Don’t Make Me Choose!

While traveling to a denominational meeting, my eyes were immediately drawn to the front page article in the September 15 Wall Street Journal. “A Doctor’s Hard Decision” by Drew Hinshaw was about John Vallentine, a doctor volunteering on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The Golfo Azzurro is dedicated to helping immigrants who are floating on rafts, desperate to escape to Europe and begin a new life. The ship was traveling south to locate a rubber dinghy packed with migrants. The raft was beginning to deflate, putting many lives at peril. 

As the Golfo Azzurro was steaming toward the raft, the ship’s radio interrupted to say that a lone West African man who was rescued from the water by another vessel was desperately ill. They needed a doctor immediately. What to do? Change direction to try to save this one man or continue on their mission to save many more people on the rubber dinghy? Doctors use many methods to triage or prioritize care, but, still, decisions are not often clear-cut.

Dr. Vallentine, age 70, was a professor of ethics in his home country of Australia until he retired and is now devoting his life to rescuing migrants from the waters that can lead to a new home and life. Vallentine was accustomed to dealing with very difficult moral and ethical questions regarding the treatment of the ill, yet, still, the decision was agonizing.

Valentin said, “It’s all about finite resources in a world of infinite need. Do I look after this one, that 10, this 600?” What to do? Change course to save one man who might even be dead by the time the ship got there, or simply stay on course to find the overloaded dinghy and let the sick man die? Don’t make me choose!

The next day, I became involved in conversations with other United Methodists around the Commission on a Way Forward and the future of our beloved church. One person shared how their congregation is having holy conversations around human sexuality and said, “Our church is divided around this issue, as are many other churches. However, most of our congregation is committed to remaining united in our diversity. We believe our greatest witness to the world is that we can continue to worship, serve, and share God’s love together in the midst of our differences. Our fear is that The United Methodist Church will split. Please don’t make us choose one side or another!

Humans have always lived in a world where we are faced with complex choices. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy witnesses to the fact that when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they were often tempted to go astray and follow the ways of the people in the land. But Moses tried to bring them back by reminding them to choose wisely.

I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life – so that you and your descendants will live –  by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, CEB)

Dr. Vallentine made the difficult decision to change the ship’s course and head toward the man who was gravely ill and was having seizures. Once this man was on the ship, the crew tried to summon a helicopter to come and take him to a hospital on the mainland, but none were available. It was a no-win situation. They could not evacuate the man, nor had they been able to travel toward the dinghy that was deflating.

Almost one-third of all migrant boats that leave Libya sink and most West African migrants can’t swim. No one could help the dinghy that was taking on water. Meanwhile, Dr. Vallentine and the Golfo Azzurro landed six hours later at Lampedusa, an Italian island, to get help for the old man who was gravely ill.

The doctor told his crew, “I feel a little responsible and sad because of the amount of energy involved in this operation for one person, but we chose to do what’s right for this man. We think that this man represents every man.” Don’t make me choose!

Indeed, every life is precious. In the Social Principles of our United Methodist Book of Discipline, the language used around abortion reflects the enormity of the choices we often have to make. “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” (¶161K) I was in that situation myself when I was pregnant and experienced serious complications. There are not always clear answers. Don’t make me choose!      

In order to survive, our local churches are faced with similar choices. How will we choose life in the midst of declining worship attendance and resources? How can we realign our priorities so that we can focus our energy outward rather than inward? How do we let go of activities that do not align with our mission, vision, and strategic priorities and focus on those ministries that will make a transforming difference in our communities? Don’t make us choose!

How do we overcome the temptation in local churches to spend our time at the fellowship gathering after worship talking to our friends rather than greeting and engaging those who are first-time guests? When resources are limited, do we start a Sunday class for special needs children, throw our energy into using the church as a homeless shelter once a year, or travel to the nearby city once a month to cook dinner at the rescue mission? Do we set aside what little staff money that is available for a parish visitor, a middle school youth coordinator, or a nursery coordinator? How do we make prayerful decisions when there are no easy answers? Don’t make us choose!

