How to shut down a conversation

By Rob Renfroe

When I do marriage counseling, it’s always important for both persons to share their feelings openly and honestly. That way we can understand the real differences and potentially work toward the healing of their relationship.

It’s also imperative that in sharing their feelings they don’t resort to name calling or to demeaning the other person. If they do, a productive conversation shuts down immediately and the restoration of their relationship becomes practically impossible.

Sometimes, and you wouldn’t expect it, it’s the person who smiles the most and who presents him- or herself as “the nice one” of the two who uses words that are the most demeaning and destructive. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, but half the time they have no idea what they’re doing. Still the damage is done.

Unfortunately, in writing about General Conference 2012 some of our bishops are using the kind of language that is guaranteed to shut down trust, respect, and future conversations that might bring healing to The United Methodist Church. And, strangely, they are some of our bishops who most tout the virtue of tolerance, mutual respect, and “holy conferencing.”

One example is Bishop Robert Hoshibata of the Oregon-Idaho Conference. A proud progressive, you would expect a spirit of tolerance and open- ness to characterize his views regarding General Conference. But you would be wrong. In stating that we need to change the Book of Discipline regarding sexuality, he did not describe our present position as the church’s traditional view that could be held by people of good faith. Instead he labeled it “homophobia.” That’s the kind of name calling that shuts down a conversation. But he went further than that. There was the charge of unethical political maneuvering — of course, without citing a single specific instance or giving any evidence to back up his accusation. But perhaps most incredible was his statement that those who supported the church’s position that the practice of homo- sexuality is “incompatible with Christian teach- ing” “demonstrated their inability to incorporate the value of ‘reason’ in their thinking and voting.”

Let’s see. He calls fellow Christians homophobic, unethical, and incapable of reason. Wow, think what he might have said if he wasn’t such a nice guy committed to tolerance, openness, and the sacred worth of all persons. In any counseling session I’ve been in, that kind of language never leads to mutual understanding, healing, or the prospect of working well together in the future. It simply shuts down future conversations.

Right next to Bishop Hoshibata in the pantheon of episcopal tolerance is Bishop Minerva Carcano of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference. Not content to attack orthodox U.S. delegates, she felt it somehow justifiable to use the most sweep- ing and demeaning language in expressing her disdain for our brothers and sisters from Africa.

She wrote: “Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others.”

Really? The only reason Bishop Carcano can imagine that our African brothers and sisters hold the traditional biblical view on homosexuality is because they haven’t grown up and they haven’t been capable of thinking about this matter for themselves?

Forget that many of us who hold the same theological degree that the good bishop possesses — and can think for ourselves just as well as she — hold to the traditional position. But honestly, who would say such a thing?

We get it, bishop. You think our position needs to change. But what gives you the prerogative to look down on an entire continent, characterize faithful Christians as intellectual juveniles, and dismiss their views out of hand? Have you spoken with all, most, or for that matter any of the Africans to hear their reasoning? Or have you simply gazed down from your superior progressive position and assumed that since they hold a traditional biblical view they must not be your intellectual equal?

You can’t make this next part up. Bishop Carcano serves on the bishops’ task force on church unity. She has been charged with helping persons in the church understand, appreciate, work, and communicate well with each other.

How do you think that kind of attitude and that kind of language would work in a counseling session when a couple doesn’t see eye to eye? “The reason you don’t agree with me is because you’re juvenile. If you would just grow up, you’d see I’m right and we’d do things my way.” Now if you wanted to shut down a conversation, those would be effective words to employ. But if you wanted to mend a broken relationship and create mutual understanding, that would be about the last place you would go.

If Bishop Carcano weren’t so committed to tolerance and diversity and the full inclusion of people of color, just imagine what she might have said.

And then there is the final member of the tolerance trinity, Bishop Mel Talbert. His solution? No more talk, no more listening, no more trying to understand each other, no more trying to work things out together. He knows best and that’s that.

On the last day of General Conference he called upon the now 1,300 UM pastors who have pledged to marry and perform services of holy union for gay couples to do so. Forget General Conference. Forget holy conferencing. Forget the Book of Discipline. Its position concerning the practice of homosexuality in his words is “derogatory,” “immoral,” and “unjust.”

How do you think that would work out for a couple in a counseling setting? One partner tells the other that he’s through talking; his views are sim- ply right and hers are simply wrong, and there’s no value in talking anymore. He’s off to do what- ever he wants regardless of what damage it might do to the family. She can just deal with it.

It’s always easy to see who the mature one is when you’re leading a counseling session. And I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the one who calls names; who demeans the other’s motives, person or ability to reason; or who walks out saying, “this is hopeless; the heck with you, I’m going to do what I want to do.”

No, the mature one is the partner who is subjected to all of that and remains at the table, willing to talk and to listen. The mature one is the partner who keeps the focus on the issues and refuses to make it personal. The mature one continues to believe in the value of conversation and who hopes that the best in the other person will eventually come forth.

Many of our bishops — most of our bishops — are wonderful examples of how the people of God can disagree agreeably. We are grateful for them.

As for the others, well, we hope their best will come forth and soon. It begins by saying,“I made a mistake and I’m sorry.” It’s not that hard.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.