On Being the Source of Conflict

This post is the second in a series on conflict. Read the first On Ending Up in the Middle of Conflict

It took me a long time to realize I was the source of theological conflict for friends and family when I answered a call to preach. It took me as long to realize that this had very little to do with who I was as a person and instead that my answering a call to preach demanded that friends and family examine their own theological beliefs.

Those of us who are called to ministry and pursue that call with theological education understand that question and challenging our theological framework is part of the process (although I am not sure that any of us know exactly how deep and revealing the process will be). For those people in our lives who aren’t pursuing theological education, we find that our sharing from classes and things we have learned isn’t always well received. Admittedly, it may be the tone with which we deliver that information, which can come across as know-it-all-y and arrogant. In these situations it isn’t us who is causing the conflict, but the process of theological education in general, which makes it much easier for those of us who are students of theological education because the conversation usually starts with “My professor told us today that…..”

But when I, as a woman who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, voiced a call to preach, inevitably conflict was going to follow. In my fragile state of developing identity and wrestling with whether to even reveal this call to anyone, the questions and theological reasons I heard from friends and family about why I couldn’t and wasn’t called to preach were deeply personal. I was turning my whole life in another direction and the people who were supposed to offer love and support were offering questions and challenges. I wish I could say that in these moments I was the one who remained calm and confident, but I wasn’t. I was reactionary and defensive of not only my call, but myself as a person. After all, they were questioning me.

Slowly and surely, as I met women whose stories sounded an awful lot like mine, I began to understand that the questions and challenges I was hearing and receiving from friends and family were not about me. How could they be when so many other women had experienced the same thing? Instead, I was the source of a theological dilemma that friends and family hadn’t asked or intended to question or wrestle through. By answering a call to preach, I was asking them to reconsider the tradition and biblical teaching they had believed. I was asking them to do theological work they hadn’t signed up for or asked for.

This realization transformed my reaction and defensiveness to compassion. I understood to some extent what they were going through because I, too, hadn’t asked to engage in this theological journey that would lead me not only to a new identity, but also a completely different life I wasn’t sure I was prepared for. I was just as scared at what the implications of answering a call to preach and minister s as they were about what would happen at the end of their theological wrestling. As friend and family to them, I wanted to try to walk with them along that scary, uncertain journey. That was going to mean I was going to need to stop talking and start listening a lot more.

I won’t say that I did or am doing this perfectly, but I will say that when I put myself in their shoes, I am much more understanding. In a way when I answered my call to ministry, I was expecting and hoping for love from those whom I loved the most. What I discovered was love and support comes from all kinds of people, and sometimes when love and support come from people who don’t know you and don’t know your story it’s even more powerful than when it comes from those you expect it from.

I am still the source of conflict for the couple who happened to end up in the parking lot of our church and to whom I introduced myself as the pastor of a baptist church. I am still the source of conflict for pastors and congregations who don’t welcome all people no matter their history, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status into their congregations. I am still the source of conflict for some friends and family. I am still the source of conflict for a whole tradition of baptists, but that doesn’t scare me as much anymore. I know people who affirm my call and people who don’t affirm my call both need love and a listening ear.

That’s something I can offer whether they call me pastor or Merianna.