Sacred listening

“Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.”

– David Augsburger, Mennonite teacher and author

Throughout the next year Central District Conference is conducting Sacred Listening conversations across the conference.  The goal, as I understand it, is for conference leadership to get a sense of where the Spirit has been and is moving among us and how the conference can best serve congregations in light of the effects of Covid.  And to share some of these stories across congregations for us to better know one another. 

This past Sunday was our turn.  Three folks representing Central District Conference worshiped with us and led a Sacred Listening conversation over lunch in the fellowship hall where 17 of us represented CMC.  It felt kind of like a one-sided dinner date in which one partner asks all the questions and the other partner talks about themselves the whole time, but that’s how it was designed.  As the David Augsburger quote above suggests, being listened to is akin to being loved, and it was a gift for us to be invited to tell stories about ourselves – where the life has been, what folks appreciate about the congregation, hopes and challenges for the future.

It’s difficult to summarize 75 minutes of stories into a short blog entry and fortunately I don’t have to. Next week we will be receiving a summary from CDC that we can circulate.  It will be good to see what the listeners heard.

I’ll make two summary observations here.

The first is a suggestion that the spirit of Columbus Mennonite Church, back through its era as Neil Avenue Mennonite Church, is best summarized in the words of a stuffed-monkey-loving disabled woman named Anita Chapman who blessed this congregation with her presence for several decades.  She once wrote a simple poem, put to song by a former CMC member.  We sang it spontaneously during the listening session after telling some of her story:

“Love is a beautiful thing.  Let’s spread it all over.  Love is catching on.  Let’s pass it on, pass it on, pass it on.”

The other stories that were told – about being welcomed into the congregation, about there being space for doubts and questions, about elevating marginalized voices, about partnering with others to do justice – all fall under this theme of the gospel according to Anita. 

The second observation – about which we barely had time to scratch the surface – is difficult to name.  It relates to the effects Covid has had on doing and being church, coming more to the surface now that other aspects of life feel like they have returned to pre-Covid patterns.  One person commented how central Sunday worship is to their life, surrounded by their people in the sanctuary.  Another noted that broken habits in her own life around church mean more intentionality is needed.  Another named a shrunken volunteer least with increased duties such as attending to technological ways of connecting.  Another flat out said something to the effect: “I just want it to be like it was before” regarding a full house of all ages on Sundays. 

It’s perhaps something in between hopefulness and grief, disorientation and watchfulness.

We’re certainly not alone in this as I’m sure these CDC listening sessions will reveal. 

It’s not easy to talk about but it felt like an important thing that got named in the presence of our listeners and one another. 

It’s a good time to keep listening to each other with open hearts and curiosity about how all this is shaking out and what new and familiar shapes church will take in the upcoming months and years.

Being listened to is almost indistinguishable from being loved.  And love is and always will be a beautiful thing.