224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 6, 2010
A “model” hearing on the evening of July 6, during the 2010 Annual Conference, offered a first look at the hearings that will take place in each of the 23 districts in the Church of the Brethren this fall and winter.
The district hearings are part of a Special Response process set in motion at last year’s Conference, when delegates acted on two business items related to issues of human sexuality: “A Statement of Confession and Commitment” from the Standing Committee of district delegates, and “Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships” brought by Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Northern Indiana District.
The 2009 Conference voted to accept the two documents as “special response” items to be dealt with using a process for strongly controversial issues. The decision commits the denomination to an intentional church-wide conversation focused on human sexuality.
At this Tuesday evening hearing, Standing Committee members modeled and explained a format that will be used for all of the district hearings, the “Framework for Conversation” from the Annual Conference paper “Structural Framework for Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues.”
Larry Dentler, a member of Standing Committee from Southern Pennsylvania District, introduced the hearing format as “the Acts 15 model” for how to make decisions. “I would be delighted if every member of the Church of the Brethren found his way into a hearing,” he said. “It’s a wonderful process.” He characterized church members who may choose not to participate in hearings–those who “fold your arms and grump away”–as losing an opportunity to have their voices heard.
The Framework for Conversation format is intended to be “transparent in its process and broad in its invitation, fostering a spirit of openness, promoting community rather than uniformity, and understanding rather than debate,” as it is described in the Annual Conference paper.
Dentler explained that the format is designed as a two-hour meeting for a group of about 10 to 12 people. The meeting is led by a facilitator from Standing Committee, or another person invited to lead such hearings in a district, who helps guide the discussion but not as a participant.
In addition to the facilitator, a notetaker is to be part of each hearing. A standard response form will be provided for the notetaker and/or facilitator to provide feedback and information from each hearing to help Standing Committee formulate recommendations on the two items of business when they come back to Annual Conference next year.
Each hearing is to follow a scripted outline that opens with a welcome, an opportunity for each person to introduce him- or herself, the reading of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, and a prayer. The hearing then continues with a review of the Special Response process, ground rules for the discussion (such as listening and speaking with respect, and making sure every person has an opportunity to participate), the reading of each business item, and a short series of questions about each business item.
One of the questions will specifically ask what participants want Standing Committee to know as they make their recommendation to the 2011 Annual Conference, and what they want Standing Committee to do about the two business items.
“By the end (of a hearing) every one of you has the opportunity to answer the question, what do you want to say to Standing Committee?” Dentler emphasized.
A follow up question will ask how participants think members of the church can hold each other together in light of differences among the body.
While the facilitator’s words were scripted on Tuesday evening, the responses of Standing Committee members in the “model” hearing were not scripted. Dentler pointed out the remarkable level of honesty and trust that was exhibited, in front of an audience numbering something over 300 people–plus possibly a much wider audience via webcast. “These brothers and sisters were being vulnerable before you tonight,” he said.
The “model” group–all Standing Committee members–expressed widely different points of view when asked what they want Standing Committee to know in this Special Response process. Several made statements in support of the denomination’s 1983 paper on human sexuality, while at least one said forthrightly that she cannot support it. One person expressed the need to “stand upon the authority of God’s word,” while another spoke of a daughter who is gay, saying “She is not a sinner, she is born the way God wanted her to be.” Others talked about their concerns for unity and the church, that “through the midst we hold one another in Christ’s love.”
The model hearing closed with a short question and answer time. One question asked if the district hearings will be for church members only, and if people should attend only one. Dentler answered that the hearings should be open to any active participant in the life of a Church of the Brethren congregation, and that yes, people should only attend one. “We don’t want to stuff the ballot box,” he said.
Other questions focused on the process, for example in some larger districts how enough hearings may be offered if groups are limited to 10 to 12 people, and what the timing for hearings should be, specifically if one should participate in a Special Response Bible study before attending a hearing.
A more substantive question asked if Standing Committee members will be able to put aside their own feelings, as they take into consideration the responses received from across the denomination.
“We cannot do it on our own,” responded one Standing Committee member. “We cannot do it without the Holy Spirit.”
After the model hearing was over, the room quickly broke up into small groups of people engaged in earnest conversation. Each Standing Committee member was quickly surrounded by those wanting to ask more questions or to express concerns.
It was the second Special Response hearing to be offered at the 2010 Annual Conference. A hearing on Saturday evening, July 3, modeled a session of the Bible study that congregations are encouraged to use to prepare members to take part in the district hearings. The Special Response Resource committee also offered an insight session during the Conference.
For resources for the Special Response process go to www.cobannualconference.org/special_response_resource.html , where there are links to the Bible study prepared by the Special Response Resource Committee, a detailed timeline of the Special Response process, and the Annual Conference paper that is guiding the process–the “Structural Framework for Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues.”
–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren
The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
Go to www.brethren.org/Newsline to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every other week.