At a conference level, how do we decide what positions will need to be eliminated when budget cuts are necessary? How do we decide which ministries should receive conference funding and which need to secure their own funding? How do appointive cabinets decide when it is time for a local church to intentionally discern its future? When do congregations admit, “We’ve tried everything we know how to revitalize this church, but it’s not happening. We are using up all of our reserves. If we can’t continue, let’s save what little we have left to leave a legacy in this community or give our assets to another church that is making a difference in discipleship, ministry, and outreach.” Don’t make us choose!

The man who was ill, Mr. Osei, was finally flown by helicopter from Dr. Vallentine’s ship to Sicily but died in the ambulance that was taking him from the landing strip to the hospital. Several days later, the Golfo Azzurro ended up back in the place where the deflating rubber dinghy had been. The crew saw the remains of two recently deflated rubber boats in the water. There appeared to be no survivors. No one knew what happened.

Did Dr. Vallentine make the wrong choice? He did what he could on a boat that was dedicated to rescuing migrants. He acted with integrity, using the best knowledge he had.

  • Can you and I “choose life” by loving the Lord our God, obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God’s grace?
  • Can our local churches, each one precious and unique, “choose hope” by giving ourselves away in love to our communities?
  • Can The United Methodist Church “choose unity” by focusing on our common mission to make disciples rather than on what divides us?

Lord, when we experience tragic conflicts of life with life and our hearts cry out to you, “Don’t make us choose!” inspire us to choose life and love by acting prayerfully and humbly together.

The Peacemaking Circle

Grandfather, look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones who are divided
And we are the ones who must come back together
to walk in the Sacred Way.
Grandfather, Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion, and honor,
that we may heal the earth and heal each other.

– Objibway people of Canada

Last week 160 local and associate pastors, deacons, and elders in the Iowa Conference participated in a two-day retreat that was focused on Peacemaking Circles. As the Commission on a Way Forward continues its work, our conference has made a commitment to sacred conversation around human sexuality in various settings.

Peacemaking Circles have been used in recent years in many contexts, including schools, workplaces, justice systems, neighborhoods, and social services, as a process for difficult and painful, yet respectful conversation. The origin of Peacemaking Circles goes back to the indigenous people of North America, who sat around a circle to listen to each other about issues that were important to everyone in the community.

A Peacemaking Circle is a structured process for building relationships, creating deep trust, decision-making, and conflict resolution in communities. Why a circle?

  • A Peacemaking or Listening Circle creates a space where we can be together on an equal basis, apart from our usual ways of relating to each other.
  • In a Circle, everyone can see one another, we are fully present to each other, and no one holds a more prominent position than another.
  • A Peacemaking Circle embodies a theology of relationship and interconnectedness in the midst of serious differences.
  • A Circle encourages everyone to risk sharing their “core self.”
  • A Circle draws out both individual and collective wisdom in a safe environment.

I was deeply grateful to the eighteen people in my Peacemaking Circle, whose generosity of spirit permitted me to be a participant, not as an episcopal leader, but as a fellow listener and seeker of collective truth.

Four things need to happen in a Peacemaking Circle for participants to feel safe in expressing their authentic self. First, we created values, those ideals to which we commit ourselves as a group. In our circle, each person wrote a value on a piece of paper and placed it on the floor centerpiece in the middle of the circle. Those values were:

  • Love
  • Gentleness
  • Everyone’s opinion matters
  • Honesty
  • Transparency
  • Confidential
  • Grace
  • Openness
  • Respect (4x)
  • Space
  • Different perspectives
  • Being seen and heard
  • Unconditional positive regard
  • Grace
  • Dignity/sacred worth
  • All are God’s children and deserve to be treated that way
  • Speaking truthfully with love and care.

