September 06, 2017
By Todd Grant Yonkman.
Scripture: Matthew 18:15 (NRSV)
"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone."
Almost 20 years ago, when I was serving in my first call as a solo pastor in Illinois, the Conference Minister at the time invited me along with a group of other clergy to get trained in conflict resolution at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. It was there that I was first introduced to the "Matthew 18 Principle," otherwise known as "direct communication." Direction communication has two parts: 1) speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:, and 2) deep listening. Since then, I’ve taught direct communication in every congregation I’ve served, not only because Jesus taught it but also because it’s the cornerstone of healthy congregational life.
The first part, speaking, sounds simple enough: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone." I take the meaning of "sin" here to be anything that has disrupted the relationship--any hurt or slight, real or perceived. What makes this loving is that your focus is on restoring the relationship, not arguing over who is at fault. And you’re not doing it in public to shame the other person or score political points. You don’t nurse a hurt or cut off from the relationship or talk behind the person’s back. The point is to get some courage, and speak to the other person honestly and directly about what is bothering you. Jesus’ instruction is clear. Following it can be difficult.
The second part is deep listening. Jesus says, "If a member listens to you, you have regained that one." Jesus is putting a lot of confidence in the power of listening to reconcile people in conflict. And it is true that deep listening, that is listening to understand as opposed to listening to respond, can have an almost miraculous healing effect in many relationships. Psychologist Scott Peck in his classic The Road Less Traveled writes of deep listening as a profound act of love.
Unfortunately, on this side of heaven, not every relationship can be regained. Sometimes, deep listening fails. For example, at a church I served previously, the congregation made a commitment to multi-racial, multi-cultural ministry. Our worship began to reflect that by including jazz, gospel, and reggae music. One church member, upon hearing drums used in worship, loudly and publicly complained that she felt like she was "in Africa" and made it clear by her tone that this was not a good thing. She continued to publicly say racists things despite the congregation’s lengthy Sacred Conversation on Race process and our deep listening process. She was a long time member and some thought I should "include" her voice, but that voice was causing so much hurt, I simply couldn’t stand by and let it continue. Finally, I had to tell her directly that as a church we would not stop our anti-racism work and she should stop saying what she was saying. She chose to stop coming to church.
Deep listening isn’t magic. Sometimes we are thrown back on the hope that one day, we will each be reconciled to one another in God’s infinite love.
Loving God, teach us to listen deeply and speak the truth in love that we might be reconciled to each other and to you. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman is Transitional Senior Minister of First Congregational Church of Stamford.
September 06, 2017
Todd Grant Yonkman.