Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Still Lines

I suppose I have put this off long enough.

“Claustrophobic,” huh? “Phobic.” “Fearful.” I thought you were arguing that “fear” was the major motivation for drawing lines, not trying to erase them. (Susan, you know I am messing with you).

Seriously, you have spotlighted one of the fundamental issues in our present conflict, and one of the ways we continue to talk past each other while maintaining the illusion of “dialogue.”

I agree that the contemporary church (indeed, I would argue all human societies for all time) have made “a mess of drawing lines.” However, I disagree that the answer is to stop drawing lines (as if we could). I have not seen the thriving, faithful “no-line church.” And I will quickly add that I have not seen a thriving, faithful church that is preoccupied with drawing all kinds of lines. The presence of lines is not the issue. As I tried to argue in my last entry, the intentional, reflective discernment about the placement and maintenance of those lines is the issue. To argue “no lines at all” can be a self-righteous power play that stops the conversation. While I am not accusing you of that, it has been my experience again and again.

Also, the argument that we must acknowledge the necessary presence of lines cannot be interpreted to mean that all lines must be broad, smelly lines drawn with a bold, indelible Magic Marker. As you point out, and as I argued in my last entry, there are many kinds of lines with many functions. This is one of the “slippery slope” arguments that I hear from the left (I hear others from the right). “If we allow a line to be drawn here, then we will be covered up with all kinds of lines—and you may be next!” (Who is the fear-monger here?)

Most often this takes the form of the “hidden agenda” accusation. It implies that there is a secret list of 50 to 100 other lines that “they” want to draw, and this is only the first. There are at least three problems with this. First, it is the very kind of behavior we try to defuse/debunk in church conflicts. Second, it is not true (but truth is usually irrelevant in most conflicts). Third, it assumes that there are not enough of us with insight or moral fiber to argue that this is not a line we want to draw or this is not the place where we want to draw it (which is not the same as saying there are no lines).

Of course there will be a “next issue.” There always is and always will be because we are alive and because our context is always changing. We will never escape issues. We will never draw (or avoid) the last line. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a helpful, nagging, puzzling conversational partner for the last 10 years. There is much I about him that I do not understand. But I believe part of his idea of “the Christian come of age,” is our ability and responsibility to make decisions as Christ-centered communities of faith again and again.

It is clear that I have been unsuccessful, but I have urged us to clearly identify needful lines and to thoughtfully and faithfully draw those lines.

You say that for you the boundary lines for clergy are “profoundly different.” I argue that those lines are profoundly more important than some head argument about an obscure point of theology. Nor is it a polity argument. Nor is it a biological or psychological debate. It is not about soteriology, justice, or compassionate ministry. This is a moral behavior issue. This is a major difference between you and me, and it is the major divide in this denomination right now. The denomination has rightly said that we have moral standards of behavior for clergy. We have also said that crossing some lines is more offensive than others (most of the time without rational argument, but “just because”). That is why there is a range of disciplinary actions regarding clergy behaviors. Nowhere is the presence of lines clearer (even if they are inconsistently interpreted) than clergy misconduct. We will get nowhere until we put moral behavior by clergy on the table.

Thank you for the women in ministry story. I hurt for you. I find it offensive. You have been incredibly gracious (but I am not surprised, that is how I have always experienced you). At the same time, I don’t want to sell this church short.

This denomination is not neutral on the issue of women in ministry. It has drawn a line! (And I am glad that we have drawn this line.) While the denomination cannot force the church to accept an ordained woman as its pastor, the denomination is clear about the line. There is a denominational office whose sole intent is to promote women in ministry. The President and General Secretary of the denomination speak and write persuasively and positively about women in ministry. Everything published by the denomination supports women in ministry. Speakers, etc., at every denominational conference and workshop are intentionally reviewed to reflect gender inclusivity. Denominational employment at the ministerial level reflects the value of women in ministry.

Despite the line that the denomination has drawn to exclude this church, and despite denominational “enforcement” of that line, the church has chosen to remain. I know nothing about this church’s level of participation. But if the Pastor chooses to be part of regional and denominational clergy gatherings, he knows he will be confronted with women in ministry. If the church chooses to attend regional or denominational gatherings, they know they will experience women in the pulpit (and not just praying!). The church knows that national groups that oppose women in ministry will accuse it of complicity. Still, the church remains. It has found a resting place in its exclusion, and knows that it holds a position that the denomination officially and programmatically rejects.

I argue that this same denomination is not neutral on the issue of homosexual behavior. The General Board has repeatedly affirmed its position. Despite what some may wish, the Board is not neutral. It is not unreasonable to expect the General Board, its staff, and its programs reflect the same kind of compassionate implementation that is the case with women in ministry. It is not unreasonable to expect regions to formulate how they will behave with one another in view of the denominational position.

While I generally agree with you about the dysfunction of focusing on the negative, or defining ourselves by what we are against, I also urge caution for several reasons.

We know that in most cases the negative is simply the flip side of a positive. A person is “against” something because they are strongly “for” something else. Just because a person is not articulate enough to identify what they are so passionately for, do not dismiss or discredit them because they express their passion in negative terms. One of the helpful things about Appreciative Inquiry is that it helps us uncover that positive attraction. One of the downsides of AI is that it can gloss over the energy or passion that is inherent in a negative statement and disempower participants.

Also, we must acknowledge that the power of appearing positive is just as addictive as the negative. Positive thinkers can become blind to reality and enmeshed in denial. We have enough real life experience with this as a denomination that I don’t believe it needs rehearsal.

Lastly, a few years ago I discovered John Carver. Carver is an organizational guru, specializing in the work of not-for-profit boards. One of the remarkable insights I gathered from his work was the dynamic roles of positive and negative in boards achieving their goals through staff. Direction, goals, ends are established by positive directives. But the means to accomplish those ends are bounded by negative rules regarding staff behaviors. Both are absolutely essential. Only when the two are held together can the organization accomplish its purpose. Positive purpose statements without bounds to means can go in scary directions (Hitler was pursuing world peace). Negative boundaries without purpose create a rule-oriented maze (Orwell’s bureaucratic 1984). More than that, I found a biblical example. In Genesis, God ordered Adam and Eve to be productive stewards (a positive purpose statement) along with a negative boundary (stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). I had always viewed the Ten Commandments as a little suspect because they were negative. But now I understand that those negative statements established the boundaries on a very large playing field. There is not that much denied to us. Why do we chaff at it???

I understand your fatigue. I have felt it like an oppressive weight the last six months. However, I would argue that we are tired because we have not dealt with these lines. I do not see the endless parade of study commissions, etc., that you fear. As I reflect over the last 10 years, it is not decisions that have exhausted us; it is our determination to avoid decisions which has worn us down.

I believe “fatigue” has replaced “fear” as the major denominational emotion. Fatigue is driving us into an end game with which most of us will be dissatisfied. Whether the game ends in clear win/lose, resignation, or draw, there will be fewer pieces on the board. The game cannot continue. We may choose to start all over again, with a different strategy, but this game will be over. I regret that I have not played a more effective game.