Second, we formulated guidelines for our conversation, which were posted on the wall. These guidelines were agreements about how we would make the space safe so that everyone could speak their truth. Our guidelines, which were adopted by consensus, included:

  • Don’t belittle
  • Pause
  • Confidentiality
  • Kindness
  • Deep listening
  • Awareness of body language
  • “I” statements
  • Patience
  • Be fully present
  • Listen to the heart
  • Honor silence
  • Honor the moment
  • Tolerance
  • No assumptions
  • Acceptance
  • Double confidentiality

Third, we were introduced to the talking piece, an essential part of Peacemaking Circles. In a Circle, a “talking piece,” which can be any physical object, regulates conversation. After a question is posed, the talking piece is handed to a participant, who is then empowered to speak from the heart. No one may interrupt or ask questions. After that person is done, the talking piece is handed to the person next to them, who is now able to speak. Again, the other participants simply listen. No one is required to speak if they do not wish to.

Fourth, each session began with a Mindfulness Moment, a time of meditation and/or sacred reading that helped transition group members into the Circle process. The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis is a very helpful introduction to Peacemaking Circles. Decisions are not always made in Peacemaking Circles, but when they are, they are made by consensus.

I can only speak for myself, but the ten hours that we spent in our Peacemaking/Listening Circles was amazingly powerful, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The pace was unhurried, reflection was thoughtful, no decisions were made, and there was space for the full expression of emotions.

Circles are only effective when adequate time is taken at the beginning to build relationships and create trust. Before any discussion could take place about the presenting issue, we had to get to know each other. Some of the questions that were our circle included:

  • What is your earliest recollection of being in a church community?
  • Who was a mentor/guide for you in your faith journey, and what did you learn?
  • Why do you keep showing up? (in a sacred profession that can be extremely demanding and draining as well as incredibly fulfilling)
  • When did you first realize that life isn’t fair?
  • What does safety look like?
  • Why do you stop listening?
  • When was a time that you witnessed injustice?

When we finally entered into the Circle process around human sexuality, I sensed that we were in a much better place to do the careful listening that is necessary to truly understand each other. As we engaged around human sexuality, there was more willingness to go deep, resulting in a rich and fruitful Circle. As I pondered the experience, I realized that I had come to know, appreciate, and love the people in my circle in a much deeper way than I know most of my other acquaintances.

Are we the ones who must come back together to walk in the Sacred Way? I suspect that our Peacemaking Circle transformed all of us in ways that God has yet to reveal.

The Same

This is a time when
Is split off from
And being
Hardly at all.
But here and there
On this side of the horizon,
People meet in sacred circles
To form communities
And speak their hearts
That seek the same.

Meir Carasso[i]

[i] Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Processes; An New/Old Approach to Peacemaking, Good Books, Intercourse PA, 2005, p. 69.

The UMC: Hedgehog or Fox?  

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This quote is attributed to the 7th century b.c. Greek poet and soldier Archilochus. Archilochus did not provide a background for his reflection, but it is generally accepted today that he was referring to how both animals react to danger. When a fox is threatened, it responds by considering carefully the situation and devising a clever plan, which might involve running, digging, climbing, hiding, or engaging. On the other hand, the hedgehog simply rolls up into a protective ball, which is its best defense, and hopes for the best. Whereas the fox has many options, the hedgehog simply does the one thing it knows how to do very well.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin expanded on this metaphor in his popular 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. According to Berlin, “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single vision…a single, universal organizing principle” — the hedgehogs —- and “those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, in some de facto way” — the foxes.

In various venues over the past several months, I have been involved in discussions about the kind of leaders we need for the future of The United Methodist Church. In the fast-changing world in which we live, serve, and share Christ’s love, what qualities do we need in order to reach out to our communities in ways that are relevant, compelling, and transformative?

