Did the Future Church Summit silence conservatives? No

Jul 25, 2017 by

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As I try to process my experience at the Mennonite Church USA Future Church Summit in Orlando, Fla. — and especially as I think about the events of the delegate session — scenes from my son’s teen years keep coming to mind. Our son, who has multiple mental health and developmental struggles, often expressed feelings that made no sense to me.

If I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, I was bullying him. And considering he really didn’t want to do anything besides play video games and listen to his music, he felt bullied a lot.

If I told him what the consequences would be if he made certain choices, I was threatening him.

“If you don’t do your homework, you will fail the class.”

“You can’t have dessert until your room is clean.”

“If you continue to yell at me, I will put your Gameboy away for the rest of the night.”

All threats.

And the anger would boil up in him at the slightest provocation. Especially if he got caught in a lie or if we found something in his room that didn’t belong to him. Simply pointing out a bad choice he had made would throw him into a rage.

I got good at using a calm voice. I often picked up a book to read while he yelled at me. And I eventually came to realize that my son really did feel bullied and threatened and angry. He was not faking these emotions in order to make my life more difficult. They were sincere feelings.

But these sincere feelings, while directed at me, were not really about me. I was not bullying him. I was not threatening him. I was not treating him in a cruel or unfair manner that would warrant the anger he expressed. These feelings were all about him.

So I learned (more or less) to respect his feelings as sincere while also not allowing his feelings to influence my parenting choices:

  • “I’m sorry you feel bullied, but you still need to do your homework.”
  • “You call it a threat, I call it a consequence. Either way, I will take away the Gameboy if you keep yelling.”
  • “This might make you angry, but I know that you lied to me, and that is not OK.”

This was my life for about 13 years. (We adopted our son at age 5, and he moved out at age 18; he’s now doing well in a group home.) So it’s probably no surprise that I’m falling back on familiar responses as I process the recent MC USA conversations.

I know for a fact that people were safe in the Future Church Summit space. (I’m defining safety here as a lack of danger to physical bodies and livelihood.) Not everyone agreed with the “conservative” viewpoint on a variety of issues. But there was never a threat of physical harm. And, to my knowledge, no one has been denied a denominational position because of holding a traditional view of marriage — so no conservative livelihoods were at stake.

If anyone was truly not safe, it was the LGBTQ people who openly spoke of their sexual identity in a context where people can still be removed from staff positions and committee appointments for identifying as LGBTQ.

Still, some self-identified conservatives say they did not feel safe. And I believe them — that they sincerely felt unsafe. Their feelings are real. But these feelings are not really about LGBTQ folks or their allies or the Theme Team or even MC USA. These feelings are connected to discomfort that people have with shifting power dynamics and emerging voices within the church.

So this is what I would say to people who did not feel safe at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel safe is not my job. It is not MC USA’s job. And it is certainly not the job of the people who are marginalized by your views. No one is responsible for making you feel safe. If you are scared, you are scared. We can’t help how you feel. Our responsibility to each other is to make sure that everyone actually is safe. And I truly believe you were safe.

I also know for a fact that conservative voices were not silenced in this process. The Future Church Summit was the most inclusive broad conversation MC USA has ever had, and I commend Glen Guyton and the planning team for their efforts to bring a range of voices to the table. I also know that, despite all of the efforts to welcome the voices of young people, queer people and people of color, the delegate body was still overwhelmingly old and white and straight. The voices of the FCS were a bit more diverse, but still pretty old, pretty white and pretty straight.

When we were surveyed at the end of the Summit about how well we thought the Theme Team’s report reflected our table discussions, it was clear that the vast majority of participants felt that everyone was heard.

Still, some people said they did not feel heard. And I believe they really did feel silenced. But this feeling was not because they actually were silenced; it was because their voices were not amplified in the ways they have come to expect in Mennonite spaces. Their voices were just their lone voices in a sea of other voices saying things that made them uncomfortable.

So this is what I would say people who did not feel heard at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel heard is not my job either — or anyone else’s. It is our job to invite you; we can’t make you come. And it is our job to hear you; we can’t control whether or not you speak or whether you feel like we heard you.

