Michael Danner is associate executive director for church vitality and engagement for Mennonite Church USA.
In 1997 I became a member of Metamora Mennonite Church, Metamora, Illinois. As part of the membership service, the pastor asked me if I was “…willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?” Standing next to my wife, Melissa, we both answered for ourselves, “I am.”
I still remember that moment. I also remember feeling as if I was the only person in the room who didn’t really comprehend the question. Everyone else seemed to roll with it like they knew exactly what the Pastor was asking. Smiling. Nodding. Affirming our answers.
Since then, I’ve asked that same question to those I have baptized, received into membership, and credentialed.
I still wonder if people really comprehend the question. Do they truly know what they are getting themselves into when they say, “I am”?
The language of giving and receiving counsel is as strange as it is beautiful. I didn’t fully understand what it meant, but I knew I wanted to be in a church full of people who gave and received counsel. I knew by faith what I would learn over time through experience, this way of doing faith is about more than just me and Jesus or where I go when I die. It is about more than showing up to worship, serving on committees and giving the “three Ts” (time, talent, treasure). It is about trusting this community of people enough to listen to them, to share my perspectives and to make decisions together.
And … it is nearly impossible!
I say nearly impossible instead of straight up impossible because we can do it. But often we choose not to. More to the point, we have been formed in a culture that gives us permission not to and empowers that choice through technology. In 2018 America we have more control over the messages we receive than at any other time in human history. Don’t like what you see or hear? Turn the channel. Switch churches. Consume news from a news channel you agree with. Read articles by people you like. Our ability to curate the messages we engage is sometimes called an echo chamber — a space where we choose to hear voices we already agree with, simply reinforcing what we believe. There is even a Bible app called YouVersion (full disclosure: I’ve also roamed various Bible versions to find the one that makes my sermon point clearly).
The results of “You” versions of nearly everything is a decreased capacity to give and receive counsel.
When I am used to getting my way, I have a harder time making decisions together with others. The consequence of this decreased capacity is fragmentation and polarization.
We separate from people who don’t believe like we do, and often times, enter into an “us versus them” relationship. This is increasingly clear in America as a whole. It is also a trend within Mennonite Church USA.
Here are some questions I wrestle with: How prepared am I to participate in a community that practices giving and receiving counsel? How prepared am I to remain in such a community when what others discern is different than what I discern? How do I practice deep listening when my first instinct when I hear a view I don’t share is to shut down/turn the channel/hit the exit? Is there a good way to enter into communal discernment without losing myself or undervaluing my own insights? How can we avoid group think when we are trying to discern together?
One core of Anabaptist faith and practice is entering into — and remaining in — the community of faith voluntarily, without coercion, through baptism. As we do that, we also voluntarily enter a community where we are responsible to practice deep listening, risky sharing and collaborative discernment. We are responsible for the contribution we make (or don’t make). We take ownership for the impact we make on the community, for good or ill. We strive to make a positive contribution by speaking, listening and discerning together. We practice the Biblical wisdom of being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
Giving and receiving counsel is a bedrock practice of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith communities. It is also a helpful corrective to the individualism of our culture.
We can resist the forces of fragmentation and polarization we see all around us. We do that when we agree to give and receive counsel within the church.
It will not be easy. It can be done. With God’s help, may it be so.