Most of us don’t welcome conflict. We want to be liked and to be viewed as kind. We want peace. And yet we live in a world where conflict and competition are encouraged to the point of insanity. I recently watched a television show (my first mistake), in which two women competed to set the “best” Thanksgiving table: food, decor, furniture. They disparaged each other as enemies to be beaten, all to the amusement of an audience. For a Thanksgiving feast.
But conflict was not a desirable item for the menu at Calgary's Hillhurst United Church last week. That’s why Bryce Paton, the church's executive director and former chair, studied The Manual carefully, and slept poorly the night before the congregational voted on whether or not to accept government lottery funds.
There are few churches in the country that couldn’t do with more cash. A cash flow problem is not new. What is new is that governments, which once levied taxes to provide grants, now dangle grant monies derived from lotteries in front of us. Anyone who has been around the United Church for a while knows that we’ve spoken out against gambling for decades. Today's temptation — wearing a charitable number and holding lists of all the good things money can do for communities, the poor, the arts and all — stands knocking at the church door.
When the official board at Hillhurst United learned that some city churches accept lottery funds, they wondered anew. Should they apply, too? They decided to put it to the congregation.
Knowing that people feel strongly about the issue, and knowing that debate can be heated, they laid some groundwork. The church website provided links to sites belonging to the Alberta government lottery and the United Church of Canada's. An open forum blog became a place to begin the discussion. In fact, two hundred people visited the page. For two weeks prior to the vote, staff and board members stayed after service to answer questions as they arose. The vote was held after the regular Sunday service, for which one hundred people remained.
“In 25 years of ministry, I’ve never seen this level of mature, respectful, honest and passionate conversation,” Rev. John Pentland said afterward. “Some members of the congregation spoke about their own addictions. One, who works for Emergency Services, said that he has to pick up the pieces when someone falls apart after losing everything. Another spoke about the United Way receiving lottery funds and doing very good community work with it. It was a good discussion.”
On Thanksgiving Sunday, congregational members said they were grateful for the opportunity to be honest with each other — something not always possible in the world today.
In my mind, respectful, mature dialogue is about two things. It is about a safe place to speak your mind, and it’s about leadership that lays the groundwork, provides information and then trusts people to act like sensible grownups. Can you imagine if our governments gave leadership like this?
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