It's no secret that people disagree, sometimes vehemently. When our opinions match, it is easy to have a conversation. When we are on opposite sides of an issue, talking can be far more challenging, but often more fruitful. In a time when opinions are strong in both our public and church lives, learning to disagree well is important.
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To learn some techniques for disagreeing well, we talked with the Rev. Bo Sanders, a United Methodist pastor who leads his congregation in weekly conversations about a variety of topics. Bo shares great tips for getting out of our "echo chambers," and learning to listen and talk to those with whom we disagree.
The Rev. Bo Sanders
- Vermont Hills United Methodist Church, where Bo serves
- Public Theology – Bo's blog
- Peacing it All Together – Bo's podcast
Resources to learn more
- United Methodist Discipleship Ministries offers resources for Courageous Conversations.
- Theological Guidelines: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason
- In this episode, Bo references The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen.
Popular on UMC.org
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- Podcast episode: Facing Fear with Faith with Adam Hamilton
- The five most difficult questions for pastors
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This episode posted on September 18, 2018.
Joe: This is Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as health as our bodies. I'm Joe Iovino.
I'm not saying anything shocking if I confess it can be difficult to have conversations about certain topics whether it is with family members, or friends, or people at church, or the anonymous person on social media. I wanted to learn how we could disagree better, so I turned to the Rev. Bo Sanders, a United Methodist pastor, blogger, and podcaster.
Bo leads Vermont Hills United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon where instead of a traditional sermon on Sunday morning, he hosts conversations with his congregation. In this discussion, Bo shares some helpful thoughts about how we can be come better at disagreeing. Enjoy.
Joe: We are talking across the miles today with the Reverend Bo Sanders, pastor of Vermont Hills United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. Bo, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bo: Thank you. I am so honored to be here. I really appreciate the invite.
Joe: And I’m really excited to talk to you on the podcast because I want to learn how to have better, meaningful conversations with people with whom we don’t necessarily agree. Because at a time when it seems our ability to have those conversations is maybe at an all-time low, you are having them as part of your worship services. So I’m curious to know, why should we be having these kinds of conversations?
Bo: Wow. I hadn’t really thought about how dangerous and controversial that was until you framed it that way. Now even I’m a little… paying attention. So over the past 15 years I have just become increasingly convinced and passionate that interactive church is the way to go. In an age of social media and in an age like we live in, where people’s contributions really matter, in so many ways, whether it’s of the PTA or in Facebook discussions or book clubs, people are really used to their contribution adding to the collective experience.
Then when they come to church, because we have set it up so often in a pre-scripted manner, they really become spectators that watch a spectacle. So, I’m pretty passionate about trying to get people involved, and conversation is the way that I have found that most people can enter in and that their participation adds to the collaborative process, and that who is in the room begins to matter a lot. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that how we facilitate those conversations is really important because, like you said, we live in such a contentious, adversarial, polarized era that it is difficult…. We hear about this all the time now. It is really difficult sometimes to even have family dinners or holidays or backyard barbecues without these polarizing, controversial subjects dividing us. It’s become a real issue.
So, for me facilitating these conversations as a sacred community performs two functions. One is, it’s us learning to listen to each other and to give validity to other people’s perspectives and insights and experiences. And that’s just a good practice to have as a community. The other thing is that it almost is a prophetic ministry to our “argument culture,” as Deborah Tannen calls it, that we both invite different people into the conversation, but we also have practiced listening in a culture where it seems like the volume is turned up to 11, and people are yelling across the aisle and you can’t hear anybody. So this prophetic posture of listening is a ministry to our culture of conflict.
Joe: What are some things that you’re learning? How are people responding to this, and what are some of the fruit that you have seen born out of it?
Bo: For me, there is a humility that says I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the information. And even if I did we, you and I, might come to different conclusions. So two of the things that I’ve really found very helpful….
There’s a guy named Peter Rollins who has popularized the ideas of this guy named [Jacques] Lacan. One of the ideas that I have found the most helpful is called “the experience of absence and the absence of experience.” One of the examples that people seem to really resonate with is if you and I were in a coffee shop together, we’re in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. The only difference is you’re expecting a friend who hasn’t shown up yet and isn’t answering their phone. I am not experiencing that person’s absence. I’m having the absence of experience. I don’t know anything’s wrong. You are experiencing your friend’s absence. So even though on the surface you and I are in the same place, doing the same thing at the same time, we are having two very different experiences.
