Holy Conferencing: Unity amid Diversity

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

Conflict is not new to the church. The disciples were arguing as they gathered for the Last Supper, debating who was the greatest among them!

Members of Jesus’ rag-tag group of twelve disciples were constantly coming to him to settle arguments, and Jesus demonstrated for them the holy way to work through debates and differences. Jesus was not into simple answers, and rarely gave anyone a straightforward answer that made one person right and another person wrong. Instead, he asked questions that required discernment and spiritual growth.

John Wesley considered this sort of discussion a means of grace because conferring with each other is a means that opens us to God’s truth, grace, and growth in faith and spiritual maturity, forgiveness, and humility. What he called “Christian conferencing” has become known as holy conferencing, reminding us that we are called to be set apart and different from the rest of culture in our speech and behavior, most evident in the way we handle disputes.

As pastors and ministry leaders in various capacities, we are often the ones stuck in the crossroads of arguments or differences of opinion. We are placed in the challenging role of being stewards of the ultimate message of Good News we hope to share, but too often that gets overshadowed or doubted by conflict among believers.

As we seek to steer conversations toward a deeper level of meaning and—hopefully—resolution, we can utilize principles of holy conferencing to do so. Holy conferencing starts from our own stories—it is more about who we are together than who is right. Conversations that intentionally use principles of holy conferencing have an emphasis on listening over talking. And, something challenging even to the most level-headed person: all parties must be willing to consider they might be wrong about an issue that is important to them.

Learning to Conference

The way a conversation starts determines a large portion of how it will end. Begin by inviting the Holy Spirit into the conversation and surrounding the process with prayer. Frame the question at hand in a way that focuses on the greater or common good, rather than on our own self-interest. Try a question such as “how does this decision direct us toward our mission as a church?”

Many people do not know about a way to converse or disagree that honors personal beliefs and experiences. Acknowledge the differences and suggest a way to approach a conversation or decision before the conversation begins. Starting a conversation by acknowledging that the issues at hand may have more than one perspective can carry a conversation much farther than beginning with a foregone conclusion.

We must be willing to consider that we each might be wrong about the matter at hand. This attitude or spirit can be difficult because we bring strong convictions to certain hot-button issues. It takes humility to enter the conversation with the possibility that we might have something to learn as individuals and a group.

Using a listening device—a ceramic dove, a Bible, a symbol of some sort—can help people carefully listen, if only the person holding the object is allowed to speak. This simple technique can feel very artificial because we are all accustomed to interrupting and dominating the conversation, but it can be a helpful reminder to resist those urges. Silence and/or prayer between speakers can help the group be reflective and enhance listening.

Sometimes a designated length of time to speak can be agreed upon and someone keeps time, gently indicating when time is up. However, it’s important to make sure that enough time is given for personal story. Using “I” statements and qualifiers like “this is my experience,” can help speakers’ perspectives be heard in a non-threatening way.

If a decision is the expected outcome, determine the process to make the decision—consensus, a vote, or authorizing someone to make the decision. Usually it is best if the decision is not made at the time of the holy conferencing so as to allow for further reflection. If no decision is expected to be made, be clear about the outcome of the process, such as bringing greater clarity to a complex matter or healing broken relationships.

Modeling Unity

What if every local church would become a place where people learn the attitude and process of holy conferencing? We could then more readily use these practices in our closest relationships with family and friends, at work and school, in our communities, as we explore difficult political and cultural questions that impact all our lives. The church could be a model of peace, unity, and understanding for all the world.

The beauty of the Christian community lies in its ability to connect beyond its boundaries and reach toward those who at one point were merely strangers. Central to that connection is the process of holy conferencing, the conviction that the way we talk to each other, make decisions, and resolve conflicts is as important as the decisions we make.

About the Author

Sally Dyck

Sally Dyck is bishop of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She encourages people read more…
comments powered by Disqus