I had the jurisdictional hearing of the impeachment trial on in the background Tuesday so I could stay informed. It wasn’t very informative, but I did hear something I didn’t anticipate. A pastor would call it a sermon illustration.
During the proceedings on Feb. 9, it seemed the prosecution and defense were arguing the same point. Both sides warned against setting dangerous precedent.
Though their specific concerns differ in important ways, I found myself wanting both sides to be able to focus more on a win-win solution than on a win-lose outcome. Some might point out my idealism or naïveté. Others will point out impeachment doesn’t work that way.
As childish as it may seem, however, I couldn’t help but wish there was some way both sides could agree they want the same thing and then work toward a solution addressing their specific concerns. That would be good for the country.
Instead, the two sides have staked out their territory and are arguing their positions as though the positions themselves are what they and we really want. So much has been invested in one outcome or another that it seems what is needed most has taken a back seat to the arguments and whose argument will win.
I wonder how often this characterizes the church. How often do we stake out our positions and argue them so passionately that the position becomes the end goal?
Scaling the illustration
What if I were not watching the U.S. Senate engaged in impeachment proceedings, but instead I was dealing with something closer to home and smaller in scale, like how my church should respond to the coronavirus pandemic? What would I be doing and saying?
What was easy for me to see as a spectator separated by hundreds of miles and the internet is often not so easy when I’m up close and in the moment. What seems so clear when I’m not directly involved often doesn’t occur to me when I’m personally invested.
Most of us are not tasked with weighing evidence for or against impeachment and making a decision based on that evidence that will affect millions of people and the course of a nation.
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Over the last year, most of us have weighed whether to wear a mask or not wear a mask, to get together with friends or not get together with friends, and a host of other decisions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Our pastors carry the weight of whether to hold worship services in person, online or both; whether to require masks; whether to allow Bible study in the building or conduct it online only. They are the ones tasked with providing pastoral care and conducting funerals. Thankfully, they’re also conducting weddings, but those are more stressful, too.
Not only must pastors consider the available evidence, they seemingly must weigh it anew on a regular basis, sometimes changing course mid-week. Added to the scale are the strong feelings communicated by different constituencies within the same congregation. Pastors and ministry leaders have been carrying this weight for almost a year now.
Debating differences close to home
The two situations described here—impeachment and churches responding to the pandemic—are different in significant ways. They are similar, though, in that an all-or-none approach will not result in the best outcome.
The impeachment trial will end in either conviction or acquittal. Neither outcome will prevent civil unrest or insurrection, nor will either outcome ensure elected officials will not incite violence. Leaders will need to do more to find a shared solution to valid concerns raised by all sides in the current proceedings.
Similarly, pastors and ministry leaders are having to make either/or decisions, sometimes on short notice. Their decisions make some mad one week and others mad another week. Long term, they will need the congregation to work together to arrive at shared solutions.
Though the pandemic is so much larger than any one congregation, what a given congregation will do to minister during the pandemic is within each congregation’s grasp. In this way, the church’s pandemic response is practicing grounds for how we can and must work together to address other issues over which we disagree.
Impeachment isn’t an ideal illustration for how churches can engage in conflict resolution. For one, it’s a terminal step arrived at after so many other efforts have failed. And it’s political.
Impeachment does provide a negative example, however, in which we can see more productive ways to listen to each other, to take each other seriously, and to work together under our most important commonality—Jesus Christ.
In our nation’s case, more than avoiding a dangerous precedent, the sides are most interested in preserving our union.
In the church’s case, preserving union is part of the ultimate goal—proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have divided over much. It’s time we step back and remember what we hold in common.