In the most recent Cultural Contexts of Ministry class on campus, Dr. Kwasi Kena used a tool to guide the class in its discussions with one another over sensitive topics: RESPECT. They say you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite conversation.  Yet religion is our business. And when it comes to questions of culture, politics is never far at hand.

So every day the class signed a covenant, to follow both in class discussions as a whole and when no one was looking in small group discussion: RESPECT.  Here are what those letters stand for:

R: take Responsibility for what you say, and feel without blaming others.
It should be one of the basic skills you not only have as a pastor, but as a person in general. Don’t make excuses for why you said what you said or did what you did. Own it. “I goofed,” and leave it at that.

One way to protect yourself and others is to express a sentiment as how you experienced it rather than in an accusatory way: “It felt like you were attacking me when you said that.” You can’t argue about how someone feels. The opposite, when you accuse–“You said I was a liar”–only leads to an escalation of conflict.

E: use Empathetic listening.
Basically, act like you’re really interested. Don’t be off somewhere else dreaming or counting until you can get your next punch in.  Wait your turn and listen to what the other person is actually saying.

S: be Sensitive to differences in communication styles
We have a tendency to think our personality and way of doing things is the best. One person is very expressive, another very quiet. One person has a southern accent, another mismatches singulars and plurals. These styles are not a reflection of intelligence. They are cultural. There is a difference between form and substance, and we need to be able to discern the substance of what someone is saying from the surface form in which it comes. Otherwise we end up looking superficial.

P: Ponder what you hear and see before you speak.
James 3 tells us about what great damage the tongue can cause. How many marriages could be saved if husbands and wives developed the ability to hold their tongues? Instead, we have a tendency to let fly, especially when we think we are in the right or are standing up for the right. But Jesus bids us be loving with our tongues, even when we think we are in the right. We do not get the right to be hateful even though we think we are correct.

E: Examine your own assumptions and perceptions.
It doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that we must all be incorrect on many things. There are too many things about which we all disagree for us to be right about all of them, maybe even most of them. If we are really interested in truth–what God thinks–then we must be willing to re-examine our own assumptions and perceptions. The person who is “always right” is probably mostly wrong.

C: keep Confidentiality.
Many of us like to talk, and many of us love a good story. But it is the height of betrayal to share sensitive things someone has shared with you. One of the most effective ways to shut down communication between two people is to share with others things that have been said in confidence.

T: Trust ambiguity because our goal is not to prove who is right and who is wrong.
There is right and wrong, and God knows exactly what it is. Those of us who are Christians also share significant common ground on what is right and wrong. But you cannot force someone else to change his or her mind. As Dale Carnegie used to say, Those convinced against their will are of the same mind still.

Seminary classes are not about indoctrination. Professors should not grade students on the basis of whether they agree with them or not. Education is a journey, and the classroom is a place of transition. The journey may lead you right back to the place from which you started, but you will get there wiser for the trip through ambiguity.

The classroom is certainly not the place for students or professors to get into some immature game of one-up-manship.

Someone who doesn’t know any ministers might think that pastors of all people do not need to hear any of these principles. But we know better. Some of the personalities most attracted to the ministry fall easily into some of the traps above. As we walk through this seminary journey together–professors, students, administrators, and staff–let us continually reaffirm these “common Jesus sense” principles. They are not common sense to the world, but may they be for any of us whose goal is to become more like Christ.

Here is a link for more information on RESPECT:

  • Safiyah Fosua

    Dr. Schenck, Thank you! Many Christians have yet to learn how to disagree without being disrespectful or disagreeable. We acknowledge this to our shame.

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