives as a blessing?

I grew up in an Amish family and community that placed a very high value on unity and uniformity. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this) we frequently had people leaving our congregation to join another or leave another church to join ours. The assumption was that if you couldn’t get along or go along, you pulled up your stakes and went elsewhere--or started a new group of your own.

As a member of a Virginia Mennonite Conference congregation for most of my adult life, I’ve seen the same tendency here. It seems ironic that people in a church so dedicated to peace get divorced from each other’s fellowship so frequently over differences they can't seem to resolve.

Our Conference was established here in the Valley nearly 200 years ago as an outgrowth of the Lancaster (Pa) Conference, not as a church split. This new group remained united throughout the turbulence of the Civil War and until 1900, when it experienced its first division, one that resulted in the formation of the Old Order Mennonites.

Today there are twelve different Mennonite-related communions in the Valley.

I find that sad. How might we have been able to stay together and to benefit and learn from each other?

Years ago I heard Mennonite missionary and church planter Donald Jacobs present a version of the above diagram in a seminar on church growth he led at Eastern Mennonite University (then EMC).

Here are the main players in his model:

Preservers: Jacobs stressed that all groups, including churches, need a stable group of members committed to preserving its core values. Around some issues, he said, any of us may find ourselves resisting change and working to preserve the “old order” of things. When conservative minded folks begin to feel their concerns are no longer heard or respected, they may feel strongly enough to leave as a group to form their own separate community.

Pioneers: Healthy groups also need innovators who advocate for change, lest a group become ingrown and stagnant. These folks tend to operate on the outer fringe of the community and are often viewed with suspicion and fear. When these innovators no longer feel heard or respected they may likewise form another group or simply drift off one by one.

Note: In either case, when new groups form, they form alignments similar to the groups they have left, except now some of the more liberal pioneers may find themselves labeled as conservative preservers in the context of the new group.

Settlers: These folks are the more or less silent majority in the group in a given conflict, and are not as strongly aligned with either the pioneers or preservers on a particular issue, but may have varying degrees of sympathy for one or the other--or both.

Note: In a healthy group, individuals are able to change roles depending on the issue. Let me speak personally. On some issues, like advocating for more house churches instead of investing in ever more church real estate, I may be seen as a pioneer, whereas on other issues, like preserving our Mennonite peace stance, I way be seen as a strong preserver. On certain other issues, like what style of church music to use, I’m often in the middle, open to those of either camp. In the case of these examples, in some settings or in some periods of history, house churches would be seen as a decidedly conservative idea, whereas the advocacy of non-violence would be seen as a very radical one. And depending on the issue and on the makeup of the group, we will find ourselves at different places--and therefore aligned with different persons--which is as it should be. This kind of dynamic reshuffling has the effect of bonding us to a variety of different people and tends to have an interlacing quality that makes a group stronger and more division proof.

Mediators: Each of us, whenever possible, needs to serve in intermediary roles within the group. Sometimes we may serve in the role of interpreter for the preservers, promoting good conversation between them and the pioneers and between them and the rank and file middle. At other times we may advocate for the innovators, to help make sure they are clearly understood and their ideas are being respectfully considered.

Final Note: When we see differences as normal, and as actually having potential for making the group healthier and stronger, and when each member feels valued and needed, everyone is better off, and the health and effectiveness of the group is enhanced.

Conclusion: Whenever human beings associate together, conflicts and disagreements are inevitable, but combat and divisions are optional.
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