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Friday, February 06, 2009

First Friday: A question of discernment

As promised, this is the first edition of the "First Friday" feature at "Telling Secrets". I've posted the description of the project along with the identities of the "First Friday Response Team" here.

Got a question of your own that you would like me to put before this esteemed panel of "First Friday Responders"? Send it into me. Just go to my profile and click on the 'email'. I'll choose one or two and send it on.

Please send your questions no later than February 26. The "First Friday Responders" will get their answer to me by March 5 and I will post them here on Friday, March 6.

After you finish reading the question and response, it will be your turn. How would you have answered "Matthew"? Did anyone of the "First Friday Response Team" say anything with which you care to agree or disagree?

If you do not have a google account, it's easy enough to set one up so you can comment. If you don't, email me privately and I'll make sure it gets posted in the comment section for you.

Don 't have my email? Simply click on my profile and look under my picture for the word "Contact'. Click on the word and it will send you directly to my email.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

Here's the question asked by "Matthew"

During the search for a rector, some members of the search committee asked more probing, difficult and biting questions of some candidates than others. Their questioning was particularly harsh on the gay candidates but not the others. I suppose in a perfect world we would have all agreed on the same questions in advance, but that is water under the bridge. When confronted these search committee members don't recall being harder in their questioning on some candidates vs. others. I believe discrimination is at least in part subconscious. So, how to shed light on it in this type of circumstance?

And, here are some of the responses:

From Abby

To Matthew:

With a smile and a shoulder-shrug: oh, the questions I've been asked! Please forgive me if I haven't answered your specific question as you might have wanted. Please know that I have thought about you for these last days.

Having the same questions for each candidate might be efficient and even politically correct but that approach would not be a real reflection of the overt or covert concerns of a search committee who are, hopefully, a cross-section of the parish. Debriefing is always helpful in bringing all things to light - albeit, rarely immediately. Confronted, no matter how gently, we all go on the defensive. The proverbial seed has been, nonetheless, sown.

Next, let me say that I agree with you about the sub-conscious nature of discrimination with the absence of the phrase "at least in part". No matter how committed any of us are, there are early "learnings" at work even in our souls, the sources of which we do not remember or, perhaps, don't want to acknowledge. My life experience tells me that we re-think and convert those "learnings" best through growing to love and appreciate a "neighbor", i.e. up-front and personal.

That leads me to say that there is another way to think about what you experienced. Off and on, for over 30 years, I was asked those "difficult" questions, either as a candidate for ordination or in a search process. In the former, I was just a bit (understatement) resentful. In the latter, they became a gift. There is no greater brick wall for a pastor trying to preach and live something like God's love for all people than the dry-teeth smile from the person who says all the right things and means none of them. Ah, but to know, really know, the anxieties of your potential congregation - that's a lot of bricks that can be stepping stones. It must be said that those same anxieties might be a challenge, from that candidate's perspective, beyond the abilities of "all the king's horses and all the king's men".

For me? Those questions were all stepping stones: female vs. male cleric, black/brown/beige/taupe/ecru/pink/shades of color in between, gay/straight/etc., single/married/in a commited relationship/divorced/widowed, children/no children, rich/poor/most in the middle somewhere..... The best co-workers were those who let their fears, confusion, questions, hopes, be visible.

I hope your search committee chose a person who sees stepping stones and not brick walls.

Abby (really.. that really is my name..well, Abigail to be precise)

This one is from Diana:

Dear Matthew:

I like bumper sticker philosophies because they help me remember ways in when I can’t find a way out.

For example:

• Don’t get furious, get curious
• Resistance before content
• Judge not that ye be not judged was my grandmother’s favorite
• I became all things to all people so that I might save many. (St. Paul, of course, forgetting for a moment that God does the saving.)

I think you’re right that discrimination is in part unconscious. It is also cultural and we all get caught up in it somehow. Confrontation is also cultural. In a perfect world, as you say, we would anticipate problems or all the tricks would work. But, of course, the world isn’t perfect and we’re impatient.

