Equipping Clergy for Controversial Conversations

February 3, 2016 | GNJ News

LONG BRANCH – The church and society is becoming more polarized by issues and debate. Congregations and the denomination are seeking ways to engage in healthy conversation. With this in mind, Bishop John Schol hosted the clergy convocation to equip clergy to lead people through controversy in congregations and communities. The 2016 Bishop’s Clergy Convocation hosted more than 250 clergy and their families for a three day retreat of learning and growth.

“We live in a time in which controversy pervades the church and culture and our communities look to our clergy to lead them through very difficult conversations,” Bishop Schol said. “Creating a sacred place to have these conversations and providing our clergy the tools for facilitating these conversations supports transformational leadership.”

The Rev. Dr. Karin Walker, a former District Superintendent from the Baltimore-Washington Conference who has extensive experience in conflict mediation and in leading difficult conversations around important issues, was the plenary speaker for convocation with the theme ”Sacred Spaces for Controversial Conversations.” She believes it is life-giving and empowering for people to engage in healthy conversation when disagreeing with one another.

“We are brothers and sisters in Christ which puts us on sure footing as our common ground,” Walker said. “By creating sacred space, listening for understanding, and speaking the truth in love, we can model for the world a better way of dealing with differences.”

Convocation was structured with plenary sessions, led by Walker, and small group work, led by Greater New Jersey leadership, to apply the skills discussed.

This was the first time attending convocation for Amanda Cosnett, who is the pastor at Allerton UMC in Annandale and McCrea Memorial UMC in Port Murray. She found the small group sessions particularly meaningful.

“I enjoyed the small groups a lot,” she said. “We shared a lot of our own experiences and opportunities and we also listened deeply to other people. It was nice to be deeply heard as well without interruptions.”

The tools presented by Walker built off the coaching work that was the focus of last year’s convocation. Clergy coaching has spread rapidly throughout Greater New Jersey with more than 155 using this resource. The controversial conversations work builds on the foundation of coaching and takes it one step further.

Director of Connectional Ministries, Rev. Hector Burgos believes the ideas communicated at Convocation will positively impact clergy and congregations.

“Convocation included a video that explains the way we become closer to God is to become closer to each other,” he said. “There is power in that connection that can help diffuse our disagreements. We plan to share this video resource with our churches and encourage them to explore ways to create safe and sacred spaces to be in conversation about the issues affecting their local congregation and community.”

Charlie Soper, the pastor at Epworth UMC in Palmyra, said it was important for pastors to have more strategies to use when needed.

“This adds another tool to the tool box in terms of having conversations and making space for each voice in such a way that is not judgmental or adversarial, but more informational,” he said. “Finding a way to make that happen in a small group, trustee meeting or smaller setting, and having people know they can talk about something on their heart is really important.”

Walker also emphasized the importance of creating a space that is safe to talk about issues. She used real life examples of places where clergy can become vulnerable and shared tools to use on how to respond.

It’s easy to get tripped up by the unexpected things we miss in light of all the things we do,” said Ben Lee, the associate pastor at Bridgewater UMC. “Our reactions are telling about how we are feeling about ministry and lives. To give reactions that have a healing purpose, that is going to be helpful.”

The challenges of travel on the heels of the weekend snowstorm, did not deter clergy from attending or getting the most out of their time.

“Convocation was very helpful in terms of helping us have controversial conversations,” said Moses Flomo, the pastor at St. Mary’s Street UMC in Burlington. “Even beyond that, when it comes to dealing with issues in ministry when there are differences, this was very helpful.”

Woo Min Lee, the pastor at Little Falls UMC said he left the convocation with a renewed heart and spirit. “It was refreshing to rethink about my ministry and the whole process,” he said. “It gave me a chance to refresh myself.”