The sign on the table said “Ministry to Women.” It was one of many tables from which people attending the networking breakfast could choose. Seats were first-come, first-served, so those who didn’t arrive early took the risk of having to sit at a table that was less than an ideal fit for them. And that’s what happened at the Ministry to Women table. Just as the program was beginning, a man slipped into the room, looked around urgently, then slipped into one of the chairs at the table with us.
As the facilitator, I wanted to be sure he felt as welcome as everyone else, but I was concerned about his comfort level…and the comfort levels of the women at the table. Everyone one seemed fine, and as we began introducing ourselves and sharing why we chose to sit at the Ministry to Women table, he confessed, “I really wanted to sit at the Elders table, but it was already full. But this table interests me, too. I thought that it said Ministry of Women, not Ministry to Women, and I’m curious to find out what you think about women in various ministry positions and roles.”
I was faced with a choice: (1) Stick to the plan of covering topics under the umbrella of Ministry to Women, which would meet the needs of the majority at the table. (2) Explore the Ministry of Women topic, which would meet the curiosity of one person. Majority rules, right?
I knew if I tried to control the conversation, push an agenda, or meet everyone’s needs, I’d fail as a facilitator. So I took a deep breath, set aside all my preparations and expectations, and guided the next forty-five minutes’ discussion by asking thought-provoking questions, acknowledging and affirming each person, and most important, trusting God to guide.
And we had a great conversation. As unexpected as it was and as controversial as it could have been, our discussion was filled with respect, inquisitiveness, and investment. Everyone had something to say and took his or her focus off personal experiences and onto ways to invite conversations and investment in the process, including ideas for moving forward in personal circles and ministries.
We can often get a little off-balanced when things don’t go the way we expect them to go, and that unbalance can make us just edgy enough to get defensive or take control. We can begin to push our own agendas, try to prove others wrong…and forget that settling the controversy isn’t about the topic itself as much as it’s about the relationships we’re establishing along the way. When we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting to respond in order to prove our points or tear someone else’s apart, we miss the process. We miss the opportunity to meet others where we share common ground instead of stopping short because we’ve built a stubborn wall we’re unwilling to cross. Then we call it “establishing healthy boundaries” and rationalize why we can’t move. Supporting a person through listening doesn’t assume you support the idea or viewpoint. But it shows respect.
We miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn from others and about ourselves when we choose to sacrifice the process because it isn’t what we expect or isn’t comfortable. When God brings people into our lives so that what we discuss will sharpen everyone involved, we need to be willing to be involved in the process. We need to trust him to work instead of withdrawing or getting uptight about taking control of the situation. God knows what he’s doing.
The table discussion wasn’t what I expected, yet we weren’t read to end our discussion at the end of the networking breakfast. We exchanged contact information and enjoyed seeing each other throughout the conference in the following days. We didn’t get stuck in the differences; we moved forward in the possibilities. We encouraged each other and invited each person to share, question, and advice. We walked away feeling respected and appreciative that God gave us a tangible reminder of the value of the friendships he brings into our lives every day.
Look around you today. Even when you have a common purpose with someone, you might find you’re very different. Invite the opportunity to explore the differences while you’re standing on the common ground of respect.
To those who are without the law I became like a person who is without the law. I did this to win those people who are without the law. (But really, I am not without God’s law—I am ruled by Christ’s law.) To those who are weak, I became weak so I could win the weak. I have become all things to all people so I could save some of them in any way possible. I do all this because of the Good News and so I can share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:21-23)