Once I had this kind of tool in my brain I started realizing that you can have 50, 60, 80 people at church, and they’re having 50, 60, 80 different experiences even though we’re all in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. So let’s say if we sing a song that was sung at my mother’s funeral. I’m experiencing that song very differently, experiencing her absence. You have never heard that song before and you’re thinking, “Oh, this is a tough song to sing.” You’re having an absence of that experience.
So you cannot assume that just because everybody’s in the same room doing the same thing at the same time that they’re all having the same experience. Once you are humbled by that, then you take a posture of listening because you realize there is no way you can know what is happening inside somebody else.
It’s a kind of a love, a ministry that opens my heart to another to say, ‘I’m not going to assume that you experienced this the same way I did.’
Joe: If you take that out of the church experience, and put it in our everyday life, how does that look when we’re having that conversation across the dining room table with the uncle with whom we disagree?
Bo: Yeah, it is really challenging. One of the exercises that I have begun doing whenever a subject comes up that I’m pretty sure I understand or at least I have a really strong opinion on, I’ve started asking myself, “What if I’m wrong on this one? What if I’ve got this one wrong?” I try to put myself in somebody else’s shoes and think through it.
Right now, football’s about to start up and everyone’s going to be arguing about protest during the singing of the national anthem. I have a really strong opinion about that issue, but I say to myself about anything that I seem a little too sure on—especially the things that are really inflamed—I’ve tried to develop the discipline to say, ‘What if I’m wrong here,’ and try to think through what the other person is seeing or feeling or what their conviction is rooted in that I’m missing.
Part of that is to understand that I want to humanize, and not demonize people I disagree with. They’re not bad people. They’re not monsters. They’re not demons. They’re real human beings who just see this differently than I do.
So, even though I’m a super opinionated person, I’ve tried to say, ‘What if I’m wrong on this one?’ It’s humbling to try and think through or access other people’s perspectives in a way that challenges my confidence and certainty that I’m right on this.
Joe: That ability to get inside the shoes of the other person really stretches you.
Bo: Yeah. For people who grew up in debate club or maybe they’ve been a part of something like that, one of the exercises that’s really good is that you as a discipline—You have to be able to articulate your opponent’s position to their satisfaction before you make your own case. I think in our argument culture…. I keep calling it that.
This book by Deborah Tannen was really powerful for me. Especially the fact that she wrote it before things got this bad. So she wrote it in 1998, before 9/11 when everything became militarized, before these last two presidencies that have been so divisive and controversial. The fact that she wrote it before the Internet, before Facebook, it’s really helpful to me to read something that she thought there was a big enough problem in ’98—20 years ago—and it’s only gotten worse since then.
I have this deep conviction that I want to be a part of the solution. The last thing I want to do is be a part of the problem. I don’t want to make things worse.
Joe: We so often want to find people who agree with us and support our opinions and make us more certain, not less. So what’s the value that you see in having these kinds of conversations with people whose opinions are different than ours?
Bo: For me… Look, if I weren’t a Christian, I would be the most opinionated, loud, vocal, pushy person. Honestly. That’s how I was socialized and conditioned as an athletic young man; to throw my weight around, to show dominance. But once I came to Christ and my heart was strangely warmed, as we say, I started to see that there is a deep and abiding problem in our culture that is so fragmented and fractured.
For me the deep conviction comes out of this passage in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5 that says, “God reconciled all things to God’s self in Christ, and then gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” And earlier in that passage it talks about the fact that we’ve all been adopted into God’s family and so we are God’s children and that the Spirit testifies in our spirit that we belong (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). So when I look at somebody else across the table, the first thing I have to realize is, that’s God’s child. We’re both adopted into God’s family. So we’re both children in God’s eyes.
Once I see that humanity in them then I realize that I am an ambassador of the good news of God’s grace, and that I’ve been given that responsibility and the ministry of reconciliation. So if God, who is love and perfection of the divine, can reconcile all things to God’s self in Christ and then give us the ministry of reconciliation, we can do better than what we’re seeing currently. I mean, it’s a really lofty and cosmic job description.
Joe: Sure, but it’s not about winning the day; it’s about finding this ministry of bringing people together.
