The story is told that Brooks Hays, the legendary congressman and Baptist layman from Arkansas, was walking along the street with a friend one day when he was accosted by a rather antagonistic woman who wanted to "straighten him out" on an issue. Hays listened quietly for a few minutes and then said to the woman, "You may very well be right."
An open discussion may threaten someone's real or perceived power within the life of the church, Harrison observes.
After he and his friend left the woman and walked a few steps, Hays said under his breath, "And you may very well be wrong."
I am reminded of this when I consider how difficult it is to have discussions about substantive and possibly volatile issues in a congregation. I attended a workshop on "Building Capacity for Congregational Dialogue," led by David Odom, at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in June. Odom provided some good suggestions about facilitating discussion about difficult issues in the congregation.
As I think back, though, I am forced to consider why we so often balk at open discussion in congregational settings. Several reasons come to mind.
First, open dialogue about an issue may call into question the congregation's cohesiveness. Those of us in the South are particularly inclined to ignore the "elephant in the room" and avoid bringing up potentially difficult subjects. When we do this, we may well be sacrificing not only our honesty but our integrity. In so doing, we compromise our witness.
Second, an open discussion may threaten someone's real or perceived power within the life of the church. Surprise! We are not always talking about the pastor. The threatened person may be the matriarch or patriarch of the congregation, the influential community leader or the biggest contributor. Whoever it may be, they like things the way they are, so don't "rock the boat."
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Third, we may be afraid to discuss some subjects because we don't know what is really important. We put women wearing pants in the church on the same level as admitting people of another sexual orientation into leadership roles. Some issues are doctrinal and some are simply customary, but we don't know how to differentiate between the two.
Fourth, we often fail to realize that there may be more than one view on an issue and none of them is clearly right or wrong. There is no reason in splitting the congregation over the unimportant. There is some wisdom in being able to state our ideas and then "agreeing to disagree" in Christian love.
Fifth, we may be afraid of being wrong and losing "face." The most difficult thing for any leader to do is to be willing to step up and say, "I was wrong on this. I missed it entirely." He or she does not realize that this may be the wisest approach to building confidence in one's future decisions.
Perhaps the writer of Ephesians provides the key that will foster openness, tolerance and transparency in congregational discussions: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Ephesians 4:15).
What an idea!
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. This column appeared previously on his blog.