Before we begin, a quick reality check: all pastors struggle with leadership challenges.
In a recent survey, over half of U.S. pastors found the job overwhelming. But in my interactions with pastors and leaders over the last few years, they’ll eventually bring up The Big Issue. And the current heightened level of The Big Issue is making their shepherding extremely difficult. Here it is: The political polarization in America has invaded the church in dramatic and dangerous ways, particularly in predominately white evangelical churches. In an article at Bloomberg.com tackling this topic, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, simply said, “There are pastors who are exhausted.” In the same opinion piece, Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois and co-author of seminal books like Divided By Faith and the follow-up, United By Faith, admitted, “I’ve been studying religion and religious congregations for 30 years. This is a level of conflict that I’ve never seen. What is different now? The conflict is over entire worldviews — politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.”
“Julie Boler [of Braver Angels, a nonprofit working to de-polarize groups] ominously noted that the conflicts of 2016 look like ‘a cakewalk compared to where we are now.’ But there are also bright spots. Younger evangelicals are less beholden to their elders’ cultural and racial obsessions. ‘These are people,’ Russell Moore said, ‘who were formed theologically in a time when they never considered themselves to be part of a cultural majority in the United States.’”
I wish I could say there’s an easy fix.
My heart breaks for the pastors I connect with who are weary of the conflict. But one way or another, shepherds cannot ignore it. The New Testament letters have a lot to say about factions and divisiveness. And then add what Jesus had to say about the power of unity—remember how he said people would actually know we are his followers? We are far from that today.
My friend Jim Henderson in Seattle with 3Practices.com has made it his mission to help people cross big chasms in worldviews. He gathers circles of people from disparate views and invites them to consider the “3 Practices”:
- I’ll be unusually interested in others.
- I will stay in the room with difference.
- I will stop comparing my best with your worst.
In the church, there is typically one primary tool pastors have to fix large-scale congregational divisiveness: you have to teach your way out of it. Circumspectly. And then create shared spaces for people to empathetically converse—and listen—with skilled and prayerful facilitators. Our friends at www.undivided.com have some great materials and training specifically on the racial gap. And, might I add, this is a core component in the political divide.