I went into my first church 34 years ago with bright dreams, plenty of energy, and a bit of naiveté. As I moved among the members of my little, but diverse church, I frequently reminded myself that I was an open-minded person that could get along with just about everyone, and that I had the ability to work harmoniously with each of my church leaders.
It was then I met Tim and Sandy, a middle-aged couple that not only provided leadership in our church, but taught in our one-room school – and lived next door to me. The more I got to know Tim and Sandy, the more amazed I became with their narrow perspectives and rigid positions regarding the Christian life. We managed to keep our conversations polite, but underneath it all, my smoldering anger threatened to erupt with every sarcastic innuendo and abusive leadership tactic pulled in church board meetings and personal conversations. Their petty abrasiveness rubbed my baby boomer broad-mindedness raw until one day the Holy Spirit hit me between the eyes –
“Dan,” the Spirit said with firm conviction, “You’re not as open-minded as you think you are. You are intolerant with people who are intolerant!”
I still struggle with narrow-minded, ultra-conservative, power abusing Adventist members and leaders in the local church and beyond. But through the years I have learned some important lessons about widening my heart toward the narrow of mind.
Avoid Word Games
The first thing I want to avoid is playing word games with the diverse individuals and groups in my church. All too often I get into word wars with people I am essentially in agreement with. Beyond the words, listen for the heart. Identify core issues. Look for points of agreement on which you can build common ground, even if they use different words than you would to describe the situation.
Another thing I have learned in the rough and tumble of church relationships is the importance of good listening. I have learned that underneath those crusty exteriors, there are numerous jewels ready to sparkle in the light. I will admit that there are times I have to sort through a lot of rubble to unearth something of value, but I am slowly learning that this kind of “relational archaeology” can be very rewarding. We can learn a lot by listening. Through it all we need to learn to agree with others where it seems reasonable to do so, and if necessary, disagree on points without becoming disagreeable.
Tap Your EQ
While wrestling with a difficult relationship not long ago, I was suddenly struck with the thought that I was letting certain people flex more power in my life than they deserved. Exercising your emotional intelligence in the face of negative relationships is essential to your ability to hold it together when negative people want to tear you apart. Remind yourself that people have a right to their own opinions. Remind yourself that people are entitled to their own perspectives. And remind yourself that it is up to you to decide how big a piece of your emotional energy pie you are willing to give them. In the end, your emotional equilibrium is up to you.
Fight Like a Christian
When you find yourself scraping with narrow-minded people, remember to fight like a Christian. When these flame-throwers hurl incendiary words at you, keep your cool. Keep calm. Quietly assess what is going on at the deeper level. Ask yourself if they are being reasonable, or completely over reacting. Give them the benefit of the doubt. It could be that they are still nursing deep wounds from childhood. It could be that they are moving through a difficult chapter of life. When you keep your cool, you will avoid adding fuel to an already smoldering fire.
Give Room for Growth
One of the hardest and most important things to remember in all this is that people have a God-given right to believe what they want to believe. And still more important, people have a right to grow in their understanding of truth. When we give people the space they need for growth and the widening of their horizons, we nurture important possibilities for positive development. When we leave needed changes with God, we can process our emotions through peaceful channels and open up opportunities for people to move on, instead trying to fix people who are rigidly fixed to their positions.
While a spirit of intolerance is inconsistent with our faith and out of alignment with the character of God, we are all human, and we will certainly come across inflexible souls in our churches. The challenge for us is to not allow ourselves to become intolerant with the intolerant, but to become more and more like our broad-minded, large-hearted God. Our challenge is to utilize constructive words, listen to learn, fight for a win we can all celebrate, and open up enough space in which we can all grow. It is here that we will both find and share the grace needed to widen our hearts for those who are slowly beginning to widen their minds.
Dan Martella is the administrative pastor for the Paradise, California church and managing editor for Best Practices for Adventist Ministry