It seems we live in a time filled with dissent. Often protest and dissent seem unruly, disrespectful, even chaotic. Many of us experience dissent in ways that are not nearly as spectacular as recent national events but which may be just as unsettling.
In church and denominational life, such dissent comes in a variety of forms: a congregant who aggressively pushes against sermon content; a volunteer who seems disagreeable about ministry changes; a denominational leader who is forcefully rejected by a congregation or vice versa; a ministry colleague who strongly rejects a particular plan of action; constituents who threaten to withhold support or at least to loudly make their displeasure known. For leaders, these moments of dissent might be perceived as disloyalty or the response of a particularly disagreeable person. But what if we thought differently of dissent?
What if we humbly were to see alternate possibilities as to what dissent might mean? For example: 1) dissent might present alternate options that must be considered, and 2) dissent might allow us to recognize an ill-informed opinion—either our own or that of another—that can be reshaped. Ultimately this leads us to a moment of discernment, which for Christian people means a moment to listen for and to hear the Spirit’s guidance.
Assuming every voice of dissent is only ill-informed opinion denies the leader an opportunity to find another way in which the Spirit might be leading God’s people to a desired goal. It also robs the people of the character-shaping activity of discernment, which God might be attempting to do in helping them to identify their underlying values and beliefs.
Dismissing leaders’ wisdom
Recognizing the gift of dissent can be a difficult but important process of helping a faithful, Christ-following people to unearth values and hidden meanings in how they view God, the world and each other. Some of what makes this difficult for those of us in leadership is that too often we have been programed to think of our work as providing “the” answers. So, when others reject or discredit our work, it feels like a rejection of our expertise or knowledge.
Such must have been the case in 2 Samuel 24 when King David opts to take a census of his kingdom and persists against the dissent of Joab. Or of Paul when Barnabas insists on taking John Mark on a mission (Acts 15:36-41). Or perhaps of Israel on the verge of entering the promised land but refusing to listen to Moses, Joshua and Caleb for fear of the inhabitants (Numbers 13). In each of these instances we might be left to wonder what could have been if leaders had listed to the dissent and had as their goal discerning God’s desires.
Several years back, a friend who was a senior leader at Fresno Pacific University made a comment that has stuck with me, if not for the reason he intended. He said, “You know, when I was a faculty member, I was pretty smart. But somehow when I became an administrator, I lost 60 IQ points.”
His point was valid: We have a tendency to dismiss the wisdom of leaders after they rise from our ranks. But there is another viewpoint worth considering. Leaders likewise have a tendency to dismiss the wisdom of the community and the Spirit’s work in the community when they ascend to a place of authority. This disconnection from the wisdom God might be trying to give leaders through the community is as bad as the community’s discrediting of God’s wisdom in leaders because they are leaders.
Dissent does not necessarily offer a better option any more than it automatically offers a worse option. The process of discernment is the opportunity to learn again and discover afresh the presence of the Spirit-mediated Christ and the direction in which the spirit of Christ leads.
Shaping the conversation
When dissent is discouraged or denied its proper place in shaping the conversation, it can become a force for passive aggressiveness or subversion. When encouraged or welcomed, it can become a force for reshaping people’s understanding of God’s vision for the community. This could mean that the community’s vision of God is reshaped, and thus they are further formed into the image of Christ. Or it could mean that God’s vision becomes clearer to his people and the outcome of that vision (plans, actions and activities) becomes more closely related to that vision.
And this is why dissent is helpful. Dissent is the means by which voices in the community raise their desires and concerns. In raising these desires and concerns, the community can identify important values and then spiritually shape the community’s actions to match those values or to have those values reshaped in the Spirit’s formation of the community. The goal of conflict created by dissent is that it develops in such a manner that it becomes exploratory and transformative.
In Christian churches and their institutions, like Fresno Pacific University where I teach, we are uniquely gifted with the opportunity to allow moments and seasons of dissent to become shaping experiences and opportunities to discover meaning that guides our work. We ought to experience these moments so that the community might be transformed into the image of Christ, allowing us to do our work of spiritually shaping people with a fidelity to Jesus that is reflected in our actions—how we treat others and how we treat one another.
At Fresno Pacific, this can be the process by which we embody our Fresno Pacific Idea, which calls FPU, and by definition its members, to be prophetic and reflect on “personal, institutional and societal values.” The same could be said of the church.
God working through our dissent
I think of a church finance committee meeting during which we were considering the coming year’s budget. In the course of that meeting, I asked what priorities and values our budget reflected. I was met by stares until one member said, “I don’t know. I just thought we were making a business decision.” Everyone kind of chuckled. But my immediate conclusion was that we hadn’t done enough as a pastoral team to help people understand that our work was shaped by values and beliefs that included, but also transcended, “making a business decision.”
At first, I was indignant. “What about Jesus?” I thought. But as we talked further, my own perspective was challenged. For many of these leaders, making good business decisions was a way to be faithful to Christ. It became apparent to me that there was room for all of us to grow in our understanding of what our budgets and budgeting processes said about what we believed. In the end, we were learning to be God’s people in appreciation for the way God spoke and worked through each other.
In the Old Testament, a group of men and women rose up to speak to their community and the world about the intent of God for how life was to be lived. These women and men challenged God’s people to live in faithful relationship to God, especially in their relationships and practices with one another. However, the community and their leaders rejected these dissenters, and these women and men were often disregarded or outright persecuted—even killed—for challenging their community. In hindsight, we know that these men and women were right. We know these men and women as prophets. Therefore, to be prophetic in a biblical sense has more to do with speaking God’s truth into a context than foretelling the future.
Depending on who we pay attention to, these are difficult times in the church. What we need are ears to hear God’s Spirit. This may mean that we listen more carefully to voices we have previously dismissed because they were too young, too old, too progressive, too conservative or because of gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc. In so doing, we are reminded that a body with many parts needs every part (1 Cor. 12:12-27).
In this way, we both honor the prophetic nature of community members to speak truth in love to the faith community (Eph. 4:15) and to offer as a community a prophetic demonstration to the world of how transformation is worked out by the renewing of our communal/institutional mind and our minds individually (Rom. 12:1-2).
This article is adapted from the author’s April 5, 2017, contribution to the Fresno Pacific University Connections blog and incorporates material from Quentin P. Kinnison’s book, Transforming Pastoral Leadership, published in 2016 by Pickwick Publications.