Supporting Your Pastor and Church Leaders in a Polarized Political Year

Burnsville Respectful Conversation table participants pose for picture

It was just announced today that the Presbyterian Church of America* canceled a panel at next month's General Assembly. The panel was to discuss “Supporting Your Pastor and Church Leaders in a Polarized Political Year.” It included the author of a book rejecting wokeness, two PCA pastors, and New York Times columnist David French.

As Director of Strategic Relationships at MCC I steward MCC Respectful Conversations and sit at a few tables with other peacebuilders in our nation. French wrote a column in August 24, 2023, “Political Christianity Has Claws” which made the rounds in religious peacemaking circles for calling out people of faith whose public statements are full of vitriol. He wrote in part:

At a time of extraordinary partisan polarization, a Christian message should demand that we love our enemies. (And what is love? Among other things, as we learn in Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs.”) Moments of political conflict such as this one should cause the church to blaze forth with countercultural radiance — a soothing balm in a sea of strife. But the dominant tone of contemporary American political Christianity is close to the opposite. It’s angry. It’s punitive. In many ways it positively delights in strife.

He concluded that while exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit “does not guarantee that others will love or respect you, it does help us obey one of our highest calls: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? This is part of why we call MCC Respectful Conversations “evidence-based love-your-neighbor.” We are helping communities – not just churches but certainly including them – to make peace by learning and practicing ways to hate less and love more.



David French wrote the foreword on one of the best evangelical-leaning books I’ve read related to polarization, Bonnie Kristian’s “Untrustworthy.” He wrote “Divided We Fall,” a book about the perils of “polarized tribalism” facing the U.S. today. He is certainly enough of a subject matter expert; however, it turns out he was the reason the panel was canceled. Denominational officials reported receiving complaints and “The concerns that have been raised about the seminar and its topic have been so significant that it seems wisest for the peace and unity of the church not to proceed in this way.”

They probably made the right call. When it turns out that something is more polarizing than you thought, and you don’t have the ground rules, structure, trained facilitators, prep time or agenda time to manage it then you do want to give people who disagree a more comprehensive way to do so while strengthening, even enhancing their relationships with each other.

Yet it is also a missed opportunity for the body of Christ.

Is any polarizing topic “too hot?”


Director of Strategic Relationships Jerad Morey presenting about Respectful Conversations

photo credit: Cierra the Gemini

It is a question that was also raised by some MCC Respectful Conversations Lead Facilitator trainees in North Dakota last month. The training included evidence of success from our robust evaluations, a sample conversation on a milquetoast topic, some facilitation exercises, and repetitive practice with the structure of a Respectful Conversation. Then we talked about the principles of a good framing topic for a MCC Respectful Conversation. They include:

  1. It has to name the thing people are divided about. What’s something that, the last time you talked about it, you lost a friend? What are you afraid to bring up in a group because the discussion might damage relationships? Remember, you’re having a Respectful Conversation because normal discussions have failed.
  2. Does it fit the two “E”s:
    • Is it naming the elephant in the room? Does just stating the topic itself make you unclench a little because now that it has been said it is finally out in the open?
    • Is it energizing so much that a person who hears that topic things to themselves “Yes, I WANT to talk about that, and figure out how someone else could have a different take on it.”
  3. Can people who hear the topic easily imagine their own perspective on it, and easily imagine or think of someone else in their life whose perspective differs?

The important thing to understand about all this is that imagining the thing people are genuinely heated over - naming the open wound - then imagining bringing them together in the same room not to avoid it but to directly face it, is daunting for a leader or a facilitator. So many things could go wrong, right?


Participant in Respectful Converations lead facilitator training asking a question

photo credit: Cierra the Gemini

The Lead Facilitator trainees in North Dakota raised similar concern. And the fear is completely understandable. We had felt it too when we got started 12 years ago. So did the leaders we talked to about hosting these peacebuilding events.

MCC Respectful Conversations were funded with a significant Bush Foundation grant in our first year. This helped us to hire a full-time program organizer whose sole job was to recruit congregations to host a (then-free thanks to the grant) “Respectful Conversation on the Amendment Defining Marriage.” She made hundreds of phone calls, was meeting with clergy, ministeriums or church committees every week.

Most of them ultimately said “no.” You can guess why. She encountered leaders who didn’t believe the conversation in their community would really be respectful. They didn’t want to “poke the hornet’s nest” of daylighting a divisive topic. They were afraid that having the MCC Respectful Conversation risked doing damage to relationships more than it might strengthen them.

We, too, were afraid. But then we went to work.

Those were also concerns we and our founding lead facilitators even raised: “what if it gets out-of-hand?” Dr. Bob Staines, the experienced facilitator with the Public Conversations Project who helped deliver the training that launched the project, said “99.9% of the time you can rely on people’s basic humanity.” We were comforted by his confidence even if we still harbored secret reservations.

“Rely on humanity” is the mantra we left with. That and a structure for dialogue that focused on values, personal experience, and inquiry.

After 55 Respectful Conversations reaching about 1,500 people in that first year, our faith in humanity had come to match his. Not only that, but our trust in the structured facilitated process grew. We looked at data showing that in the most polarized conversations – the ones in communities with the most disagreement – the evaluations were strongest! We learned that the right set of agreements, structure and trained facilitation can not only deliver empathy and stronger relationships, but even free up energy organizational action.

Communities exhausted by energy diverted towards division experience liberation. Our most common follow-up question after any MCC Respectful Conversation is still: “This was great! We have so much positive energy now! What can we do next?” This is where MCC stops and the mission of the host kicks in. You have more energy to do more good. How now can you love your neighbors.


Burnsville Respectful Conversation table participants pose for picture


So, how can you “support your church leaders and Pastor in a polarized political year?” You can face the reality that people are going to be in conflict with each other. You can practice disagreeing in ways that don’t damage relationships. You can do it on your own, for example by taking the Braver Angels' "Depolarizing Within" online course. You can endorse the "Reduce the Rancor, Minnesota" campaign and learn to #disagreebetter. You can even bring an MCC Respectful Conversation to your community to depolarize an existing conflict and boost your community's peacemaking capacity.


* (not a Minnesota Council of Churches member judicatory)