It has been 12 years since I was introduced to the ideas and philosophies contained in the Arbinger Institute’s books “Anatomy of Peace” and “Leadership and Self-Deception.” In that 12 years I have come to understand the core value of those books is that in our most intense moments of human relationship, or lack of relationship, it is always our work as human beings to manage ourselves, first.
Obviously, I am not talking about folks who are manipulated, abused and systematically marginalized by those who have the most power in every pocket of society. I am talking most assuredly about the very process we are in as United Methodists who are locked in on this called General Conference in February 2019. An enormously helpful value of the book “Anatomy of Peace” is the idea that we first would all see each other as people.
The principle of seeing one another as people first invites us to be proactive by sitting with one another, doing work on our own hearts to find the place of peace within ourselves (what is that image, what is that experience that helps you find joy and a sense in which your blood pressure lessens and you physically feel different?) to look at one another as people first. What are this person’s goals, what are his or her concerns, and what are those elements of life in which we hold common concerns: children, grandchildren, the welfare of the community and the families that live there?
This methodology to manage ourselves first allows us to enter a space to hear, feel and see the world differently than if we are only seeing others as vehicles, obstacles or irrelevancies to our own wants, needs and desires for our life. So, how do we disrupt our hearts to manage ourselves first?
Like many of you, I followed Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.’s town hall meetings this late summer and fall. It was my honor to attend four of them myself as conference staff and as a member of the delegation that will attend the General Conference in St. Louis in February 2019. I am not a General Conference delegate, but I am a Jurisdictional Conference delegate. This means that I do not automatically vote at the General Conference, but if one of the delegates who does vote needs a break they can ask me or one of several others to fill in for them to vote on their behalf.
It was our covenant as a delegation to have at least one or two representatives in attendance of every town hall. I also wanted to hear the conversation. I believe hearing as many voices as possible in a time like this is important. Bishop Saenz’s town halls provided opportunities for open microphone question-and-answer sessions, which courageously invited people to voice their questions from exactly where they were.
This open format for questions about the three plans being considered for the called General Conference created space for every person who attended a session the freedom to ask a question. Such freedom to ask questions openly is a reminder of the value of every person as a child of God and person of eternal worth. Such is not the case everywhere in the connection. We have heard from around the greater United Methodist connection that formats on these meetings varied, and very few of them allowed unfiltered question-and-answer sessions in such an emotionally complex moment for the denomination. Seeing one another despite what is at stake and despite such anxiety as an annual conference is a positive step that says, “You are worthy and just as God sees each of us so in this important moment are you seen as well.” A broad-based process such as the town hall meetings surely helped build trust.
Building trust is key in the book “Anatomy of Peace.” The book intends for the reader to consider the ways in which trust might be built through the building of relationships between key stakeholders and others. A key way in which this was done through the town hall meetings was presenting information on the three plans in as many regional spots as possible, allowing as many key stakeholders as possible to make it to at least one meeting.
Building the relationships with one another and with those in our communities is a key component not only to this book but also for any of us who provide leadership in the church and in the greater civic community where we practice discipleship. For years now, I have had our Great Plains church planters who are newly planted on the ground in their community read the book, “Anatomy of Peace.” Since church planters are largely placed on the ground in a community with a high level of pressure to meet as many people as possible to share the God-given vision for their new church community, it is imperative that they intentionally work to see every person they meet as a human being first. The danger for many planters as they enter a new community is that they see people as either vehicles to their end, which is a vital new church plant full of many families. Or, they can even see the many people they share their vision with and even build relationships with who do not agree or stick with them to be obstacles, inconveniences and irrelevancies. In either situation, people are seen as objects rather than a unique child of God who has goals, hopes, dreams and fears like any other person.
Using the book has been transformative for the planters and ministry re-starters who have read it in the Great Plains Core Crucible. When working with others in high-pressure situations there is no greater gift to another than to see them and to hear them, deeply. Seeing one another as people provides trust, and it prevents objectifying one another.
How do you prevent yourself from objectifying, or even, as the book would name for us, “horribilizing,” one another when we don’t agree? We do this by finding that memory or that experience that changes our heart and changes the way we are being in that moment. We play mad-chemist with ourselves and change the whole way we feel in that moment. If we can find this place we are able to find a different way of being with others that we may or may not agree with. By doing this we avoid objectifying others as we seek to understand and as we seek to know the other more deeply according to their hopes, dreams and fears. It creates warmth from us when a lower way of being would create the opposite, hostility and horribilizing others.
This process helps us avoid creating greater distance between ourselves and others, and it also builds bridges, strengthens bonds and creates the possibility of new relationships and friendships despite the many possible obstacles. Preventing ourselves from allowing these obstacles to take root in our relationships by objectifying others is a way of disrupting the world in which we live. Our relationships can and should be disrupted with the possibility of others knowing they are children of God, first and foremost.
The United Methodist Church has always provided space for many to be acknowledged as fully welcome in the prevenient grace of God, the justifying life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the sanctifying grace, peace and love of the Holy Spirit that emboldens us to live and grow as disciples. I believe in that DNA or the plumb line of our beloved denomination is the very energy and spirit that will keep us engaging the world with the gospel of Christ. It is also the way in which we continue to see every person as a beloved child of God and person of eternal worth.
Our communities are full of people who need to be seen with this gift of God’s grace in Christ. So how do we continue to put ourselves — as individuals, churches and leaders — in a place where we can practice the heart of peace, which “The Anatomy of Peace” challenges us to practice? That is the disruption we’re all called to practice.
I hope you find the season of Advent challenging and beautiful as you see your church, your community and your world with new eyes and a new heart. Be God’s disruptive presence wherever you go and see people as people.
The Rev. Nathan Stanton is director of Congregational Excellence for the Great Plains Conference. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.