Safe space for all voices

Closed sessions help MC USA Executive Board make better decisions

Aug 18, 2014 by

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The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board in our last few meetings has held most of our deliberations in closed session, where members of the press are not allowed. This has caused some concern. I recommend Paul Schrag’s March 3 editorial, “Media Control,” where he critiques our decision. As a member of the Executive Board, I think it might be helpful to share why I support our decision.

I hope our closed sessions create safer space for our discernment as a board, because I believe that will help us make better decisions.

I do not think it’s helpful to expect board members to speak to a denominational audience all the time. Everything we as an Executive Board produce is closely parsed, examined and criticized — as it should be. We must be held accountable for our work and for everything we say. But our board has people who speak English as a second language, who have different levels of comfort with public speaking, and some who think best out loud. These are precisely the kind of people I think God calls us to have in our leadership. To be eloquent extemporaneously should not be an essential skill for a board member. Rather, those marginalized by society’s value on “right speech” belong at the center of our discernment.

Even without media members present, board members sometimes choose not to speak rather than risk being misunderstood. This means if we deliberate in closed session, then the Executive Board may speak to the press intentionally, once we have discerned together, just as any of us would like to be able to choose our words before seeing them in print.

The danger of expecting board members to speak publicly all the time is that our real deliberations will then take place outside the board meeting, where the press cannot overhear. In the congregational setting, I’ve heard it called the meeting outside the meeting, when the movers and shakers gather together to hash out what is to be done.

But the meeting outside the meeting does not reflect the best of God’s calling for us. It always privileges insiders and those who know the system — which in MC USA usually means men from the dominant culture. By trying to bring the real deliberation to our actual board meetings, I hope we are spreading authority to more people on the board and listening more carefully to the Holy Spirit.

A safer space can bring minority voices to light. An unsafe space privileges conventional voices, who have the least to lose from their mainstream opinions. There is a reason that most mediation or circle leaders suggest a commitment to confidentiality as part of the process. A safe space allows for vulnerability and real communication. It is best for the church as a whole for the board to be able to talk about difficult issues honestly, without always having to parse our language on the fly, wondering how people who are not in the room will hear what we say.

The church press has a prophetic and essential role to report what happened and to help Mennonites judge the work of the board. The board’s role is to try to guide the denomination between the times of general assembly every two years and to do the best we can to walk toward God’s reign together, speaking with one voice, even in our diversity, on behalf of the church. Right now, I believe that work can be best done in closed sessions as we listen for God’s calling.

Samuel Voth Schrag is pastor of St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship.

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