Grace under pressure
Gather 1,045 voting members from across the country into one large hall. Add several hundred more people in the form of organizational officials, volunteers, techies, security personnel, ecumenical guests and invited speakers.
Add to the mix some 200 to 500 more observers and visitors (the numbers fluctuating greatly each day) who are very concerned about the issues and decisions being discussed and possibly voted on over the course of the week.
Finally, stir in debate on the most contentious issues for any church body to deal with in nearly a century.
Then have all these folks together in a lockdown while tornado sirens wail outside the hall, and while many are praying and hoping for totally opposite outcomes on a matter to be voted on before the end of that day.
All these elements were present at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA in Minneapolis.
In spite of the tension and strong disagreements among those present, there was no "meltdown."
Many left the assembly at the end of the week elated over the turn of events, while many others left bitterly disappointed, and over the same thing: the decisions reached on the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, and on the proposed ministry recommendations.
Yet the debate was civil and for the most part respectful. Even when the responses given to hotly disputed questions of procedure were not the hoped-for answers, the majority of the reactions showed maturity and care for others.
Why? Was it just because this was a "church" event, and "church" people just act well? Or were some specific things done and said that made it possible to disagree strongly before, during and after the assembly, and to do so with some measure of grace under pressure?
There were deliberate, purposeful attempts on the part of many at the assembly to keep the proceedings as respectful and civil as possible.
Whether it was the personnel from the churchwide organization, those attending as voting members, or the visitors -- many of whom were members of or sympathetic to one of the many organizations hoping and working for a particular result -- all appear to have worked to maintain a positive witness to how Christians express strong opinions and deep disagreement.
One voting member, upon reflection, said that there was awareness that the ELCA would change as a result of this assembly, no matter which way the voting went.
"People were aware that we would not be the same. That awareness brought a certain respect because we would be a part of something historic -- again no matter which way the vote went."
That awareness that history was in the making also seemed to be present among visitors and observers.
Those attending gatherings of Lutheran CORE remember hearing the importance of standing as witnesses in everything that was said and done, and that all behavior should reflect Christ-like values.
Goodsoil and Lutherans Concerned/North America intentionally taught "graceful engagement," a way of listening and sharing one’s own story in order to build relationships that help overcome the issues that divide people.
Both Goodsoil and Lutheran CORE provided hospitality areas where their volunteers and guests could gather for prayer and devotions, as well as have a more relaxed setting in which to support one another.
Additionally, members of each of these groups experienced expressions of concern from those in the other group, especially on the most stressful days of the assembly.
Prayer and worship seemed to play a decisive role in maintaining the respectful atmosphere of the assembly.
This began months earlier with the "Call to 50 Days of Prayer” by Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, and with the pairing of voting members as prayer partners. Some voluntarily became prayer partners with those in the coalitions on the opposite side of the issues.
During the assembly itself, devotion and prayer began and ended every plenary session, and worship was scheduled at the end of the morning session -- in the center of -- each day.
The hope was that, in spite of the disagreements that might be expressed in the plenary all could come together in prayer around the table of the Lord. The time dedicated to prayer and Bible study was also mentioned as helpful.
Providing time for small group discussion at tables and setting aside time for a "quasi committee of the whole” allowed for discussion outside of the constraints of parliamentary procedure. Voting members also were aware that those speaking at the microphones -- whether they were at the "red” or "green” stations (speaking against or for a particular topic of debate) -- were doing so out of love for the church -- for their church.
Not even all these measures ensured that all exchanges would be respectful, nor were all these efforts viewed in the same way.
While for some the regular pauses for prayer were good reminders that the assembly was seeking the will of God, others saw these prayers as manipulative.
For those who found the worship services to be times of refreshment and healing, there were others who experienced them as painful reminders of the divisions in the ELCA.
Many knew that the conflicts present in the ELCA would not be resolved by any decisions reached at this assembly, but would only move on to another phase.
Nonetheless, the emphasis on prayer for the "other," along with the high expectation that those at the assembly could treat one another as Christ would treat us -- even though that would be difficult at times -- worked to keep exchanges at the assembly grace-filled.
It is difficult, however, to maintain such a focus for the long term, outside of the controlled time and space of a churchwide assembly.
Perhaps, though, as the ELCA continues to deal with ongoing conflict over the 2009 decisions, such a focus and emphasis on prayer for and prayerful listening to those who disagree with one another is more needed than ever.
That is a challenge that the ELCA continues to face, and one, crucially, which needs more attention in this body’s life together in the years to come.
Erma Wolf is an ordained pastor seeking a call to an ELCA parish. She is also part of the adjunct faculty for the Institute of Lutheran Theology.