Story Magazine - Fourth Quarter, 2004

Student Leads Rural Congregations in Deliberating Difficult Topics

by Allison Schmitt, M.A. Student

Julie Anderson admits she likes to stir things up. That may not be the first trait you'd request in a new parish pastor...or is it?

Anderson, a Master of Divinity student, likens her stirring process to cooking soup. Stirring blends the ingredients and prevents them from sticking to the bottom and burning. Or, it is like keeping water moving, which would otherwise become stagnant. Christians are called to be "living waters," Anderson said.

It was in this spirit that Anderson, while serving as lay interim pastor, recently led three rural North Dakota churches through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's "Journey Together Faithfully" study on human sexuality.

Through the study, the ELCA is soliciting congregant feedback in preparation for its sexuality report to be released next year. "Wouldn't you rather make an informed decision?" Anderson asked her parishioners.

Earlier, Anderson was one of about 50 people to participate in the Luther Seminary course, "Deliberating Issues in the Small Town and Rural (STaR) Congregation." The class discussed the issue of homosexuality and the church in an effort to help participants develop skills to lead congregational talks on social issues.

Other ideas she took from the class:

*create an environment in which all voices are heard;
*treat all opinions with respect; and
*acknowledge the contributions of all participants.

Armed with these lessons, Anderson invited members of the Clifford and Galesburg, N.D., congregations she served to participate in the study.

Although they completed the sexuality study, the curriculum seemed almost secondary, Anderson said. There had been tension among the three churches as a result of losses in their communities. There had been debate about how to use limited resources.

But throughout the study, Anderson saw parishioners learn to speak to each other without vindictiveness. She saw them seek to understand one another. She saw them talk about their fears. She saw them build trust.

Ultimately, they learned that they have the same goal--for their churches to be stronger, more open and more hospitable--although they have different ideas of how to get there.

What they learned from the curriculum itself confirmed their positions on homosexuality, but now they could defend their positions and honestly say they had considered others. They were better able to extend grace though they deemed homosexuality sinful. All wrote "eloquent and informed statements" about their views, Anderson said.

While it is uncomfortable for people to challenge their perceptions, their actions and, in the church, their way of interpreting the Bible, it is productive when "skeletons [are] coming out of closets and being rattled," Anderson said.