The toolkit is a resource designed to help small groups (6–8 people, including a trained facilitator) within a church engage with the Human Sexuality Report of Synod 2021* by listening well to the report and to one another. Over the course of an adaptable five to seven sessions, the toolkit introduces groups to three tools for challenging conversations. With the help of these tools, participants will interact with important ideas in the report and reflect openly about their responses to these ideas, all while offering their experiences with these issues prayerfully to God and each other.
*Formally, the Study Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation–Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.
What is the Challenging Conversations Toolkit NOT?
It is important to note that these groups are not expected to make a decision on behalf of a church or classis. Councils, classes, and synod are the designated decision makers in our church polity, and they will still have to make decisions about these issues in the months and years ahead. However, we hope the insights, prayers, and experiences of groups like these might be shared with a church’s council or classis in order to provide helpful context for those decision makers.
Why did Pastor Church Resources create this?
Pastor Church Resources (PCR) is frequently invited to help congregations and classes navigate challenging conversations in conflicted settings. We find that, though there is often a sincere desire to address challenging issues well, congregations struggle to know how to begin. Knowing that the topics covered in the Human Sexuality Report of Synod 2021 can be challenging for Christians to study and talk about well, PCR saw an opportunity to do two things: first, to help congregations begin talking about these particular challenging topics, and second, to provide tools for having all kinds of other challenging conversations as well.
What’s the point of these “conversations”?
The release of the Human Sexuality Report to Synod 2021 and its subsequent discussion, deliberation, and response represent an enormous challenge for Christians, local congregations, classes, and the entire Christian Reformed Church. Many have predicted that some kind of division or schism is inevitable. Perhaps they are right.
It may even be true, as others have suggested, that such a separation, while lamentable, might be the best path forward on this side of glory. Many wonder if our denomination and congregations have the appetite to endure the kind of struggle and pain that accompanied previous disagreements. Some wonder if we ought to just skip the conversation and jump directly to an orderly separation or realignment.
It is not the role of PCR to weigh in on the likelihood of any of these predictions. Nor is it our job to tell you what you should think about the contents of the study report. Rather, we want to make the case that paying attention to good processes can bless churches as they face conflict. Below, we explain more of what we mean by good processes.
1. A good process is rarely fast.
In PCR’s decades of consulting with conflicted churches and pastors, those who avoid the conversation and rush to separate from each other almost always bring significant underlying dysfunction into their relationships with future pastors and future churches.
Quick separations make it easy for conflicted parties to scapegoat each other. We become experts at everything they are doing wrong. At best, we might concede that “our side” could do better while at the same time litigating thousands of carefully dissected specifics of how they could do better. To paraphrase Jesus, “I become an expert at pointing out all the specks in your eyes, but fail to see the plank sticking out of my own.”
The invitation that PCR often extends to conflicted pastors and churches, then, is to slow down, to trust that God brought them into this moment for a reason, and to pay attention to what God might want to teach them at this time—even through the people with whom they so profoundly disagree. To help these pastors and churches, PCR often recommends practices of listening and speaking similar to those embedded in this toolkit. These practices never replace difficult decision-making. Rather, they provide an important foundation and context to make better and more God-glorifying decisions.
2. A good process is always deliberate.
The toolkit’s practices help a group deliberately do three things: First, they help everyone name the issues clearly and listen to one another deeply. In listening, we become open to hear what God might be doing to sanctify us through this. What “plank” might God be inviting me to remove from my own eye? Second, these practices keep the conversation moving. Just as some challenging conversations move too fast, many other challenging conversations can go too slowly. Some groups and churches, fearful of disagreement or the painful consequences of a decision, resist taking action and remain paralyzed. Third, good practices make sure the right people are included in the conversation. It may be tempting for a pastor to think, “We’ve been having this conversation for years! What good has come from it? Let’s just decide already and move on!” But while it may be true that many pastors and some individuals have been having regular, robust conversations around these issues, there are likely many in your community who have not had such an opportunity but who would benefit greatly from it.
3. A good process is consistently oriented to Christ.
Just about the only congregations we read about in the New Testament are conflicted congregations. In fact, much of what we know about what it means to be a Christian disciple in the New Testament originated as pastoral instruction from Paul to conflicted congregations. In other words, conflict is not a distraction, preventing us from our more important work of following Christ. Conflict is the setting and often the means through which we practice our faith and become more like Christ. For that reason, each of these sessions is meant to reorient us continually to Christ, in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17).
Are we abandoning truth?
Some may fear that this process is merely a pretext to abandon truth or even neglect discipline, one of the marks of the true church.* Some will say that a process like this dangerously implies false equivalence. Others will say that a process like this will only elevate bigotry and harm LBGTQ+ people.
There is no question that there are risks associated with any challenging conversation. But at PCR, we more often see the harmful consequences of nothaving the conversation at all. In such communities, conflict often festers under a facade of peace. Sincere questions are not addressed. Blind spots are left to grow. Important issues are neglected. Ultimately, our churches and their witness suffer because we fail to trust God’s Spirit and Word to hold grace and truth together.
Our hope is that this process can be an expression of and witness to our faith that in Christ all things hold together. While we expect that painful decisions will likely still have to be made, we believe our churches now and in the future will be stronger and more faithful for having engaged in a process like this than if we had merely gone our separate ways.
*Belgic Confession, Article 29.
What if I don’t think this will be a challenging conversation at my church?
It is true that the issues addressed in the Study Report are more divisive in some Christian Reformed congregations than others. Some congregations have been attempting conversations like these for decades, with varying degrees of success. Others have been dealing with under-the-surface conflict around these issues for years. Still other churches expect to find the contents of the report entirely uncontroversial. Though your church may not be openly wondering about any of these issues, most pastors know of increasing numbers of members and members’ loved ones who are dealing (often privately) with issues such as pornography, gender identity, and homosexuality. In other words, the conversation may prove more timely than you think.
