For about 24 hours this week, I gathered at the Avila Retreat Center in Durham with a group of pastors in CBFNC churches to engage in conversation about ‘pastoral leadership in divisive times.’ Convened by our own Chris Gambill and Larry Hovis, this small group of pastors ranged in tenure from three years to thirty-five in their churches, across a variety of theological, political, and ideological persuasions, but our churches from one side of the state to the other all share much in common. All are what we’d call ‘big tent’ churches, those who would hold within a diversity of individuals and perspectives.
And yet all of us acknowledged freely that this strength of diversity and breadth of conviction within our churches are also an increasing challenge as our world grows more polarized every day. Together, we lamented the angst that arises in our churches when divisive topics emerge, whatever the context of those conversations may be. We named the fear we feel to even have certain conversations, worrying about the quick and understandable anger that can crop up when passions are stoked. We wondered together if it continues to be possible for a diverse body of people to hold differing individual convictions, share them openly and authentically with each other, grow through our difference, and still unite for a shared witness to our common mission. Then we were inspired by the call of Jesus’s disciples that held together in common mission Simon the Zealot, whose life purpose was to overthrow the Roman government, and Matthew the tax collector, who openly aligned himself with the Roman government. We returned again to scripture, to the shape of Christian community subject to each other and living in peace with one another. We celebrated our Baptist principles that bind us up with the Lordship of Christ and the authority of scripture, while exercising the freedom of the individual conscience to live into the particular shape of one’s obedience to God in Christ. We shared resources — books, articles, people, websites, ideas, inspiration — that can help us all navigate these troubled times. And we began to imagine how courageous and crucial conversations might unfold among real people in our real churches.
For it became ever clearer to us that Christian discipleship in 2018 and beyond must equip us all to be good listeners, to value people over position, to cultivate safe space for important conversations and deep trust that we can disagree over matters we hold dear while agreeing to remain in fellowship with one another, and to live out our unity in Christ which surpasses all other. In the words of Paul, instead of ‘being conformed to the patterns of this world’ — patterns in 2018 that look like outrage and hyper-partisanship, 24/7 news coverage and echo chambers of our own making — in our Christian journey, we are to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds,’ discerning the good will of God.
Does that involve risk? Absolutely. Are we hopeful? Persistently so. Is there promise of life and transformation? Most certainly. For Jesus’s resurrection promises to the world are as crucial now as they were more than two thousand years ago: “peace be with you! Do not be afraid.”
Together in the work of Love,