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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2012 Archives > September-October 2012 > MFea-Holy Conferencing

Holy conferencing: Bringing grace to tough conversations

By John Michael De Marco

The Rev. Britt Gilmore, a United Methodist missionary, leads a discussion at the East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland. Holy conferencing is an approach to discussing difficult subjects that helps participants intentionally treat each other as children of God.
The Rev. Britt Gilmore, a United Methodist missionary, leads a discussion at the East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland. Holy conferencing is an approach to discussing difficult subjects that helps participants intentionally treat each other as children of God.

Cheyenne, Wyo., was not immune when the economic downturn began in 2008. The economic stress clouded decision-making around building a new sanctuary at First United Methodist Church there – and led the congregation to rediscover a means of grace.

"We had to figure out whether we wanted to commit to this, what the risks would be," says the Rev. Trudy Robinson, now serving First United Methodist Church in Littleton, Colo. "Holy conferencing became really important as we gathered at the table to listen to all the reasons of why we should or shouldn't move forward. We all had the common ground of wanting to do what was best for the church and create opportunities for more ministries."

In the end, the church "came to the consensus that we would go ahead and build," she says, "and we lost very few people."

Holy conferencing continued to undergird the church's decisions, Robinson continues. "When there would be a conflict or some tension or a variety of opinions, we would commit to listen to each other and approach each other with grace as much as possible.

"We always remembered that we have a place to stand together even if we don't end up in the same place at the end of the conversation."

The Rev. Stephen Cady helped the congregation of Kingston (N.J.) United Methodist Church embrace holy conferencing as it clarified its mission to "Feed More Sheep."

"Everyone in the congregation knew the mission," he says. "From there, we asked what it meant, and we had to determine who these sheep were. Holy conferencing developed out of recognizing who people were, with a theological commitment that each person is a child of God and deserves to be treated as one."

Wesley: A means of grace

Holy or Christian conferencing is a practice John Wesley included, along with prayer, Scripture reading, fasting and The Lord's Supper, as a way of experiencing God's grace. The roots are biblical. Leaders assert that every Christian should practice it, within and beyond the walls of the church.

"In our culture today, there's so much divisiveness that it's really important to call ourselves to that means of grace," observes Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck, chair of the Council of Bishops' Unity Team. "People, particularly in the United States, understand how uncivil conversation and discussion has become. People desire something different. In general society, there's a fair amount of conversation about civil discourse. As Christians, (we have) a number of passages and admonitions in terms of how we treat one another."

Deaconess Carolyn Lawhorn prepares for a meeting at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tenn.
Deaconess Carolyn Lawhorn prepares for a meeting at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tenn.

"It's not just an exchange of opinions," explains the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, "but a real attempt to move toward a common understanding of God's will and intention toward Christians. It's a holy thing to be undertaken with seriousness and integrity. It's an opportunity to build on the trust that is already there and to allow people to seek together for the truth."

Lambrecht, executive director of Good News, an evangelical caucus within The United Methodist Church, was a participant, along with Dyck and the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, in a discussion of holy conferencing at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa, Fla.

Hixon, co-executive director of the JustPeace Center for Meditation and Conflict Transformation, says contemporary discussions about holy conferencing have been occurring since the mid-1990s. The guidelines most often circulated today grew from those used at the January 2007 United Methodist Global Young People's Conference in South Africa.

She thinks United Methodists "have evolved firmly out of a sensibility that there is value in conferring, and that somehow in the midst of that God's Spirit, God's grace, is present."

Time, trust essential

Three periods of holy conferencing were on the General Conference 2012 agenda. The mixed success of the sessions illustrate it is not an easy practice.

"The more controversial the issue, the less successful the holy conferencing was," observed Lambrecht. He cited scheduling difficulties and Dyck named differences among cultures as two contributors to the difficulty when sexuality was the topic of the holy conversations.

"A lot of the hurt had to do with multicultural differences; people have different conceptions in their own countries about homosexuality," Dyck says. "That's why I feel it's the global, multicultural dynamic that is making it difficult for us to talk to each other."

Successful holy conferencing requires time to build trust among participants and time for continued conversation. "Maybe we needed to assume that we don't have a common relationship or some trust already there, and spend more time building that to help with the conversations that followed," says Robinson, who was a delegate from the Rocky Mountain Conference.

"We need to practice together to generate a climate of holy conferencing which is not yet there," says Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Wisconsin. "It takes time, and General Conference leaves no room for more dialogue. It was a good try; we'll be facing more challenges as a church."

Lambrecht believes, "Our biggest obstacles (in some settings) is how holy conferencing has been used as a means to push an agenda." He says that has bred "skepticism ... and a lack of trust that (it) can really be a means of grace."

Modeling essential

Holy conferencing is more caught than taught, leaders agree. Still, groups such as JustPeace provide training. Dyck has had churches facing controversy use "the circle process, talking stick, monitoring the amount of time people can speak on an issue, etc. People resist the limitations you put on them, but it really enhances the number of people you can have speak to something. I've seen people who practically growled because they were so unaccustomed to letting other people talk. It makes people prepare their thoughts better."

Cady encourages consistent preaching naming the theological issues on which holy conferencing is grounded.

"If you want the congregation members to recognize the other person as a child of God, find a way of naming that from the pulpit often," he says. "Model that behavior (as) the way in which life works in the congregation. As a proponent of the inclusivity of gay and lesbian people in the church, that's something I preached about at Kingston. There were certainly people who had differences of opinion, but we were able to have open and honest conversations with each other."

Robinson also has put more energy into modeling holy conferencing than formally training people. "Training is really, in some ways, conflict management in content, encouraging people to start thinking about ways to create a safe environment for the conversations to happen. Consider how the room is set up, for instance, and allow space for everyone to be able to speak, should they need to, and not have just a couple of voices dominate the conversation."

Jung wants annual conferences to show "examples of alternatives in this hostile world. If we keep punching each other, what can we really do for the transformation of the world?" he asks. "The annual conference is really the beginning ground and the local faith community is the one that needs to envision and share the desire in pursuing this."

Jung accepts the responsibility to train his cabinet to model holy conferencing.

"I need to model that first as a bishop," he says, "then our superintendents.

"In the local church a pastor needs to learn to do it. It's a trust-building challenge. In understanding holy conferencing, we can build trust in the process (if) not always in the person. In the process, we may learn that a good outcome is coming."

The Rev. John Michael De Marco is an executive coach and author based in Franklin, Tenn.,

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