Tips for Engaging Controversial Issues

By William E Gardner

Scrabble-like tiles spelling out the word "justice"

Church leaders need to give serious consideration to whether a controversial issue should be acted on or not. Here are some questions to ask yourselves:

  • How central is this issue to the identity and core values of the congregation?
    • If you can’t identify core values or how this relates to your congregation’s identity then the issue is not one to bring to the congregation.
  • What is the level of controversy about this issue?
    • Is the issue one in which members of the congregation need some education and they will move on it?
    • Is it one in which a minority of people have strong feelings?
    • Or is it one in which people are really polarized?
    • Judgments about the level of conflict are important in deciding whether and how to process the issue. Sometimes the choices here are very complex and difficult.

If you decide to bring the issue up for discussion, thought also needs to be given to how to process the issue in the congregation.

  • How much time should be taken to educate the members of the congregation?
  • How much information do people need?
  • Who will be in charge of giving the information?
  • How will meetings be structured?

Suggested Guidelines for Controversial Issues

  1. Plan for several months of discussion and debate. It is better to err on the side of talking too long about an issue.
  2. Use as many opportunities as possible to educate people, making use of the Sunday service, adult forums, discussion groups, and so on.
  3. Allow proponents of all positions on the issue to be represented with adequate time.
  4. Set guidelines that focus on facts and issues rather than personalities.
  5. Make it clear that the integrity of all participants will be respected at all times and any behavior that does not treat people with dignity will not be tolerated.
  6. After the agreed upon time of education and dialogue has passed, use a voting method that affirms the spirit of an inclusive democratic process and maintains the dignity, and, if necessary, the anonymity of the individuals voting. One possibility is to have a preparatory meeting at which people can deal with clarifying the language of a resolution.
  7. Make sure there is ample time for discussion before a vote is taken at the meeting. Set aside a minimum of an hour for dialogue and debate if needed. Give everyone who wants to speak an opportunity to do so.
  8. If after education and dialogue it looks like a vote will destroy the community, DON’T VOTE. The congregation isn’t ready. Sometimes, this means more information or dialogue is needed. Sometimes it means that everyone needs more time to absorb the information. Sometimes it means the issue should be dropped.