Methodism in the Therapy Room, Part I

My wife, Mary, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and I have learned a lot from her over the years about relationships and dealing with conflict. She and I were talking about the current situation in The United Methodist Church and analyzing it from a systems perspective. Mary uses a four-step process in resolving conflict between husbands and wives (based on the work of Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Brent Atkinson, for those who are familiar with their work). It can be helpful to see how the conflict-resolution process is playing out in United Methodism as a guide for where the glitches are. I know it is simplistic to reduce the conflict within Methodism to that between two “partners,” but taking this angle on the situation can yield some helpful learnings. I would like to take this week’s and next week’s blog to explore how the therapeutic conflict-resolution process can inform our understanding of the conflict within Methodism today. Here is the four-step process:

1. Engage in conversation, seek to find the understandable part in the other’s perspective, and make room for their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. We have had endless conversation and “dialog” over the issue of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. From my (admittedly biased) perspective, the traditional sexuality partner has gone as far as possible to make room for the pro-gay partner’s perspective. Looking at the paragraph on homosexuality in the Social Principles (¶161F), six of the seven sentences reflect the pro-gay perspective (although the traditional sexuality partner would agree with many of those sentences, as well). In addition, there are several references in the Discipline that favor respect for the human rights of GLBT persons. The only step left to take in terms of making room for the pro-gay perspective would be to completely abandon the traditional sexuality perspective and embrace the practice of homosexuality, which the traditional sexuality partner cannot do. (The reason that the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal failed at the 2012 General Conference was that it was so one-sided as to make almost no room for the traditional sexuality perspective. A more balanced proposal may very well have been adopted.)

At the same time, it feels like the pro-gay partner has not found the understandable part in the traditional sexuality perspective, nor have they made room for that perspective. Instead, anyone who disagrees with the pro-gay perspective is classified as a bigot holding to Neanderthal morality and chained to the past. The pro-gay partner is adopting a “scorched earth” policy in attempting to eradicate the traditional sexuality perspective from the church. They see it as a human rights issue similar to racism that therefore must be completely eliminated from Methodism.

2. If the partner does not make room for your perspective, stand up and engage with them more forcefully. The pro-gay partner has certainly been forceful in standing up and engaging in the debate. Numerous statements and methods of communication have very forcefully presented the pro-gay perspective.

On the other hand, the traditional sexuality partner has been timid about standing up and engaging forcefully, even though the pro-gay partner is not making room for the traditional perspective in their thinking. While books and articles have been written from both sides, there is a marked lack of national spokespersons advocating the traditional sexuality perspective. This is particularly true among the gatekeepers of the system—bishops, district superintendents, agency general secretaries, etc. While there have been some bishops and superintendents who have stood up in their own annual conferences, none have taken a national platform to advocate the traditional perspective. The pro-gay partner, however, has many gatekeepers who are using a national platform to stand up and engage more forcefully. The conversation is unbalanced.

What can be done to redress the balance in the conversation in our church? How can our gatekeepers take a more active role in advocating the traditional sexuality perspective? Stay tuned for steps three and four next week.

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