Yet One More FB Explosion
For what seemed like the trillionth time, I watched another clergy Facebook conversation degenerate into frustration, name-calling, shut-off, and despair.
The few political conversations I have participated while using the same medium have seen similar fates.
Why? First, let’s look at Twitter. With a tiny character limit, it became a place to is to make a hard hit with few words and watch the fallout. One-liners rule the day. And one-liners have no space for nuance, for shades of gray, for real dialogue that might lead to mutual understanding.
With FB conversations, those brief one-liners can be expanded, but not by much before FB itself inserts the “read more” link, leading to a psychological break with the conversation stream. Furthermore, vital non-verbal elements to the conversation are lost.
No one really knows for sure how much the non-verbal portions (tone, eye-contact, micro-expressions, bodily expressions, physical distance, etc) affect understanding, but it probably ranges from 60-90%. No matter what percentage we take, the majority of the communication process is lost here.
Because of those factors, these kinds of electronic encounters lend themselves to polarized positions with win/lose positions taking precedence over mutual understanding. The mode is attack, not understanding. Each side digs deeper trenches with every grenade launch.
The goal? Disable, kill, and devastate. This is war.
Why Robert’s Rules of Order fail us and make holy conferencing impossible
We have the same problem at our Annual and General Conferences where we follow Robert’s Rules of Order to perfect the motions. So, when a challenging issue hits the floor, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit. And then there are all the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc.
We may pass motions that way (but they will frequently be disallowed by the Judicial Council) but we don’t engage in Holy Conferencing. We end up being more polarized, more able to say, “That person is from the devil” because we need to move onto the next motion. We’ve shot, we’ve killed, we’ve shoved away and now its time to re-arm for the battles to come.
This is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world.
The Learning Organization: systems and dialogue
A number of years ago, I read Peter Senge’s powerful work, The Fifth Discipline: the Art Practice of the Learning Organization. It’s a book I wish all who love The United Methodist Church and want to see it go forward with grace and impact would read before the next time we gather.
The “fifth discipline” refers to an understanding of systems. It builds on four other vital disciplines necessary for organizational health: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning.
A good summary of this powerful work can be found here. What I want to particularly mention is Senge’s insistence that we must learn to dialogue, and that dialogue is very, very different from discussion.
He puts it this way:
The discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue’, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’. To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually…. [It] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. (Senge 1990: 10)
The illustration below helps us to see how each of us create mental models of our worlds that can be adjusted through the power of dialogue. An important skill consists of learning to temporarily suspend assumptions that may otherwise blind us to new and more powerful ways of thinking, seeing, and believing. That suspension simply says, “I may be wrong.” Everyone needs to start here. No one owns a complete picture of God and the nature of the Holy One.
Again, that’s the language of war, of division, of winner-takes-all.
Essentially what we are doing by using the standard way of conferencing is expecting a structure opposed to the very concept of dialogue and mutual learning to have results that come from dialogue and mutual learning.
We have set ourselves up to fail and then we wonder, “What on earth just happened?”
The future of the UMC
I find myself with growing anxiety for the future of the UMC as we start to face the reality of another outrageously expensive General Conference (Portland, 2016) with an increasingly polarized church and the with Robert making holy conferencing impossible.
The polarization grows because we choose debate and ideology over dialogue. We are left unable to discover new models that are both biblically coherent AND incorporate scientific and sociological insights that affect our culture and the way we understand God and the world around us.
Our structures dictate that we converse around debate and ideology, but my readings of Wesley’s history suggest that it was dialogue–NOT debate–that brought him to the profound understanding of grace that is now ours. Ours to either destroy or to interpret to a very different world from Wesley’s–and from the biblical world where we first learn about it.
Acknowledge the Difficulties
Is anyone willing to wade into this complicated but seminal book on the learning organization? Could we set up times and places where we are willing to do this–to listen in community, to examine our own assumptions and what brought us to them, to see if a larger shared understanding can come from this?
I was thinking today about my long and complex journey from a place where I genuinely believed and vehemently defended the belief that women had no place in ecclesiastical leadership to eventually becoming the lead pastor in a thriving church. That journey almost destroyed me, because to make that move meant I had to leave not just one cherished belief behind but I had to rethink a whole theological system that supported that belief. The dam broke and I nearly drowned in the flood that resulted.
Argument and debate did nothing to help the journey. The process that Senge advocates, particularly the part of carefully examining my assumptions, along with a supportive community that did engage in real, gut-wrenching dialogue with me eventually helped me find the courage to move forward and rebuild my theology with a more adequate hermeneutic.
I lost a great, great deal when I did this. Among other things, I lost my marriage, my career, and my church–and a faith understanding that had served me well until then and which many others, whom I love and respect, still affirm.
I had to rebuild my entire life. In no sense do I regret having made that move. However, I write this to remind everyone that when anyone takes a major stand on a controversial issue that there is much behind that stand.
While I am very much in favor of full inclusion of the GLBTQ community, I understand very well how complicated, and very nearly impossible, a move like that can be to those whose worldview cannot make space for this without disrupting their entire theological base. It is wrong to take this lightly or to mistreat those who have solid and defensible reasons for their decisions, no matter how much we may be in disagreement with them.
I am willing, as a retired clergy in the UMC, to do whatever I can to help here. I chose The UMC because I believed then and still do believe that the core of our theology is the best hope for the healing of the world.
But if we cannot or will not heal ourselves, we dare not pretend to take healing to others. This Dilbert comic strip below captures us very well. We import ideas without considering whether they will work or not (the “Jeff Bezos Rule”); our self-interests far transcend the larger interests of the group as a whole; each amendment must be amended in order to make no-one happy; and we have to stop being what we are called to be in order to serve the organization.
It’s time to dialogue. Or die. And if death is chosen, then so be it. Let’s at least choose it openly and not pretend that we can fix this with yet another amendment or patch or Facebook conflagration.
Can’t be done.
Photo Credits: Roberts ladder? I genuinely have no idea where I got that image and would love to give proper credit if anyone knows.
Ladder of assumptions: Source: Peter Senge et al (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook