Last November I voted for Hillary Clinton. Dan, my right-hand man in church leadership, voted for Donald Trump. I lobby vigorously against the refugee ban and any wall anywhere. He believes them to be necessary. I want gun control laws like Sweden. He prefers the gun laws in Arizona.
You might assume any cooperative church leadership, let alone friendship, could not take root in such soil. That assumption would be wrong.
As we navigated this challenging political vista, Dan—who is responsible for the pulpit and pastoral duties when I am absent—and I came to a surprising conclusion: we are God-made to work at one another’s side. God used our different political stances to form a working relationship neither of us expected. In the most divisive season our church has known, we didn’t merely survive a church leadership division—we used it to disciple people in the way of healthy disagreement. It changed the church. It changed me.
Here are some of the decisions we made to persevere and flourish in our working relationship. Some of these choices I made. Others Dan and I made together. They provide a recipe for working through leadership disagreements of all types.
We make intentional time.
Our working relationship is not a case of “keeping our friends close and our enemies closer.” It’s not for the purpose of manipulation or keeping tabs. We have Starbucks meetings because we are friends and colleagues. I ask for sermon reflections from Dan because I value his input. We swap theological ideas because he has insight I might not consider.
Last fall we team-preached a sermon called, “Why Should I Believe in the Bible?” I taught the apologetics, and he followed with a personal testimony about how Scripture changed him. I could not have contributed what he did, but it was the perfect application.
When I’ve spent enough time with a person to see how his heart beats and what it beats for, I have a much harder time dismissing his opinions. I can’t write off someone with whom I’ve shared countless chai lattes and stories about our kids’ rough school issues.
So I ask Dan, “What do you see in this situation that I don’t? How am I missing some other option? What have you read in Scripture about this?” But I also ask him, “How is your life? What’s going on? What is stressing you out? How can I pray for you?” Time and talk keep people human.
We trust each other.
Because we’ve taken that intentional time together, I know Dan follows Jesus earnestly. I believe in his sincere desire to obey. And he says the same thing about me: “I trust that Jill means as well as I do.”
At our core, we want the same things. We want our families safe. We want our ministry real. We want our church strong. We want to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. We may not agree on the best roads to get there. But we’re facing in the same direction, so we focus on the goals and negotiate the means.
I am the “prophet-teacher” of the team. Dan is the shepherd. While I focus on reaching outside of the church and serving others, he believes our priority should be caring for those already in the church. That’s a conflict on the very mission of our church—are we here for the insiders or the outsiders?
I’m not going to change Dan’s outlook on this, and he’s not going to change mine. That’s good, because God gave us these gifts. It turns out, healthy, cared-for church members make better servants to those outside the church walls. And those who serve others grow into healthier, caring people. When we recognize that our contradicting roads actually weave together in places, it’s not difficult to take that next step: supporting one another’s means to get to our common goal.
Our leadership preferences don’t always align so neatly. I preach often about helping refugees and other immigrants (because I believe that’s a biblical issue and not just a political one), but I know Dan and I don’t agree on the implementation of that. We’ve talked about what we think are answers to the problem. When I speak about the issue, I suggest personal actions without mandating political actions. Dan accepts that resolution. He says, “I insist on being at peace with the fact that I am not the pastor.” He chooses to submit to a united message (even when I don’t ask him to) for the sake of the kingdom.
I have faith in Dan’s integrity, and he has faith in mine. We trust that our goals are kingdom goals, even when our paths to the finish line diverge.
I named the elephant in the room.
The Sunday after November’s election, I preached on being thankful for the future, even when the earth shakes beneath you. The topic had been planned for months. It seemed appropriate no matter who won the election because our congregation is as politically divided as Dan and me. That morning I felt like the earth had shaken, and over half the congregation did too.
Dan felt off-kilter for a different reason. I hadn’t talked to him about the election that week, but I knew from interactions on social media that he felt isolated and even attacked by people who assumed the worst of him because of his political opinions. I didn’t want that belief to hang in the air one week longer.
It would have been easy to ignore the election and avoid conflict. But that would have broken my pledge to be transparent with this congregation—even when it’s painful.
So I talked about “that which must not be named.” I told them that, for the first time ever, I had voted for a Democrat for president. (I would never tell the congregation my voting plans before an election or attempt to sway theirs from the pulpit. But after the fact, I decided it was best to talk about it.) I told them that I knew some of them had voted differently, and that I loved and respected those people because I knew their hearts. I said I hoped they also believed the best of me.
The collective sigh of relief was almost audible. The room felt lighter, and people no longer had to eggshell-walk the sanctuary floor. Two women approached me later to say thank you. Several felt comfortable talking with me through their own grief and fears. One person put it this way: “Thank you for taking the lid off this situation and letting out what could have festered.”