Also — another lesson from raising my son — just because I continue to disagree with you does not mean I didn’t hear you. Explaining your interpretation of Romans 1 to me again will not change my mind. And that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. I truly believe that if you chose to attend the Future Church Summit and if you chose to speak, you were heard.

As we continue our denominational discussions, it is important that we recognize and honor people’s feelings without automatically taking responsibility for those feelings and without being manipulated by them.

Sometimes people feel bullied and threatened and angry and scared and silenced. We should believe that they really feel those feelings. And we should examine our actions to make sure that we are not, in fact, being bullies or making threats, that we are not antagonizing people or creating unsafe spaces or silencing sincere voices. If we are doing any of those things, we should change our behavior.

If we aren’t doing any of those things and people continue to feel the bad feelings . . . I guess we take a deep breath, say a deep prayer, use our calm voices, and carry on.

Joanna Harader is pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan. She blogs at spaciousfaith.com, where this first appeared.

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  • Berry Friesen

    What an illuminating metaphor Pastor Harader has used to describe people within Mennonite congregations who hold a conservative perspective. We are like children with developmental deficits.

    By avoiding harsher terms (“deplorables” comes to mind) Harader is trying to be generous. And I’m trying to be grateful for her kindness. Yet the despairing thought remains: Harader’s metaphor reflects the arrogance of “the enlightened” who have won a decisive victory over “the ignorant and immature.” How ever will we retain within our denomination the strengths of both perspectives, when the apparent new majority regards conservatives with such condescension?

    • Charles Bontrager

      Berry, I don’t read this as a metaphor so much as a story about how she came to learn about how to acknowledge the feelings of others without letting those feelings define reality.

      But regardless of how you feel about her story/metaphor, it’s important to remember condescension does not threaten your livelihood or your standing in the church. As Pastor Harader pointed out, it is LGBTQ people who at risk of losing their staff positions and committee appointments. It is LGBTQ folk whose very humanity appears to be up for debate in our church. Let’s please not suggest that liberal condescension is the major threat to unity that our church is facing.

      • Berry Friesen

        Charles, the traditionally conservative-leaning conferences that today make up MCUSA have always valued progressive voices. How else would so many progressive leaders have arisen to their positions of influence, if not because they offered a perspective respected by their more conservative peers?

        Harader’s essay and your response raise very substantial doubts that the reverse is true. From your comment, I see you are unaware that already those with conservative views are being pushed to the margins in some MCUSA settings. The extreme way you define the sexuality debate (conservatives contesting the very humanity of gay and lesbian persons) requires you to endorse such marginalization. Who could ever in good faith support calling a man or woman into the pastorate who denies the humanity of gay and lesbian persons? I couldn’t and I’m a conservative on this issue. Yet you seem oblivious to the implications of your own rhetoric.

        Sad as I am to say it (I’m a life-long liberal), conservatives see much to respect and value in liberals. But it doesn’t work the other way around.

        • Evan Knappenberger

          I agree with Berry here. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and both are equally guilty of failure to communicate.

          Im tired of being made out as conservative just because I question the dominant narrative and the scapegoating that happens in the liberal church.

          Evan Knappenberger

        • Charles Bontrager

          “the traditionally conservative-leaning conferences that today make up MCUSA have always valued progressive voices”

          An easy claim to make, and a hard one to find evidence for. We lost 3 conservative conferences and I’m not sure how many conservative congregations because in KC we resolved to forebear with each other on inclusion.
          You do not address the real fears the LGBTQ folk have around losing jobs and appointments within the church. Something that has not happened to conservatives for their positions.
          Neither do you address the fact that matters of discipline always benefit the conservative position, with LGBTQ folk bearing the brunt of that and welcoming pastors/congregations catching some of it too. Conservatives have yet to be under discipline for their theological commitments or their decisions on who to marry.

          Conservatives aren’t leaving or refusing to participate because their positions are not being heard. As ever, their positions hold the institutional power. The difference is that LGBTQ folks are (finally) being allowed/invited to speak.

          Let’s not pretend that it’s liberal/progressive condescension that is driving off conservatives. It is the mere presence of LGBTQ folks and more progressive voices that has been the impetus for their departure.

