Narrative Transformation

open mindIn recent comments, an interesting thread appears: how do we in the church have open-ended conversation about the deepest and most challenging aspects of our life together?  Too often, we have no vision for what a new or different conversation might look/sound like.  When we think about changing our thinking, we reduce it to changing minds.  For myself, I learned a long time ago that it is not my role or responsibility to change someone else, but to create a safe environment where radical change can occur.  Change should always be a willing choice, otherwise it won’t last, or it does violence to the person.  But how do we even open the possibility of new perspectives in ways that don’t lead to division and debate?  I share one exercise and two experiences that have been effective in my ministry.

In my experience, anything that shifts individuals and groups from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” or “what if?” thinking has great value.  Too often, in both planning and conflict, people get bogged down in binary thinking — yes/no, this/that, right/wrong, good/bad — and open dialogue and discussion degrades to debate and dissension.  One of the most helpful of all old proverbs is “when faced with two options, choose the third.”  Whenever I enter into a polarized situation, I employ a very short, simple exercise.  I draw a star of David on newsprint and put the two existing options at the top and bottom point of the star.  Then we work through a simple brainstorming session to add four more options to the remaining four points on the star.  We then work to prioritize the six options.  Taking the bottom three (4, 5 & 6), we work in small groups to create a simple plan in support of each, then repeat this process with the top three.  By starting from the bottom up, we share some ownership for all six options, and it is amazing how this simple exercise fosters creativity and innovation, while breaking down resistance and depolarizing stuck situations.  It doesn’t work in every case, but it does enable people to think more critically and creatively, and it cultivates a less adversarial approach to decision-making and problem solving.

I have had two transformative experiences where “stuck” groups broke away from a narrative of hopelessness and negativity to a new story of possibility and excitement.  Years ago I consulted with a congregation in Elizabeth, New Jersey that felt its finer days were behind it.  The remnant congregation, about 40 in number mainly in their 60s and 70s (and 80s), saw little hope for the future.  Our first meeting was a rehearsal of all the church couldn’t do, all the church had lost over the years, all the ways the church was struggling — a strong spiral of negativity.  The building they occupied had been a jewel of the Elizabeth area in the 1920s, but the years had not been kind.  The interior was drab and dirty, the outside was fronted on two sides with razor wire and trash surrounded the building.  A high fence with a locked gate separated the church from a neighboring park — a hangout for street kids covered with a blanket of empty cups, used condoms, drug paraphernalia and detritus, and a miasma of eclectic garbage.
At our first meeting, we listed on newsprint the strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities.  The strengths were essentially “we’re a friendly church” and “we are a polling place at election time.”  The list of weaknesses filled three full sheets as did the challenges — we are too old, we are too poor, we have no young people, we are tired and burned-out, our financial supporters have moved or are dying…   We ended up leaving the sheet marked “opportunities” blank.  We scheduled a second meeting.

When folks showed up for the second meeting, I met them at the door, told them to keep their coats on and handed them each gloves and a garbage bag.  I told them that our second planning meeting was to clean up the church property, starting outside and moving inside.  Grumbling, griping and making all kinds of excuses (I’m in a wheelchair/I have asthma/I have a heart condition) I got everyone in place to pitch in (anyone can hold a garbage bag open for someone else!)  We spent about three hours together cleaning up, then we reconvened for lunch to debrief.  I simply asked “what did we learn today?”  Slowly, answers popped up.  “We CAN do something.”  “The church looks GOOD for the first time in years.”  “We’re not too old.”  “We need to talk less about our problems and DO something about them.”  The general spirit was very proud and hopeful.  It was decided to gather for a third meeting.

When people arrived for the third session, they assumed we would move back inside, but again they received gloves and garbage bags.  “Today,” I told them, “we clean up the park next door!”  There was a lot more grumbling and push-back for this idea, but I asked them to humor me and pitch in.  It took longer, but we made the park look presentable and tidy.  In the debrief session, the energy was as high as it would have been among teenagers.  “We still can do for others!”  “Even if we can’t get young people to come to us, we can go and do for them.”  “It didn’t cost us anything to do something for the community.”  “I feel better than I have in years.”  We turned back to the page of opportunities and filled five sheets of newsprint.  From this process, the congregation decided to keep its doors open, to focus its ministry on the needs of the elderly and the infirm in the neighborhood, and to seek partners in the community so they didn’t have to try to do everything alone.  They opened their church for health screening and wellness workshops, they started a Meals-on-Wheels program, trained Stephens Ministers, delivered prescriptions and groceries to the homebound, began a prayer ministry visiting city nursing homes, and started a tutoring program for special needs high school students.  They doubled in active membership in two years and received grants for their work that allowed them to repair and maintain their building.  I didn’t change anyone’s mind — I couldn’t.  But I opened them to the possibilities that allowed them to change their own minds.