Who can participate?
Any Christian could be a part of a group, though it is important to be clear that the goal of the group is not to decide what the church’s position on any particular topic will be. Rather, the goal is to engage this topic and each other in ways that reflect our call to “bear with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2) and to trust the apostle Paul’s claim to the conflicted and dysfunctional Corinthian church that even you “are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). So while strong beliefs are permitted (and even encouraged), our goal is not for everyone to agree in the end. While that could be a wonderful outcome, the primary task of participants is to study and respond to the report in such a way that their love for each other and for Christ is practically put in action.
Who can facilitate?
A facilitator does not need to be an expert in biblical theology or sexual ethics. Rather, we recommend you find leaders who have demonstrated the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. The best facilitators will be capable of being in an anxious space without becoming anxiously reactive themselves. All facilitators must participate in a three-hour leader’s training arranged through Pastor Church Resources. The tools you’ll be using require some basic instruction to facilitate well. We also recommend that as much as possible, these groups convene with the blessing and support of the church council.
Where does this fit in our church polity/government?
The Human Sexuality Study Report was commissioned by synod in June of 2016. Synod is a gathering of delegates from every classis (regional body) of Christian Reformed Churches in North America. When a synod appoints a study committee like this, the committee’s report is published many months before the next synod. By publishing the report early, congregations and classes are given the opportunity to read and respond to the report by means of overtures. An overture is an official recommendation that can be written and approved by a church council to be sent to its classis. The classis, made up of delegates from every congregation in that region, can then deliberate and vote on whether to reject the overture, to amend it, or to adopt it and send it to the upcoming synod, which in turn will decide whether to adopt, amend, or reject it. Overtures to synod are typically due by March 15. When synod meets in June 2021, delegates will review all overtures before deliberating on what action to take with respect to the Human Sexuality Study Report. Like a classis, Synod can vote to accept and recommend the report, amend the report, or receive the report for information.
Groups that use the Challenging Conversation Toolkit do not have a formal role in our church polity. However, we recommend that groups make an effort to share their insights and experience with decision-making bodies such as councils and classes in order to provide those decision makers important context for their decisions. For instance, insights from the group might help to enrich the “Grounds” section of the overture, which clarifies the reasons for the recommendation. Note, however, that these insights and context will be valuable even if they arrive too late to be included as a formal communication to Synod 2021.
We write this within days of the most contentious U.S. election in our lifetimes. Protests related to racial justice have persisted around the world for months. Meanwhile, thousands are dying every day from COVID-19. Many of our churches remain unable to meet in any way resembling our former routines. Pastors and church leaders, like everyone else, are weary, stressed, and worn out. 2020 has been a year of extraordinary disruption. It’s fair to wonder, “Is this really the best time for this conversation?
Our answer? We trust your judgment.
Without a doubt, ministry leaders are tired. In the past months, we have all had to learn to accept our human limitations and trust God more than ever.
Yet many churches have demonstrated remarkable creativity in bringing people together despite the complex logistics of this season. Groups continue to meet meaningfully online or at social distance in large rooms, sometimes with better participation than they had before COVID-19.
The current timeline (report released in November 2020, classis meetings in early 2021, synod in June 2021) is the sequence we agreed upon when the Study Committee was commissioned. Under normal circumstances, this timeline allows churches and classes to study and respond to reports with enough time to share their discernment with Synod well before it meets in June. We would love for these groups to be able to offer feedback that contributed to this scheduled discernment.
But even if it’s not possible for your church to convene these groups this winter, we are confident that this conversation, whenever it takes place, will help your congregation move forward in the face of these and other challenging issues.
How is this resource related to the Synodical Study Committee?
In the spring of 2020, PCR approached the Study Committee to seek its permission and blessing to develop this toolkit. Although the Committee was not tasked with creating such a tool, they saw its need and welcomed its development. The Committee helped PCR by granting early access to drafts of the Study Report and by appointing two Study Committee members to review the curriculum before recommending its use to Christian Reformed congregations.
What does facilitator training look like?
PCR has contracted with Faith Care of Shalem Mental Health Network in Hamilton, Ontario, to provide a three-hour, small group training for facilitators. The training will introduce you to the toolkit and its main tools and give you opportunity to practice using the tools in a small group with fellow facilitators.
What tools are in the toolkit?
Pastor Church Resources leaned heavily on two partner organizations committed to helping congregations have better conversations in the midst of conflict.
The Colossian Forum (colossianforum.org) has developed a series of ten-session small group resources to help churches navigate issues around human origins, politics, and human sexuality. Pastor Church Resources regularly recommends these materials to churches struggling to address differences within their congregations. From The Colossian Forum, the toolkit adapted the “Fears and Loves” activity as well as the session-ending prayer activity “Praise, Lament, and Hope.”
Faith Care, a part of Shalem Mental Health Network (shalemnetwork.org), has been a leader in teaching congregations how to use restorative practices to have better conversations and make better decisions. Shalem helped PCR create a restorative practices framework for this toolkit and specifically crafted the questions through which participants most directly respond to the Report.
How much does it cost?
Because of ministry shares, the development, publication, and support of this project has been heavily subsidized. We ask that congregations pay only $35 US/ $45 CDN for each facilitator’s training registration. The cost of training facilitators is the only cost churches are asked to pay. Once a facilitator has completed the training, they will be given access to the full leader and participant guides.
If this subsidized cost will still prevent your church from participating, please contact [email protected]. Scholarships are available to make sure any church can use this resource.