Eighty first-year seminarians gathered in a conference room one cold New Jersey afternoon to meet with the manager of Louisville’s office on Preparation for Ministry. Thirty minutes into the Q&A, he paused and pointed at one of us.
“Who is your presbytery?” he asked her. Pointing to another, “And yours?” And to Karen and me: “Yours too?”
We were all from the same presbytery.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “That presbytery[i] is unique. Let’s talk separately afterwards.”
Out of nearly 200 presbyteries in the PC(USA), my candidates’ care process was “unique.” Their expectations of candidates for ministry were unlike those of any other presbytery in the country. Its Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) prided itself on putting out the “best prepared pastors in the denomination.” Translation: it made us fulfill the largest number of requirements.
That’s because the presbytery in which I was ordained was an ecclesiastical war zone. The conservative and progressive wings of the presbytery were evenly divided and deeply entrenched.
The division showed on the floor of stated meetings. I remember attending one as an observer and learning the meaning of a formal dissent when just under half the presbyters lined up to register their objection to the vote. It was a memorable introduction to parliamentary procedure.
Those disagreements spilled over into the CPM. Faction 1 regarded as heretics those candidates whom Faction 2 found ideal. Faction 2 regarded as a threat to the national church those people whom Faction 1 regarded as its future hope. And Faction 3 was just irritated with the other two.
Just the name of certain congregations would cause committee members to polarize. The committee could not agree on what “good character” looked like in a person seeking ordination. Their vision was gridlocked.
So, in place of vision, they pork-barreled a set of requirements. If they couldn’t agree whether a candidate would make a suitable pastor, they could at least agree that the person had satisfied plenty of demands.
When you can’t resolve a disagreement, you can always bureaucratize it.
I love a good bureaucracy. But that’s not the future we want to write for ourselves.
The theological spread of Los Ranchos has shifted in the last year. A dominant majority can no longer overwhelm a small minority. We are much closer to an even division—not unlike the presbytery in which I was ordained.
Unless the theological shift is accompanied by a parallel resolve to conduct ourselves differently from the world around us, we too may become a battleground. It is one thing to disagree vigorously and candidly on critical issues of our day. It is another thing to let those disagreements turn into hostility and mistrust.
In the face of conflict in the Christian community, it is easy to default to occupational habits. Bureaucracies, chains of command, legal tug-of-wars, and political maneuvers all offer ways to manage conflict. Left to ourselves, we will gravitate to what most closely suits our background or professional training.
But none of these offerings resolve hostility and mistrust. At best, they only contain the underlying problem.
Disagreement has its uses. Disagreement refines our thinking and protects us against shoddy work (see Prov. 27:17). Loyal critics improve our performance more than a dozen yes-men. But when a disagreement becomes a contest with winners and losers, we have failed to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
What distinguishes vigorous, healthy conflict from mistrust? Faithfulness.
When we have demonstrated to each other that we have a common good in mind; when we are committed to the mission of the whole more than to our own personal goals; when we step across the aisle to work side-by-side with each other, after even severe disputes—then conflict loses its power to undermine the community.
Constructive disagreement requires energy and patience.[ii] It requires a deliberate choice not to think ill of our fellow believers. And when someone on the opposite side has behaved badly, it requires forgiveness (Prov. 17:9). Such actions are hard work, yes. But I genuinely believe that we are up to the task.
Epilogue: I have heard excellent news in recent years from the presbytery that ordained me. Creative and pastorally sensitive leaders have changed the tone of the conversation. They have embarked on some of the same initiatives as Los Ranchos, but added their own flavor. Twenty years later, they are in a good place.
Let’s see if we can get to that good place a little quicker.
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31-32).
[i] Name withheld intentionally. If your idle curiosity gets the better of you, I’m sure you can track it down. But I’d encourage you to resist your idle curiosity.
[ii] In one of her talks before the TED Conference, Margaret Heffernan describes two instances in which people put “real patience and energy” into disagreeing constructively. Most telling for me is her observation that organizations cannot do this; only people can.