Purple church possibilities

Whether you desire a new building or a new interpretation of Scripture, progress cannot be made if leaders are conflict-averse, writes Teri McDowell Ott.

I still remember the Sunday I broke my silence on LGBTQ+ inclusion. As Elie Wiesel said in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I was serving as the pastor of a church in a small North Carolina community where the influences of the Bible Belt were strong. We didn’t use the label “Purple Church” back then, but my people represented a broad spectrum of beliefs and political perspectives.

My fear and anxiety had led me to work extra hard crafting a sermon that I prayed would be faithful, and hoped could be heard by all, even if they disagreed. But I also made it clear that I interpreted scripture differently than those who use the Bible to exclude our LGBTQ+ siblings.

Before worship, I locked myself in my office to try to calm my rising anxiety. My heart thudded in my ears as I paced and prayed, getting frank with God: Why couldn’t you have called me to some quiet cubicle somewhere?

Those serving “purple” churches today are doing so in an especially volatile political climate. As Tom Long recently wrote in his Outlook article, “The perilous and promising pulpit,” preachers are getting sharply attacked at the church door just for quoting Scripture like “love your enemies” or “blessed are the merciful.” Purple churches, with a mix of red Republicans and blue Democrats, are ripe for conflict. But I believe they are also places of promise and possibility. Besides faith communities, where else in our society do people of diverse political perspectives voluntarily gather?

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, from the Harvard Kennedy School, teach people and organizations how to address “adaptive” challenges — complicated issues that involve competing values, beliefs, and loyalties, and that stir intense emotions. For example, a church with diminishing membership saddled with expensive-to-maintain facilities faces an adaptive challenge, sure to surface different ideas, beliefs and values about the faithful path forward.

Whether a new building or a new interpretation of Scripture, progress cannot be made on adaptive challenges if leaders are conflict-averse. Comfort maintains the status quo, keeping us on the superficial surface of challenges that require a deeper dive. Like composers who apply notes of discord and dissonance to add depth and forward motion to music, Heifetz and Linsky advise leaders to surface and manage conflict as an essential resource in an organization’s progression on adaptive challenges.

To all the pastors and people in leadership positions who feel the stress of serving as the orchestra’s conductor of dissonance, take heart. Heifetz and Linsky also say adaptive challenges cannot be tackled alone. Leadership in the organization must be exercised by more than the “designated leader.” Pastors can strike a note of dissonance in the pulpit through a prophetic word that gets a congregation talking about an issue they’ve been too afraid to tackle. Sessions and small groups can acknowledge conflicting ideas and values, then bring people from both sides together to come up with ideas on which both can agree. Everyone can help regulate the temperature of conflict, making sure it’s in the productive, not destructive, zone. Darian can help calm Joe down after his fight response kicked in. When Sarah’s flight response leads her to storm from the room, Ada can encourage her to return and stay engaged.

This is hard, stressful work. But when did Jesus ever lead us down the path of easy?

For the most part, my sermon on LGBTQ+ inclusion was well received. One couple changed churches afterwards, unable to reconcile themselves with my views and the discussions my sermon stirred. But many more expressed their belief that the church should be engaging social issues that matter — even if doing so was controversial and revealed disagreement.

I love the church. And I believe in the power of Christ’s body to transform. Churches willing to embrace their notes of discord and dissonance will add depth and forward motion to their ministry — an orchestration of divine harmony that’s not easy, but more than worthwhile.