Bo: So the thing is, I love being right. This is my problem. I don’t know if you’re anything like me.
Joe: Of course.
Bo: But I have figured out that I’d rather be in right relationship than be right. Especially if we create a web of meaning to quote Bonnie Miller-McLemore, this web of meaning. When you see the church as an interconnected web, that we’re all in some way tied in with one another, and stop seeing it as an us versus them issue, or a right versus wrong, or a good versus bad, right versus left maybe, red versus blue (should I keep going?) so that we’re not these polarized things we’re given these either/or options, conservative or liberal, blah, blah, blah.
Once you stop with that and you say that we’re all in this together, it really does change—I call it the temperature of your heart—to realize that it’s not that I’m not allowed to have my conviction on this. I’m allowed to have my opinion; it’s just that I don’t need it to either dominate or totally destroy my opponent in an all or nothing, zero sum competition. We’re all in this together.
There’s nothing that’s a hundred and zero. Now we might not want to split 50/50, but this hundred and zero, all or nothing thing, is just…it’s corrupting us, and it’s actually drying out our soul a little bit. We’re becoming more calloused and more jaded. It’s not good. It’s not what’s called the fruit of the spirit. I think that I’m pretty confident that when the Spirit is at work here’s how you’re going to know. There are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. That’s how you know the Spirit’s at work.
Joe: I have heard you say on your podcast, Peacing It All Together, that one of the ways we need to learn to disagree better (if that’s the right way to say this) is to be willing to remain at the table. Like, it’s okay to think you’re right; it’s okay to have the conversation, but to not be dismissive, to be able to stay in the conversation. Can you say more about that?
Bo: Yes. And thank you for bringing that up. That’s such a difficult proposal because we live in a world where if somebody posts something on Facebook you don’t like, you can either mute them or just unfriend them altogether. What we end up doing is creating an echo chamber where we’re only hearing messages that we already agree with. In the church, we would call that preaching to the choir.
The danger is that when the volume is turned up as loud as it is right now, an echo chamber can become a distortion loop where you’re getting feedback—where you’re only hearing yourself. That actually warps the sound. It’s not healthy. I’ll just say that.
So when we talk about staying at the table, one of the really difficult things is to be committed to the person more than their opinion. I’ll give you a perfect example. One of the childhood friends—I haven’t seen him in 30 years—found me recently on Facebook. He has the 100% opposite opinion about kneeling during the national anthem than I do. He’s upset and he’s posting about it on Facebook. It’s not what I want to read in the morning. It doesn’t go well with my morning coffee. It doesn’t make my morning sweeter. It would be so easy to mute him or turn him off. Staying at the table is saying, “I’m not going to unfriend him because I disagree with him.” Now, if he becomes hurtful or, you know, whatever, that’s a totally different story.
The person who brought this was Randy Woodley, my co-host on the show. He’s a Native American theologian who has, for his entire life in ministry, had people walk away from the table. So let’s say that they sit down at a conference or a committee meeting and Randy’s asking for something, like to be heard or recognized. Because the other person is in a privileged position, they can walk away from the table for one really simple reason: If nothing changes, they’re fine. The system already works in a way that benefits them.
Randy, trying to represent marginalized or disadvantaged communities needs something to change. So the impetus is on him. The burden of making this thing work is on him. So his idea is, “Look, just stay at the table. The luxury of walking away is a luxury not all of us have.”
So when you feel tempted, if you’re uncomfortable, especially when issues of race come up (that’s a big one) or issues of sexuality, issues of finances, politics… When we become uncomfortable, it’s easier for us to walk away. But to stay at the table and to be committed, that’s a really tough assignment. But as Christians we have an assignment, we have an expectation.
In Philippians chapter 2, there’s this idea called ‘kenosis’ about the self-emptying of Christ. And so it says that we’re supposed to have this same mind as that which was in Christ Jesus (see Philippians 2:1-11). So the impetus is on us because we have been gifted by grace.
Part of our gifting, or the way that we can grace the world, is to commit to stay in difficult conversations even when they’re pressing in on our comfort zone. As these ministers of reconciliation, part of thing is to do a ‘kenotic’ or an emptying move of saying, “Yes, I’m uncomfortable,” or, “My blood pressure is up,” or whatever. Then to lay that aside in favor of the larger picture and the common good.
