Don Follis | We hear God best when we listen to others

Don Follis | We hear God best when we listen to others

After years of consulting with churches, I am more certain than ever that having a good discernment process is crucial to decision-making. Process matters almost more than outcome. If you can trust the process, you can trust the outcome. How many times have I been called in to help a church in conflict only to have someone say, "I never even got to express my opinion." Or to have a leader say, "Well, there are just two sides to the issue."

There might just be two sides if there are just two people in the church. But if there are 150 people, there are at least 150 sides. I've seen those who feel like they never get to voice their concerns change churches, quit church altogether or just stuff it and emotionally disengage.

Recently I tried to show the leaders of a church I am working with why I think the best discernment process for a church conflict might be found in the New Testament book of Acts. In Acts chapter 15, the heart of the conflict centered on Gentiles getting equal access the Christian message, not just the Jews. After the apostles Peter and Paul explained to Jewish believers the new way God was moving among Gentiles, some Jewish leaders complained that Gentiles had not been circumcised, a centuries-old tradition among Jews, nor were they fully keeping the law of Moses.

With Jews feeling their identity was on the line, a meeting was called in Jerusalem in what the church historically has called "The Jerusalem Council." When all the leaders and elders gathered there was no question as to the problem — being circumcised and following the law of Moses.

So often when churches call me in they initially sidestep the problem, saying they would like some general education on how to handle conflict. Often, before long, I can see beneath the request is even a decades-long set of dodged issues and concerns about to erupt.

It's one thing to know about a problem. It's another to acknowledge it, letting it surface where it can be openly said there are differences and disagreements. This is where a paradox often surfaces. When people fear acknowledgment and avoid confrontation to protect the relationship, the conflict eventually explodes or implodes. But if people can move toward conflict, hopefully earlier rather than later in the process, they find that relationships can handle the most difficult of differences.

Then there is the question of how to try to create a fair procedure for processing the matter. This is very tough, but you have to do your best to find a mechanism that holds the most potential for helping all people understand the concerns in constructive ways. Can you find a forum that feels suitable, one that places a high value on participation and ownership in terms of substance and process?

At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, different viewpoints were heard. It was not a meeting for just those who agreed. Everyone affected by the decision had a place at the table. There was real value in the diversity of opinion being represented. When opinions differ, emotions are strong and stakes are high, speaking well and listening carefully is a hard task. I wish I had a video of the Jerusalem meeting because my impression is that this was problematical meeting.

One especially crucial line is found in Acts 15:12: "The whole assembly kept silence and listened." My guess is that the silence was preceded by the assembly being loud, even confused, with comments flying past responses and counter responses.

What is striking is how the major discussion ended, striking both for what it says and doesn't say. They reach a conclusion, one that allows for the development and expansion of Christianity. However, it is framed as a compromise decision. They decide to affirm the new things God is doing among the Gentiles, changing their beliefs to match the new move of God. They also recognized vital parts from their Jewish faith to which they would continue to adhere.

Did everyone agree? Did they all stay together for the sake of harmony? We aren't told, but I can hardly imagine it. We are told that several leaders are chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas to report the decision to the areas where there were growing numbers of Gentile converts. But we are not told who left in disagreement.

Engaging in a good process does not mean full agreement and accord. I think some folks did part ways. The overarching characteristic of dealing with conflict that emerges from this story is their willingness to listen to one another. Beneath there careful, genuine listening is the intriguing question: How does God speak to us?

So often we assume we know what people think before they speak. We already attach motives to them. But can we at least try and pull back on the judgment accelerator, which feeds the vicious cycle of misunderstanding and a mutually reinforcing sense of powerlessness? If we can try to come up with a process where we listen to each other, we will see that God speaks to us through others, even those with whom we have strong disagreements.

We truly can only test our real ability to listen when it is most difficult. Surely our capacity to listen to God is only as great as our capacity to listen to each other when we are in conflict.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Religion