As I try to process my experience at the Future Church Summit in Orlando—and especially as I think about the events of the delegate session—scenes from my son’s teen years keep coming to mind. Our son, who has multiple mental health and developmental struggles, often expressed feelings that made no sense to me.
If I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, I was bullying him. And considering he really didn’t want to do anything besides play video games and listen to his music, he felt bullied a lot.
If I told him what the consequences would be if he made certain choices, I was threatening him.
- “If you don’t do your homework you will fail the class.”
- “You can’t have dessert until your room is clean.”
- “If you continue to yell at me, I will put your Gameboy away for the rest of the night.”
And the anger would boil up in him at the slightest provocation. Especially if he got caught in a lie or if we found something in his room that didn’t belong to him. Simply pointing out a bad choice he had made would throw him into a rage.
I got good at using a calm voice. I often picked up a book to read while he yelled at me. And I eventually came to realize that my son really did feel bullied and threatened and angry. He was not faking these emotions in order to make my life more difficult. They were sincere feelings.
But these sincere feelings, while directed at me, were not really about me. I was not bullying him. I was not threatening him. I was not treating him in a cruel or unfair manner that would warrant the anger he expressed. These feelings were all about him.
So I learned (more or less) to respect his feelings as sincere while also not allowing his feelings to influence my parenting choices:
- “I’m sorry you feel bullied, but you still need to do your homework.”
- “You call it a threat, I call it a consequence. Either way, I will take away the Gameboy if you keep yelling.”
- “This might make you angry, but I know that you lied to me, and that is not OK.”
This was my life for about thirteen years. (We adopted our son at age 5, and he moved out at age 18; he’s now doing well in a group home.) So it’s probably no surprise that I’m falling back on familiar responses as I process the recent MCUSA conversations.
I know for a fact that people were safe in the Future Church Summit space. (I’m defining safety here as a lack of danger to physical bodies and livelihood.) Not everyone agreed with the “conservative” viewpoint on a variety of issues. But there was never a threat of physical harm. And, to my knowledge, no one has been denied a denominational position because of holding a traditional view of marriage—so no conservative livelihoods were at stake.
If anyone was truly not safe, it was the lgbtq people who openly spoke of their sexual identity in a context where people can still be removed from staff positions and committee appointments for identifying as lgbtq.
Still, some self-identified conservatives say they did not feel safe. And I believe them–that they sincerely felt unsafe. Their feelings are real. But these feelings are not really about lgbtq folks or their allies or the theme team or even MCUSA. These feelings are connected to discomfort that people have with shifting power dynamics and emerging voices within the church.
So this is what I would say to people who did not feel safe at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel safe is not my job. It is not MCUSA’s job. And it is certainly not the job of the people who are marginalized by your views. No one is responsible for making you feel safe. If you are scared, you are scared. We can’t help how you feel. Our responsibility to each other is to make sure that everyone actually is safe. And I truly believe you were safe.
I also know for a fact that conservative voices were not silenced in this process. The Future Church Summit was the most inclusive broad conversation MCUSA has ever had, and I commend Glen Guyton and the planning team for their efforts to bring a range of voices to the table. I also know that, despite all of the efforts to welcome the voices of young people, queer people, and people of color, the delegate body was still overwhelmingly old and white and straight. The voices of the FCS were a bit more diverse, but still pretty old, pretty white, and pretty straight.
When we were surveyed at the end of the Summit about how well we thought the Theme Team’s report reflected our table discussions, it was clear that the vast majority of participants felt that everyone was heard.
Still, some people said they did not feel heard. And I believe they really did feel silenced. But this feeling was not because they actually were silenced; it was because their voices were not amplified in the ways they have come to expect in Mennonite spaces. Their voices were just their lone voices in a sea of other voices saying things that made them uncomfortable.
So this is what I would say people who did not feel heard at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel heard is not my job either—or anyone else’s. It is our job to invite you; we can’t make you come. And it is our job to hear you; we can’t control whether or not you speak or whether you feel like we heard you.
Also—another lesson from raising my son—just because I continue to disagree with you does not mean I didn’t hear you. Explaining your interpretation of Romans 1 to me again will not change my mind. And that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. I truly believe that if you chose to attend the Future Church Summit and if you chose to speak, you were heard.
As we continue our denominational discussions, it is important that we recognize and honor people’s feelings without automatically taking responsibility for those feelings and without being manipulated by them.
Sometimes people feel bullied and threatened and angry and scared and silenced. We should believe that they really feel those feelings. And we should examine our actions to make sure that we are not, in fact, being bullies or making threats, that we are not antagonizing people or creating unsafe spaces or silencing sincere voices. If we are doing any of those things, we should change our behavior.
If we aren’t doing any of those things and people continue to feel the bad feelings . . . I guess we take a deep breath, say a deep prayer, use our calm voices, and carry on.
Please note: I will be out of town for the next several days celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary! Which means I will probably not be reading and approving (or not) your comments in a timely manner. Please don’t feel silenced. 😉