Was I terrified to talk about this? Of course I was. It’s a small congregation; we couldn’t afford to lose anyone. But we also couldn’t afford rampant mistrust based on our voting records. Naming the reality—we disagree, I love you, and I choose to be with you—freed the congregation to find a way through a treacherous season.
We find value in each other.
God places something beautiful in each of his followers. When I disagree with someone on serious issues, it is my job to find and focus on that beautiful thing. This isn’t an “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” situation. No one is forcing me to do it. It’s easy, really. God put his image in each of us, and I guarantee there’s something of it to admire in everyone.
Even though Dan and I voted differently, there’s so much I appreciate about who he is. I admire his dedication to good craftsmanship. Our church moved into a warehouse building last fall, and he spent months painting the interior, all on his own time. No one would ever guess the painting was done by a volunteer—he did professional-grade work. Dan does not embrace the common mantra, “It’s not great, but it’s good enough for church work.” He demands quality from himself, while giving grace to others less talented with a paintbrush (me, for instance).
I also love Dan’s devotion to his wife. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen him lift her up on Facebook, sharing her accomplishments and what she means to him. When she found a job she loved that made things better for their family, Dan willingly stayed home with their son to support her.
I can’t help but cultivate genuine love for someone in whom I see God’s image.
We learn from each other.
I don’t know everything. I’m not always right. I need another person’s perspective to find the center from which to lead. I’m not prone to taking that perspective from someone with whom I disagree, but I’m learning that’s the best place to start. The writer of Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). Iron can’t be sharpened unless it remains a bit pliable.
When I asked Dan about this point, he referenced David’s encounter with Shemei. This man cursed David and threw rocks at the king and his officials. Here’s what happened next:
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.” But the king said, “What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’”
In other words, maybe the person I disagree with is telling me something I need to hear.
Dan often tells me he believes God appoints some of us to be bridge builders and others to be bridge defenders. Guess which one I am. In my zeal to build bridges and give anyone the benefit of the doubt, Dan is a voice of conservatism in its best sense: “Wait. Go slow. Ensure that we keep what is good here and don’t invite in something that could destroy.” I still chafe at the idea of defending anything; I want to go headlong into the battle for any underdog anywhere. That’s why I need Dan’s voice in the background: “Wait.” It never hurts to slow down and keep everyone in the boat.
Dan is in leadership with me because God intends for us to sharpen one another. He planned for a partnership that glorifies him. When we believe that, we’re free to lead our church in the best possible direction.
I offer more leadership responsibility, not less.
I want Dan to preach more, not less. To disciple others more, not less. This may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I be afraid this will lead people in a direction I don’t agree with? Not really. People need to go in the direction God wants for them, not the one I prefer. So, when delegating responsibilities to Dan, I ask myself, Is there trust?Not necessarily agreement—but trust? If so, then why not offer it completely?
When trust, rather than total agreement, is the foundation for our leadership relationship, Dan and I can give things over to God’s beautiful direction. We can, for instance, support refugees and veterans.
This doesn’t mean I will allow just anyone to step behind the pulpit or into a position of leadership. I recently preached a series on the Apostles’ Creed. If someone disagreed on an element of that, I couldn’t offer that person a position of leadership. There’s a theological line that can’t be crossed.
Also, I require a baseline of respect and humility for that kind of role. Dan and I work hard not to inject our political beliefs into our sermons. We both talk to others in the church about the direction we think our country should go, but it’s strictly on our own time. When Dan is in front of the church, I trust him to separate personal opinions from the Word of God. If someone wanted to go all fire and brimstone with their political stances during a sermon, I would offer the door, not the pulpit.
We trust God and serve our congregation.
I asked Dan the other day how he dealt with leading beside a card-carrying member of the #resistance. His response was insightful: “I have to feel confident enough in my own skin that I can let other people be who they are.”
We’re both adults. We’re both secure in God’s call on our lives. So we trust each other to pursue that call in divergent ways. That trickles into the congregation and into situations other than political divisions. I ask myself regularly, Am I discipling the entire congregation to be confident in God’s call on their lives, whatever that is?
Disagreement can shut down a church. It can keep people from speaking their minds, or it can cause them to take sides with fighting leaders. Those weren’t palatable options for the good church God gave to us. By openly dealing with our disagreements, Dan and I offered something valuable to our congregation: freedom. They can trust that honesty will be met with love and that political disagreements are reconcilable for the sake of ministry.
Jill Richardson is lead pastor of Resolution Church in Oswego, Illinois.