When circumstances such as the one you describe occur, my first reaction is to look over my shoulder and wonder why “they” haven’t caught up and caught on. It’s natural to want to confront. Then I have to stop and think: How do I meet them in a place where we can move forward together? I have to remember that I’m also called to be changed by this process of learning how to become part of the beloved community.

Wondering and observing are two ways of moving from looking over my shoulder to standing shoulder to shoulder with my neighbor. What would happen if you had a post mortem and created an environment in which search committee members could wonder and observe? Here are several ideas that come to mind, but I also wonder what approach would be too threatening; what would invite conversation:

• Is there a way to invite everyone to step back and be a “fly on the wall.” What did you observe?
• Wonder how the candidates perceived them.
• Wonder what went well.
• Observe what were the high points and the low points.
• Got curious about you all felt at different times during the interviewing process; comfortable or uncomfortable; alive or withdrawn.
• Wondered how the baptismal vows affected the process.
• Imagined what might have happened “if.”
• Wonder where God seemed most present.

Then there’s always the strategy of moving forward with the new rector in creating programming that invites new ways of seeing and thinking and wondering.

I wonder what you’ll do!

Grace and Peace,

Here's what Maggie had to say:

Over time I have learned many things. First and foremost we are all prejudiced. Much of our own prejudice remains in our subconscious throughout our lives. I agree with you discrimination can be subconscious. It behooves each of us to do an honest self-evaluation (usually helps to have another person help guide this process), so that we are as aware as possible of our own prejudices but at the same time we must always be watchful because our own subconscious stuff will rise up and bite us when we least expect it. Only when we can see that coming are we truly free to begin to evaluate another person and his or her prejudice.

Another learning is that we also subconsciously project our stuff onto others more often that I would like to admit. Consequently we always risk misinterpreting a situation completely and reacting inappropriately.

All that being said, Matthew's description sounds like a situation for foresight rather than hindsight. For the search committee people who couldn't hear or didn't agree with your perspective, you might consider a parish workshop for anti-discrimination training.

For the search candidates that were interviewed, there might be debriefing meetings to acknowledge the feelings raised but also the learning. A question I would have is- if you were a gay candidate, who felt that you were being discriminated against by SOME committee members, how would you respond to those individuals and to the committee as a whole? What discernment about your call might you develop through the experience?
Finally, for Matthew himself how might he work with his diocese or judicatory body to develop training programs for search committees, so that their interviews might be more effective?

For what has already happened I suspect prayer and pastoral care are your best recourses.

Maggie Gat

Fran wrote:

Dear Matthew,

Who was there to observe the harshness and why would the members accused of same deny doing so?

Who made the accusation and were the questioners confronted with what seemed like harsh probing while the questioning was going on?

Have these harsher questioners been indoctrinated without knowing it by Biblical Passages which have been and are still being read in Churches and Bible Studies (and still spread in our culture) which seem to suggest gay people could infect others with an anti-social choice or status reducing position?

Is your community welcoming in general? Do you have gay parishioners? Are you better at lip service than hands and hearts service?

Do you have a big financial or volunteer anti-gay contributor these people fear losing if they accept or even propose a gay rector?

Were the gay candidates sent to the parish from an outside source or chosen as possiblilities by the committee interviewers themselves?

Perhaps this was reverse stereotyping: straight people are just "there", the gay candidates were so likeable that they had to be probed for hidden traits that might surface later (i.e. back unpaid taxes, animal allergies in a congregation of animal shelter owners who had animal fur on their clothes at evening meetings..).

Or perhaps they were afraid that the "Coming Out Party" for the parish would be more than they could handle and wanted to be sure the candidates were capable of helping them do so just as Bishop Gene Robinson has so far managed to do.