There was general agreement that the hedgehog concept no longer works. Hedgehog churches are doing the same things they did a hundred years ago. They sit in their pews and wait for people to visit their church instead of proactively reaching out. Preoccupied by self-preservation, they have little interest in learning about the hopes and dreams of their community and lament the end of the “glory days” of their church. Hedgehog churches are afraid to risk doing a new thing because failure might mean the end of their congregation. Consequently, they roll into a little ball to isolate themselves from an increasingly secularized world. To become a fox is too unthinkable.

The poster church for the hedgehog holds an annual fall festival, now in its 60th year, which the entire community looks forward to. Church members galvanize around baking pies, firing up the grills, using fancy tablecloths, and selling baked goods. They have a respectable turnout, but it always results in great disappointment a few months later when none of those guests return to attend worship. The congregation does not grow because church members are not able to engage others in meaningful spiritual conversation and always revert back to their single organizing principle: food.

Hedgehog churches would be successful if they existed in a fixed environment that never changed. They would simply need to execute the one strategy they knew to be successful sixty years ago, and it would always work! Unfortunately, we no longer live in that world.

By contrast, fox churches make a conscious decision to learn, grow, and change by giving up what no longer works. They connect with the spiritual yearning of their neighbors, move outside the building to get to know their community, initiate new and relevant ministries, and always remain flexible.

Fox churches understand that the world is complex and that their mission field is continually in flux. They thrive on imagination and innovation, have the courage to fail, and keep in the forefront their mission to share the good news in whatever way works for their context. Of course, churches rarely become fox congregations without both lay and clergy leaders who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, in some de facto way.”

What kind of leaders do we need in the 21st century church? Here are some responses that I have heard in recent weeks.

  • Adaptive
  • Collaborative
  • Lifelong learners
  • Visionary
  • Risk-taking
  • Courageous and fearless
  • Creative thinkers
  • Relational
  • Joyful
  • Intercultural competence
  • Alive in Christ
  • Sees value in partnering
  • Spiritually grounded
  • Passion and heart for discipleship
  • Christ-like faithfulness
  • Nurtures missional imagination
  • Leadership strength
  • World citizens
  • Committed to the long haul
  • Fruitful and effective
  • Self-differentiated
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Compassionate witness and prophetic boldness
  • Servant leaders
  • Resilient
  • Focused on mission and vision

On August 26, Dr. Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, spoke to the class of 2021 at the Yale College Opening Assembly. Citing the fable of the hedgehog and the fox, he said, “Your education in Yale College will expose you to some grand ideas that may seem compelling as unifying life philosophies. You will learn about and from some brilliant hedgehogs and brilliant foxes. But at this stage of your education, I want to urge you to emulate the fox. As inspired as you might be by a single idea or way of looking at the world, I suggest that you entertain many different ways of thinking and consider various points of view. Try them all on; see what fits you best…

“There will be plenty of time later to hone your focus, to specialize and develop your expertise… But over the years, I have loved seeing generations of Yale College students embrace the opportunity to think broadly and study widely. You also will develop as flexible thinkers and clear communicators. These foxlike attributes will serve you well no matter what you do after graduation.”[i]

In recent years, a number of major corporations added a new position, Chief Innovation Officer. The rationale was that since the rapid pace of change in our world demands continual innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, someone should have as their only responsibility being the primary company innovator.

What businesses are seeing now, however, is that every employee must be an innovator, no matter what their role is. If there is a Chief Innovation Officer, that person’s job is to create a culture shift where all employees are taught to think like a fox rather than a hedgehog, and processes are created that foster creative thinking and innovation.

What might the future United Methodist Church look like if we trained, blessed, and released our clergy and lay leaders to be curious and clever foxes who relish complexity, challenge, and seeming contradiction? What if we decided that curling up into rigid little hedgehog church balls no longer works in today’s world?

What if we identified unconventional entrepreneurs with the gifts of imagination, innovation, and thinking big to pioneer new ways of being God’s people? What if our ordering of ministry became more flexible? What if we started with the needs of our world rather than the needs of the institutional church in our passion to make, nurture, and send out disciples of Jesus Christ?

How is God calling us to think and act like the foxes God has created us to become?