Staying at the table is probably…. I mean, the reason we led with it first--it’s the first of our three principles—is because it’s the toughest. So you’ve got to put all your initial energy to just remain at the table because the fly or fight instinct is strong.
Joe: If I’m hearing you correctly, it’s more than just a physical presence or remaining in the conversation. But it goes back to that humility idea that you were talking about earlier, being able to actually hear what the other person is saying and trying to understand the way that they’re viewing it, rather than just continually saying this is my perspective, this is my perspective. But actually be able to hear.
Bo: Yeah, and for those of us who are not in marginalized communities or positions, it really is a ministry of love.
For instance, I’m a straight guy. Let’s say that in whatever state you’re in or whatever denomination you’re in, no matter how it shakes out about same-sex marriage or the Way Forward or whatever it is—my marriage is not in danger. It’s not up for debate. So I have the luxury of saying, even when I’m flustered and even when I disagree, I’m more committed to the people than I am to my opinion.
Joe: I’m becoming aware, as we’re talking—and there’s a little bit of irony here—I can feel my own heartrate accelerating a bit as we talk about some of these more difficult issues. Fears that people are just going to shut it off because they assume they know where you or I are coming from on these issues and simply walk away and turn us off. You begin to feel that, how others can respond and how we can continue to have the conversation.
I’m really curious how this happens within the faith context. You started to touch on that a little bit. But I imagine not everybody in your church agrees on every conversation that you have during the worship service. How does that play out? Because a lot of times I hear people resort to an authority, whether it’s Scripture or tradition or whatever that is, and say, “This is the thing. This is it, and we have to agree with this.” How do you see that playing out differently?
Bo: Well, I think have two advantages. One, as Methodists we have this thing called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. (That is a mouthful sometimes.) We start with Scripture. Then we look to the tradition. We look to our experience and then to reason. That sequence provides the raw material and the rubric or the scheme that we need. Let’s just say call it a tool that we need for communal discernment. With that Wesleyan Quad we don’t have a knock-out blow with Scripture. We don’t have the trump card with our experience. By partnering those four together we have a very balanced and holistic way to proceed as a community when we don’t agree. I love it. I think it is tailored made for the 21st century.
Joe: Is that something you draw on as you’re having these conversations within your community?
Bo: Yeah. I teach the Quad fairly often in Sunday school. No matter what the topic is I’ll reference it, and we’ll run it through the grid. What I’m trying to do is train my conversation leaders so that when we go upstairs for the service and we’re in our worship gathering, that I know that there’s 20 people in the room who know about the Quad and can employ it and that we’ve practiced together on issues. I can trust that, for the most part, when people are in their conversation groups of 4-5 there’s going to probably be somebody in there who can bring some perspective as far as these 4 things that we call the Quad and be a voice of reconciliation and moderation when there are really strong opinions present.
Joe: Teach me more about how this works in your church. What would it be like for me to show up on a Sunday morning? How is it different than the church I might attend?
Bo: Okay, now this is where the rubber meets the road. We’ve taken the basic form of liturgy that most United Methodists would be familiar with and we’ve kept it as a shell. But we’ve done some renovation within the gathering about how we spend our time together.
I have de-centered the sermon. Instead of the sermon being the main event, I usually have it in the first third of the gathering as sort of a catalyst or an idea. I’ll do an eight-minute homily, like a Ted Talk. It might go as long as 10 or 12 minutes, but that would be long. I just introduce an idea.
Then, usually twice during an hour-long gathering, we’re gonna break up into our smaller groups of 3-5 (I try to keep ‘em small so that everybody can get a chance to talk if they want to—not everybody wants to talk about every subject.) We have a range of topics.
For instance, during the first week of Advent I always break people into conversation groups at the very beginning of the gathering and ask, “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?” It’s just an ice breaker, but I know in the second half of the gathering I’m going to ask them to go back to that same group and talk about the sermon. So that might be a way that we pair the questions. But sometimes I’ll put the questions before the sermon, or the homily.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked a really personal question. I said, “Now not everybody has to answer this, but if you’ve ever forgiven somebody for something, what was the hardest part of forgiving?” Then I let them talk for 5 or 6 minutes. When I re-centered them--I’m standing in the middle of the worship space—I just go around the room, and say, “Does anybody in this section want to volunteer what your conversation sounded like?” Then I take what they said was the most difficult part to forgiveness, and I’ve like loosely planned my homily, but I also let their conversation inform my sermon. I respond to that. That’s a dangerous thing that I do, because I know I’m pretty fast on my feet and can integrate that stuff. But it’s dialogical. It’s a dialog. It’s a conversational space.
