January 2011
Healthy Practices

Understanding and Celebrating Differences

Scientists tell us that biodiversity is a key measure of the health of any ecosystem. Many of us suspect that diversity within our congregations would also be a sign of health, creativity, radical welcome, and the possibility of growth. If we think this is true, why are Sunday mornings one of the most segregated times of the week? It seems to me that the answer lies most often not in our intentions, which I think are generally well conceived, nor even in the demographics of our neighborhoods, which are often more varied than our churches. The reason most of our congregations fail to represent the rich and diverse tapestry of God’s people lies more in our lack of imagination, in the negative affective messages we caught early in life, and in the inability to live by guidelines that would assure, in the words of the great anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict, a “world made safe for differences.”

Imagination and welcoming differences

I often hear lay leaders and clergy (especially those on newcomer or stewardship committees) talking about how we should have more members and more diverse membership in our congregations. While this intention is admirable, it sounds like many of my Lenten or New Year’s resolutions: I should pray more often; I should reach out to family members and friends that I know are forlorn or having a tough time; I should eat a more healthy diet and lose ten pounds. In the language of Transactional Analysis, these resolutions come from the Critical Parent. And while there is a place for such messages to keep children from playing on the highway, those messages have rarely helped me to initiate creative behaviors, or to stay with new behaviors more than a few days or weeks.

What has proved more helpful to me is opening myself to the Playful or Natural Child—
the part of my being that delights in new and creative opportunities. From this stance, I think of what I want to do or be. I imagine our congregation as vibrant, culturally diverse and growing.

On a personal level, I learned this shift of perspective some years ago when I felt in a rut around our family meals. Rather than saying I should learn to make some new meals, I imagined our family eating the kind of meals we ate at restaurants when we were being daring. I fantasized being a fanciful and creative chef in our own kitchen and the excitement of my daughters and wife sitting down to a meal we had never had before at home. After the imagining I followed through with cooking one new meal every week for four months—a resolution record for me!

The role of feelings in embracing and celebrating differences

Very often people say they want their congregations to be more diverse culturally. They may even give theological reasons for welcoming all sorts and conditions of people: young and old, women and men, gay, lesbian, transgendered, and straight, folks of all colors and cultures. Their values and thinking seem open and inclusive. Why then do we not see more multicultural congregations? I think the reason is that we are often halted from making progress on an emotional level. We frequently fail to accomplish what we wish because we are caught in our sadness, our fear, or our anger.

“Processing Feelings During a Leadership Transition” (see below) names some of the common feelings experienced by congregational members during times of change. While unprocessed feelings can be a roadblock to leadership transition or any other significant change, expressing and processing feelings can help individuals and communities make appropriate transitions at a rate that is acceptable.

In order to get the outcomes we desire on a cognitive level, I believe we have to deal with our emotional roadblocks. If we are afraid about the changes that will come with new and diverse people, we need to find protection and support for the changes we are making. We need knowledgeable allies who can help us emotionally, as well as cognitively, to embrace people who are different than us. If we are sad about the intimacy we have lost or anticipate losing, we may need a time to grieve and to let go of what has been familiar and comforting to us. If we carry any anger about failed attempts to change or about expectations that are not being met, we will need to negotiate new boundaries and/or expectations. When we deal with these emotional challenges appropriately, we find new energy to engage the process of welcoming differences.

Guidelines for understanding and celebrating differences

Perhaps the most important requirement for embracing interpersonal differences is a set of guidelines that opens us to seeing, understanding at a deeper level, and celebrating differences. These guidelines assure that people with historically less access to power and resources will be treated as full participants in our communities. These guidelines include trying on new beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, feelings, and processes. It is also important to be able to disagree with others without shaming and blaming them or ourselves. In a world of either/or thinking and “my way or the highway,” we need to practice a both/and attitude. Simply replacing “but” with “and” when we introduce a position that differs from the last thing spoken works wonders. Attending to our impact on others, and not simply our intention, will assist greatly when conflicts arise. While groups will surely add other guidelines, the important point is we assure that dominance is not exercised by individuals or groups that have historic or positional power and privilege, and new folks have real access to decision-making.

The ability to creatively imagine a different future, the attention to our feelings and those of others, and mutually agreed upon guidelines for entering discussions and trying new behaviors will go far to helping us live into the fullness of the diversity that God created and invites us to embrace.

The Rev. Dr. William M. Kondrath is the William Lawrence Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Theological Field Education at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences. Bill has worked with congregations, judicatories, and theological schools in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Mauritius on leadership development, creativity, affective competency, change and conflict, and understanding and valuing differences. He is also a program consultant for VISIONS, Inc., providing multicultural training and consultation to corporate, educational, nonprofit, and ecclesial organizations.

Processing Feelings During a Leadership Transition

Guidelines for Honoring and Talking across Differences

This article is part of the January 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Healthy Practices