          • Linda Rosenblum

            Charles,The conservatives are leaving for reasons other than power struggles. I chose to leave my MCUSA congregation because I felt a responsibility to my young children not to raise them in an environment that supported a false teaching of Scripture. I never held and never aspired to hold any “power” in the congregation, conference, or denomination. I was just a member in the pews. I really get tired of these accusations of power struggle mumbo jumbo. Why can’t this just be a disagreement about the nature of sin as described in Scripture. Linda Rosenblum

          • Charles Bontrager

            Linda, thank you for your response. I think your story is another good example of my point. You didn’t leave because progressives “don’t value conservative voices”
            you left simply because the denomination tolerated the existence of folks who disagree with you.

          • Linda Rosenblum

            No, it’s not about the “existence of folks” either. You simply added your words to my response. I said nothing about toleration of “the existence of folks who disagree” with me. I said it was about a congregation teaching something I felt was contrary to Scripture. See how things get twisted when we talk past each other? Linda Rosenblum

          • Charles Bontrager

            As I was responding to Berry’s claim that conservatives value progressive voices, I still find your story to support my argument that they don’t.

          • Evan Knappenberger

            I think most of the real conservatives to whom you are referring left MCUSA long ago. When Elwood Yoder and Berry Friesen and I are the most conservative voices in the conversation, then you have a real problem. I am not at all conservative, for one. I am however, reluctamt to engage in groupthink and turn church into an echo chamber of my own beliefs.

            Evan Knappenberger

    • RyanHarker

      I thought the same thing. The arrogance exhibited in this article is amazing. No wonder they didn’t feel safe. Being thought of as comparable to a child with developmental problems because of theological views doesn’t make one feel safe to express one’s views. Besides, why even bother? Why continue trying to lend a “conservative” voice to a group that no longer wants to hear it? Move on and focus on doing the work of the Gospel where it is valued. Jesus said something about wiping the dust from our feet. Seems appropriate.

      • Evan Knappenberger

        Wow, while I generally agree I am surprised to hear this from you!

        I like Joana, and I hesitate to be condemning of her article. It did occur to me that she would never be caught telling Lisa Schirch or Barbra Graber to stop whining about being safe.

        Evan Knappenberger

      • Steven Stubble

        Absolutely right. I too feel this is the necessary course of action for those who hold to the Word of the Lord.

  • Rainer Moeller

    “In heavenly love abiding/no change my heart shall fear/but safe is such confiding/for nothing changes here.” This was always one of my favourite hymns. Explains what people like me mean with “safe” and why we like safety. And no, I don’t believe that MC USA can be a heaven on earth – or must try to be.
    Hope for a heaven beyond the earth is enough for me.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    Since we can now openly tell people to stop whining and using their feelings of discomfort as a polemical bludgeon, can we apply the same rhetoric to those who keep persecuting John Yoder and Luke Hartman?

    Evan Knappenberger

    • Charles Bontrager

      Yoder and Hartman used their positions of power and authority to sexually abuse women. You are confusing accountability and protecting survivors with persecution. Please stop it.

      • Evan Knappenberger

        When you tell me to “stop it” it makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of my developmentally-disabled uncle and his violent tantrums.

        You see? Unfair rhetoric, unreasonable polemic devices.

        Evan Knappenberger

        • Brian Arbuckle

          Yes, the double standard at play here. Well said Evan.

          • Evan Knappenberger

            Thanks Brian. MWR rejected my best comments.

  • Harold Miller

    Someone made this observation in an email, and I received his permission to post it here:
    While Joanna does not make a direct comparison of conservatives to developmentally-mentally challenged children, she does approve of the church treating those who disagree with same-sex union like a parent treats a developmentally-challenged child that does not like his/her parent’s instructions/rules. Her comparison implies that conservatives’ objections to same-sex union are just “feelings” that are “all about them.” Conservatives’ concerns thus have no objective basis–in Scripture, tradition, reason, or anything else. Such being so, for advocates of same-sex union there is no possible reasoning with conservatives, much less dialogue or studying Scripture together (“Explaining your interpretation of Romans 1 to me again will not change my mind.”). Those advocating same-sex union would do best to issue unilateral statements to conservatives: “It’s too bad you feel that way, but it has nothing to do with me and nothing to do with Scripture and there’s no changing my mind on this, so you’ll just have to deal with same-sex union and resign yourself to the situation.”

    • Charles Bontrager

      This is a poor interpretation of what Joanna actually wrote. She was not addressing conservative objections to inclusion, she was addressing the conservative folks who felt unsafe voicing those objections.
      She validates those feelings as being real, but also challenges whether those feelings actually define the reality of situation.
      The FCS was designed to include conservative voices and other voices. Conservatives were not silenced. The only risk conservatives faced in speaking their objections was the disagreement of their peers, not physical harm or threats to their livelihoods.
      Thus the fact that conservatives felt silenced/unsafe is not something that we ought to worry about. Because in fact they weren’t silenced and were safe.

    • Evan Knappenberger

      It’s beginning to dawn on me that MCUSA is conceptually less of an umbrella for modern Mennonites than it is a purity project of social liberals. It seems like liberals want MCUSA to be their very own soapbox, a platform that self selects which voices to amplify and which to ignore as developmentally disabled.

      Watch out Harold, or you and Trissels will be next in “white heteronormative power structure timeout” (Isaac Villegas’ term).

      Evan Knappenberger

  • Charles Bontrager

    John, this is still conservatives being threatened by disagreement. It is still conservatives not valuing progressive voices.

    • John Gingrich

      So Charles, I need to confess that I guess I don’t understand your meaning of “valuing progressive voices” and of “threatened by disagreement”. We are talking past each other so I take responsibility for not being able to articulate my ideas and I wish you Godspeed.

      • Charles Bontrager

        Thank you for your blessing.
        Above Berry claimed that conservatives “value progressive voices”. I dispute that claim. I think you and Linda have made arguments that suggest that conservatives don’t value progressive voices.
        When I say that conservatives are threatened by disagreement, I mean they consider disagreement, at least on the matter of inclusion, to be a threat to the church.
        I hope that helps explain what I meant.

        • Linda Rosenblum

          Charles, it would be disingenuous for anyone to suggest that they would be willing to continue in a congregation, conference or denomination with which they disagree. The difference between the progressives and the conservatives is where we draw that line. For whatever reason (even if one was born into the Mennonite community) some progressives chose to become a Mennonite or remain Mennonite. They could have converted to Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, or mainline Protestantism but didn’t. There are reasons why they disagree with the other religions’ theology and found Anabaptism to their liking.

          For comparison, I wonder how many progressive Mennonites would choose to remain under a pastor who was member of the military? Would they feel that it was important to remain for the sake of unity and “suck it up” regarding their personal beliefs in pacifism/non-resistance and remain in that congregation under a military pastor’s leadership? Would they want a military leader to teach their children that war was okay for Christians to participate in? My guess is not many would stay or at least voice a dissenting opinion.
          Linda Rosenblum

    • Berry Friesen

      Charles, I’ll jump in for John. To repeat what I said to you earlier, the evidence of MCUSA valuing progressive voices is the large number of progressives it has elevated to leadership. For example, I have had 4 long-term pastors over my 41 years of active participation in MCUSA congregations. Three of the four have been outspoken progressives; each is highly esteemed within MCUSA.

      Regarding us conservatives being threatened by disagreement, that obviously is not true with regard to progressives generally; otherwise, we wouldn’t so eagerly welcome progressives into leadership and thrive under their oversight.

      But yes, what you say is true with regard to those progressives who actively work to delegitimize the authority of Scripture, our Confession of Faith, and our decisionmaking practices. Pink Menno (for example) and some of its allies (incuding some inclusive pastors) call our teaching of Genesis 1-2 (a teaching Jesus subscribed to also) “violence.” They opportunistically exploit the sins and errors of our leaders to discredit the exercise of authority by our recognized structures. They bring into our fellowships endless wrangling about matters rooted in Scripture and long part of our tradition. Speaking for myself, such are a threat because they use of name of Jesus to tear down the body of Christ.

      • Charles Bontrager

        By your own words you consider progressives a threat actively doing harm rather than brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with you on matters of faith.