We will do all the way from really shallow things—just regular icebreakers that you would do with any group—all the way to, my favorite one, is after the sermon or the homily, I’ll say break up into your smaller groups and talk about what you heard, what resonated with you, what would you like to talk more about? Sometimes I let them tell me what that is, but other times I’ll say, “Let’s talk about this over a coffee hour,” or whatever.
So we range all the way from shallow to deep, from conceptual (kind of abstract stuff) to really practical stuff. But we always try and account for two different people. One is the visitor because we know that that may not be comfortable for them initially…. Although the surprising part it is…. When I started this down in Los Angeles at Westwood United Methodist for the The Loft LA, and I’m finding it up here as well, people who come to church have already looked at your website and they know what they’re coming to. They’re fine. They came because they want to be a part of the conversation. So we’re really careful with visitors, although most of the time we don’t need to be.
The other person is… maybe somebody who’s a little shy or introverted. We have to build in time because not everybody is ready to respond the minute they hear a question. So those are the really positive things that I’ve seen.
Bo: The only negative thing I’ve seen is when somebody has watched a lot of 24-hour news in a week and has memorized the talking points and comes with an agenda. That honestly is the only thing. But if you have built a culture of listening and of grace, people of grace, usually somebody in the group will be able to say, like, “Hey, Joe. I know you’re really passionate about this, but maybe it would be good for us to hear from a couple of other people.” Or, they’ll somehow manage it. Or maybe the person sitting next to them will squeeze their arm and let them know, “Yeah, we get it, buddy; you’re really opinionated on this.” But other than that, and I’ve been doing this for 6 years now, I’ve only had 2 gatherings where something happened that I wish hadn’t. So that’s actually better than my sermons. I mean, back when I used to do long sermons I didn’t have that good of a ratio back then.
Joe: The final question that I ask everybody on Get Your Spirit in Shape is, you’ve offered us a lot to think about, but I also like to hear some of the exercises, some of the things that you do to help keep your own spirit in shape. So what would you recommend somebody try to help keep them close to God.
Bo: Draw bell curves.
Joe: Okay, you’ve got to tell me more than that.
Bo: Because we have been sold and are daily put forward with these polarized either/or options, you have to draw bell curves because the reality is that most of the opinions you hear are gonna be in the little tail at the end or that lead head front. But the majority of people, the big belly of the population, is gonna fall somewhere in the middle. And so, like, for instance… you know, we get proposed red states and blue states. But if you draw a bell curve you will see that actually the majority, the large majority of people who are eligible to vote, didn’t. So as polarized as these 2 camps seem to be, actually the big belly of people didn’t even participate.
So it’s just good in a polarized, either/or society to draw bell curves and to say, “Who’s the big group in the middle?” Because it brings a balance to the situation. I know the people at the tail end and the people in the lead head are really loud, but they don’t really represent or account for most of us. So I draw bell curves and see who am I not hearing from?
Joe: I just keep hearing you say—and maybe this is what’s going on in my head—but I just hearing you say that we need to be able to step out a little bit from your own opinions and be able to actually listen and hear the things that are going on around you, I’m gonna take that with me. That to me is really profound and an important piece that we all need to learn.
Bo, I just thank you so much for all that you’re doing. I appreciate your blog and your podcast, Peacing it All Together, which we will put links to on the episode page so that people can find you and learn more about you and your ministry, and more about Vermont Hills United Methodist Church and all the ministry that’s going on there. Thanks, Bo.
Bo: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity. And I like how civil and pleasant this exchange was. It was great. We modeled it well.
Joe: It’s really not that hard, is it?
Bo: Thank you.
Joe: That was the Rev. Bo Sanders, a United Methodist pastor, blogger, and the co-host of a podcast called Peacing It All Together. To learn more about Bo and Vermont Hills United Methodist Church, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape titled Disagreeing Well. There are several links on the page for you to explore.
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That's it for this episode. I'll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I'm Joe Iovino. Peace.