by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 270 pages.
To those who live and move in the United States, it is virtually impossible to escape the violence that provides a backdrop for our everyday lives. This reality is nearly inescapable and comes at us from so many directions — from films and video games to the random and not so random acts of gun violence on our streets and in our schools. Surrounded by what seems like a more and more unstable world, it’s not unexpected that many would feel a desire to move through it with our proverbial shields up, always prepared for attack.
However much we might hope that the church — the sanctuary — would be different, it often seems that this is where pathologies of our fears and our eternal quest for self-preservation are played out in ways that echo the winner-take-all, territory-protecting violence we experience in our communities. It is into the context of the hunkered-down, hyperprotective church that Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa Latini bring their work in the hope of moving the church toward transformation and renewal.
Beginning with the realities of the conflict that emerges amid the combination of pastor burnout and the weariness of lay leaders trying to keep the church going, Hunsinger and Latini rightly wonder how it is possible to authentically continue to pursue God’s vision for reconciliation. They believe “that nonviolent or compassionate communication is the best single resource available for learning the complex interpersonal and pastoral leadership skills needed by today’s church.” Inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s work in nonviolent communication and drawing from a strong body of research, they brought significant minds to this work, among them those of Edwin Friedman, Margaret Kornfeld and Richard Rohr. Indeed, the bibliography spans more than five centuries of theological thought. In addition, the authors have done a beautiful job of making the biblical connections which help clarify as well as provide a solid foundation on which to build.
In their quest to provide a path for learning the skills of compassionate communication, Hunsinger and Latini have provided the knowledge, skills and the theological context so all these resources can be used in practical ways to bring renewal to the church. With clear definitions and a well-explicated theory, the authors have made sure to give us what we need to understand how nonviolent communication and compassionate leadership can work.
However, though not quite a “for academics only” text, this book does fall in the “handle with care” category. While the methods and practices are based in solid academic research, the processes seem best suited to leaders with more than basic experience in a particular setting. The communication techniques required are neither for those seeking a quick fix, nor for individuals acting on their own within a troubled group. A second edition or volume might include case studies describing actual use in congregational settings. This would help take what is already a very well laid-out theory and bring it into the world of practical application.
DEBRA AVERY is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, Calif.