In any case, I suggest if at all possible a Lenten Bible study about sexual orientation and also a series of short homilies on current Biblical Scholarship tackling old attitudes.

I recommend : Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus HarperSanFrancisco 2005; Julie Galumbush The Reluctant Parting HarperSanFrancisco 2005; Phyllis Tickle The Great Emergence Baker Books, 2008.

You might also consider, if more interviews are to take place, putting a couple of video cameras at opposite angles in the room and having those present view and comment on them later.

Or just give thanks that God has given us those among us who have come far enough to be honest about themselves and who know how good it is to be kind, calm, patient and hopeful.


And, last but most certainly not least, the 'last word' on First Friday goes to Denise Haines:

Dear Matthew,

Actually, things are worse that you think.

Subconscious discrimination both positive and negative is rampant in all of us and in multiples—age, gender, weight, voice tone, hair style, reminders of Mom or Dad—you name it. An interview is always impacted by unconscious forces, few of which come into the awareness of anyone in the group.

Controlled experiments have shown this time and again. You may have surfaced one, but there were undoubtedly others of which you were not aware. So far, the only demonstrated method to control unconscious bias is via a structured interview where a grid is devised and all candidates are evaluated by the same check list.

In the search for a rector, a check list would help, but I doubt it would ever trump committee subjectivity. It is not hard to find a “reason” for a thumbs up or down. That leads me back to what I read as your assumption that a search committee should/could interview without bias. Science proves that unconscious bias always exists. But what about conscious bias?

Vestries are not equal opportunity employers in many, perhaps most cases. What search committees are called to do is find candidates who are good matches with their church profiles. Some congregations are more forward thinking than others. Some are excited by novelty. Others are desperate and willing to risk. Still other congregations want a repeat of the familiar even when the familiar has not been life-giving.

These are not immoral choices. Wise search committees openly discuss their biases/preferences and come to some consensus in advance of interviews. That being said, it sounds as though members of your search committee did not have a sufficient discussion of this kind in advance of interviews at least regarding sexual orientation.

However it is that the interview process went awry in your view, it might be useful for the search committee to engage in a process review where things that went well can be celebrated and things that did not go well can be explored. You will need a facilitator, someone who is not a member of the committee and who is astute at hearing “the music under the words.”

At that time you can voice your experience of the questioning and test it against others. If you are the only one who experienced questioning as harsh with some candidates and not others, then you may have misread what happened. Group wisdom is usually more accurate than individual wisdom.

If, however, you are in a church where homophobia is a taboo subject, you have little room to move at this point other than to decide if you want to continue as a member. You may find that some will extend the conversation with you in confidence. In any case, you will have opened the subject. And that is to the good.

The Rev. Canon Denise Haines

Well, then, there it is. See what I told you about the 'embarrassment of riches' in this Diocese? I'm so proud to call these folks my friends, I could just burst.

My sincere gratitude goes to them for taking time out of their very busy schedules to provide an answer to "Matthew."

Oh, and by the way, I am assured that, in the old Roman Catholic tradition, if you are faithful to nine First Fridays, you get a 'special indulgence' for those in Purgatory.

Hey, can't hurt, might help.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Wow! Thank you all for your incredible advice. I cannot tell you (well I am) how useful this has been. Thanks for offering this and thanks to Elizabeth for facilitating it. As to Fran's questions, here is a little more context. The parish has always identified as liberal and we've always had straight liberal rectors. However, it became clear during the search process that some members of the committee, while not wanting a conservative rector, also were uneasy about an openly gay rector. After the interviews were concluded and the committee reconvened to make a recommendation, a member of the search committee commented that he felt that they gay candidates were "interrogated" and were asked rapid fire questions and constantly interrupted while the straight ones were asked no questions and it was basically a "conversation." As predicted, we called a gay friendly, but not gay, rector. As irony would have it, this man has not lasted very long and has resigned only 18 months later. Therefore, there will be another opportunity to examine these issues in more depth.