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Let’s Talk: About Difficult Conversations at Synod

Greetings from General Synod 32 in Milwaukee!

As always, General Synod feels like a family reunion. It is a time to visit old friends and make new ones. Every year I realize how many people I meet at Synod who become wonderful friends and how many old friends I see who remain dear to me.

This year’s Synod (as all Synods do) had moments that created deep reflection for me. One of those moments is what I want to share with you this day. One of our Conferences submitted a resolution about Exhibit Hall Space and whether certain groups that do not support actions of the church, in particular, those  resolutions passed at previous Synods that support the rights and humanity of LGBTQ members, should be allowed to rent Exhibit Hall Space.

The Committee that deliberated this resolution thought long and hard about its response. In the end, they voted to recommend a no vote on the Resolution. This created MUCH deliberation from delegates. I will be honest that there were some things related to logistics that upset me—the Resolution was introduced late in the day on a day when many of us had already been meeting for 14 hours; although a determination was made to continue debate into the next day, that didn’t seem to have happened; the bottom line of all of this was some very hurt and angry people, even among those people who agreed with the intent of the resolution but decided that the UCC’s call for Extravagant Welcome and inviting people to the Table for conversation was an important statement and chose to support the Committee’s decision to vote the Resolution down. They wanted to be heard. They needed to feel their church was supporting them.

I get that. Completely.

And, the heart of my reflection is on what it means for us to say that we welcome all people to the table and we need all voices at the Table. Do we really mean all voices? Marginalized people have for way too long been excluded from the Table. That can no longer be tolerated. Period.

And, does insisting that voices that have been excluded from the Table be included mean that we need to remove others? Isn’t the point of needing ALL voices to be at the Table mean that ALL voices, even those that we disagree with, NEED to be at the Table?

I’m struggling with this. I don’t want people to be at the Table who are going to disparage, oppress, or judge my siblings in Christ who, having been excluded for so long, are now, not only taking their seat at the Table but finding the courage to come to the Table to take their seat.

I realized that even in my own mind (and maybe the mind of others?), being invited to the Table should never open one up to being ostracized, judged, bullied, condemned. And that is what those who have been marginalized are feeling. It doesn’t feel safe. They cannot yet trust the Table to be a place of the Extravagant Welcome we profess in the United Church of Christ.  And, what I heard from those in support of defeating the Resolution, was they don’t want to be ostracized, blamed, or excluded from the Table either. They want a chance to engage in difficult dialogue that, I hope, will bring us closer and create for us a clear vision for who God needs us to be in the world today.

The Rev. Jim Moos, Associate General Minister of the UCC, who will be leaving his position in a few weeks, has a saying that ALL of us who know him can repeat in our sleep: “Programs are important but Relationships are Everything.” I adapted it a bit for this particular situation: “Resolutions are important but Relationships are Everything.”

What does it take for us to create space for dialogue that does not oppress, judge or harm individuals who have been oppressed, judged and harmed for so long that finding courage to come to the table is hard? And, how do we prevent ourselves from going so far to the extreme that we end up shutting out voices who have struggled with some of the stands we have taken but continue to be part of the United Church of Christ because they deeply love this denomination and want to have a seat at the Table, willing to engage in a dialogue that is just as scary for them as it is for others?

Don’t get me wrong—bullying, bigotry, oppression, intolerance can never be accepted and there needs to be agreement among all persons that a seat at the Table is not for anyone engaging in behaviors that harm or attack another human being. That is unacceptable and should be called out by anyone who experiences it or witnesses it. However, finding the courage to be in difficult conversations with one another when we disagree on theology and how to be Church should always be our aim and our goal. We all grow from that. Even if we never change our stand on an issue, the value of hearing where other people are coming from and respectfully disagreeing or finding spaces to embrace one another in the struggle is what allows us all to experience the richness of God’s community.

This year our Conference is going to engage in a lot of difficult conversations. We are going to create a covenant for how those conversations take place to make sure that respect, love, courage and bravery are welcomed experiences and bullying, hatred, and judgment are not allowed in the room. We can learn from this experience at Synod as we embark on these conversations ourselves. May God grant us the wisdom to understand how important it is that in a world of polarization and divisiveness, we can be a model for what it means to create a Table that is safe for all people to share.


  • Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter

    Congratulations on writing (and living into) this. There is a saying that you have to “name it to claim it.” The understandable urge to deny a seat at the table to those with whom we disagree, calls into question why we are at the table in the first place.
    In 2008, there was a hate crime murder of an undocumented, Latino resident who was attacked by 7 teenagers from our local high school here in Patchogue (Long Island, New York). I presided at the funeral held at the Congregational Church of Patchogue which I serve as pastor. We held many, many subsequent meetings, panels and other events at our church. A formal Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation was opened and remained open for two years.
    There was much understandable angst (to say the least) about who would be able to attend, let alone have a seat at the table. Some argued strongly against the inclusion of the police department (accused of under-reporting hate crimes); the County Executive (accused of vitriolic campaigning on deportation of undocumented); and family and friends of the 7 teenagers.
    Ultimately, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote me saying that everyone deserves a seat at the table of justice; and that he was praying for me, our church, the community, the one who was killed, the friends and family of the one who was killed ~ and he was praying for the ones involved in the killing and their friends and family as well.
    This was not a “happily ever after” story by a long shot. But it was a realization of the bittersweet necessity of inviting ~ even those with whom we have entrenched differences ~ to the table of justice if, indeed, our goal is healing.

  • Sue Ann Yarbrough

    Thank you for this, Diane. I have taken the liberty of sharing part of your post with New Community of Faith. As you know, we have some work to do in this area, but bullying will never win the day.

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