My last story was truly transformative for many people — I still receive letters from people telling me that this was a true epiphany for them — an experience that allowed them to make a 180º turn in their thinking and their theology.  I was working with a conflict situation over the church’s treatment and attitudes about gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people.  Eleven people were involved initially — seven dead set against gays in the church for biblical, theological, moral and ethical justifications, and four champions for full inclusion of gays, based also on biblical, theological, moral and ethical rationales.  They had been meeting for almost two years to move their conference forward before I was called in.  I met twice with them, both times disasters.  The emotions were too raw and the parameters of the relationships were too deeply drawn as adversaries and opponents.  The polarization was intense.  This was a simple black & white, good vs. evil, toxic either/or situation — no grey area.  So I contacted three people I know and asked them to come with me.  The first names of the people are Bob, Bob, and Roberta (Bobbie).  They came to be called — affectionately — the Bobbsey Triplets (cultural reference to the Bobbsey Twins children’s book of the last century…).

Bob number one is an ultra-conservative, deeply religious, extreme Republican pro-gun, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-big government, loves the rich/has little or no concern for the poor, and can quote the Bible from cover-to-cover including the Apocrypha.  Bob is also gay.

Bob number two is a missionary who devotes his time, energy, money to helping other people.  Raised Southern Baptist, Bob teaches now in an Assemblies of God church, and he calls himself a “progressive fundamentalist,” who believes “every word of scripture comes to us directly from God.”  Bob’s mission field is not overseas.  Bob has opened his home to gay, lesbian, and transgender young adults.  He is adamant and clear — he has no agenda to change any of them.  He wants to convey only one deep truth: they are loved just as they are by God.

Roberta is a liberal firebrand, championing women’s and minority rights.  She is died-in-the-wool Democrat and wants to marry Jon Stewart.  She teaches advocacy and spends hours each week volunteering with the poor.  She is an outspoken and harsh critic of the religious right and fundamentalist thinking.  She feels the Bible may be the most harmful weapon of mass destruction in the conservative Christian arsenal.  And she believes homosexuality is the moral equivalent of pedophilia and terrorism.

What these three people have in common is an amazing ability to be who they are, say what they think and feel, and not force their position on anyone else.  They are the most even-tempered and fair-minded debaters I know.  I have never heard any of the three make a personal attack or derogatory comment about another individual.  They agreed to accompany me to my next meeting with the conference committee.

We set a very simple ground rule for our opening when we met.  Each person would take three-to-five minutes to simply state what their core belief was about gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender orientation — no rationale or explanation, no defense or justification, just a “where are you located on the map” statement.  When we got to the Bobbsey Triplets statements, all hell broke loose and we momentarily forgot our ground rules — and unearthed some interesting assumptions and core values.  Statements popped out like, “You can’t be gay and a Christian!” and “You can’t think like that!  You’re a woman for God’s sake.” and “No Democrat (Republican) I know thinks that way!” and “Your position makes no sense.  It’s crazy.”  When we were able to calm down a bit, we stepped back to explore what happened.  The basic problem was that we destroyed any possibility of binary, “either/or” thinking.  Bob, Bob and Bobbie weren’t “this or that,” “in or out,” and they didn’t fit any convenient category, label or pigeonhole.  We opened up the conversation to ask, “How do you reconcile your worldview and practice with all the different moving parts?”  It became very clear that any and all attempts — successful or otherwise — to make sexual orientation a simplistic, either/or, one size fits all, one view is right for everyone “issue” missed the point and showed how superficial most of our thinking can be.  We depolarized almost immediately, because the Bobbsey Triplets could not possibly fit the adversarial worldviews pre-existing in the group.  Suddenly, we had a minimum of five positions and perspectives.  Could there be more?

Debate and argument could never have accomplished what expanding the community did.  No amount of information or scholarship could “prove” one position superior.  When the landscape changed to include multiple perspectives, people’s thinking was challenged in new ways.  One side attempting to change another’s mind was a volatile waste of time.  Opening new possibilities and cultivating a safe environment for change to occur made a huge difference.

Okay, this article is way too long, but I do want to close with just one thought.  One of my mentors once told me that the greatest challenge to spiritual leadership is allowing people the right to be wrong.  His intent was that we will encounter people with whom we are diametrically opposed in significant ways.  If this is a problem, it is because we choose to make it a problem.  Different is NOT wrong or bad, but there are definitely wrong or bad ways to respond to difference.  We need to open the possibility of changing the ways we think so that we might create a narrative that is an honor and a glory to God.

8 replies

  1. Dan, I thank God for you. As a new pastor (and seminary student), it is easy to feel stuck and overwhelmed. Your blog not only gives me hope and inspiration, but also provides ways for me to articulate the thoughts in my head. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. You are a great mentor.

      • Sounds like it might yet be possible. Even a recording of a common video conference, might bear some modeling fruit. But I’m OK with just the report as it raises the possibility that if we paid attention there will be similarly gifted people wherever we are.

  2. Dan, once again you have given me food for thought. The ability to facilitate any discussion with seemingly diametrically opposed positions is a skill that I yearn for and don’t yet have. Your words can only help in my personal struggle to achieve what I can only think of as “holy conferencing” skills. Thank you –

  3. Thanks for this reflection–it is meaningful for me on a day when I feel a little bit like the church is stuck. It gives me hope for progress. We need to figure out how to “officially disagree” as a denomination, but even more than that, we need to live together. You’ve shared a good model. Again, truly, thanks.

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