“Appreciating difference is not easy.” Most people have a tendency to gravitate to people who are more like themselves. In fact, “[f]amiliarity is the most powerful predictor of friendship.” It’s easier being around people who are like minded because we can predict their actions, which decreases fear and stress. Given the amount of stress in most western lifestyles already, it is unsurprising that in our voluntary places, such as church, we want to minimise the stress that comes from navigating diverse people or risking situations that may lead to conflict. Growing up in a mainline church, one of the mantras of the day, which was turned into a song, was: “draw the circle wide, draw it wider still. ” While I now recognise the intention was making room for people on the margins, I encountered it at a time where the theology of the denomination was so unclear it was described as “jello” with nothing to stand on or even argue against. That lack of clarity was also exhausting. So in a church context, how might we establish commonalities while creating space for differing voices? How can we strive for the “unity that is a mark of holiness, not uniformity”?
One of my pastoral experiments overseas was to create rhythms within the community for celebration, storytelling and healthy transitions. Within our children and youth leaders, we had great diversity including many international students. The challenge was that many of these students were only with us for 18 months. There were multiple other factors within the city that meant people were frequently coming and going due to moves or work circumstances. In response, we needed more frequent ‘on ramps’ and ‘off ramps’ to be engaged in the ministry. I thus began quarterly celebration dinners that matched the school terms of the children we ministered to. Each dinner was hosted by a parent whose child was part of the program (at that time I insisted parents sit in worship rather than volunteer in children’s ministry). Thus there was an extension of hospitality and appreciation embedded in the design of the celebration. Included in the festivities was always a storytelling time where we shared the stories of the ministry that term. This functioned in two ways, the first was that we would each bear witness to the various experiences of one another. While there was an intentional leaning towards thankfulness and celebration, there was also space for what might need healing and where there was room to grow. The second function was that as these stories were collected, the grand narrative of the church was retold in pieces and the underlying focus and values were re-articulated through the lens of what was worth celebrating. Thus unity could be achieved while different voices were listened to.
As the pastor, I was also listening for both dissent, whereby I might unearth starting points for dialogue towards programmatic change, and I was listening for complaining . Complaining from people who have willingly volunteered for a role is often a sign it is a time for a discussion as to whether that person needs permission to step away from the work and receive refreshing. These quarterly celebrations also functioned as endings for people’s involvement. At each of these gatherings volunteers were thanked for their contributions and asked if they wanted to recommit for the next term. The goal was to avoid the ‘victim instead of volunteer’ trap, whereby someone begins to feel like a victim of the ministry’s demands rather than a volunteer. Another reality was that we were constantly saying goodbye to people. These dinner rituals provided a space to say goodbye with thanks, and to grieve the parting. Since each individual had a significant impact on the way the ministry was done, each departure also signalled a change in what the ministry would look like. We were constantly adapting to incorporate the strengths of new people and let go of pieces dependent on departing friends. This change was always painful and always took emotional energy. But because these were indeed relational partings, it was appropriate to engage these changes with emotion. A key focus of these rituals was strengthening unity through relational bonds without a deliberate focus on strategic planning for the ministry. Shared eating and storytelling nurtured the familiarity necessary for friendship, but the familiarity was no longer based on homogeneous cultural backgrounds. The ultimate grand narrative as members of God’s family would unite us and draw us into the particular local church narrative.
An additional practice at these celebrations was that each person was responsible for offering a toast to someone else so that each person was individually celebrated. Every voice was heard and each person’s unique part of the ministry was honoured. Our differences were highlighted and appreciated. It is a vulnerable practice to receive praise from teammates and it is an important discipline to appreciate different people and gifts. It was how we “lift[ed] up our teams and help[ed] them shine” , and sharing this responsibility was a way I could grow my leaders.
Diane Zemke introduces the idea of a tempered radical : someone who chooses to stay in one tradition while constantly feeling a pull or tension with other priorities. I resonated deeply with this identity. Even as the pastor, I never feel quite at home in one tradition or place. Perhaps it is because of this persistent, often lonely, place that I feel passionately that we need to nurture strategies to value one another’s differences and to lean into what is only possible when they are celebrated rather than sacrificed. While it takes more courage and effort, it also produces a far greater reward: communal resilience in the face of change.
1.Diane Zemke, Being SMART about Congregational Change. (Create Space Independent Publishing 2014.) (Kindle) Loc 1970.
2. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ : Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013) (Bluefire Reader) 28.
3. Zemke, Loc 28.
4. Gordon Light, Draw the Circle Wide. (The Common Cup Company, 1994).
5. Peter Cowley, Pluralism, Matrix conference in Ayr, Ontario, 2001?.
6. Zemke, Loc 1181.
7. Zemke, Loc 515.
8. Zemke, Loc 1187.
9. Zemke, Loc 1102.
10. Zemke Loc 1360.
11. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018) 109.
12. Zemke Loc 1704.