Healthy diversity

July 20, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 15
Melissa Miller | Columnist

“What does a healthy congregation look like?” I asked a pastor friend recently. He responded by telling a story of how he had led his congregation through a contentious issue. In the process, people spoke openly of their views, listened carefully, and, in the end, came to a satisfactory understanding about how to live with their differences. “A healthy congregation,” he concluded, “is able to take part in honest, respectful discussions and live with the tension of a variety of views.”

The point of the story wasn’t his leadership, although it was a significant factor, to which I’ll return. The point was that a congregation’s health is related to its capacity to manage differences. The same holds for other groups, like families. People in a healthy group acknowledge the varied perspectives of its members. They provide avenues for open discussion. They believe there is value and worth in each person’s perspective, and actively open themselves to hearing all voices. They tolerate —and sometimes enjoy!—the tension of living with differences. They live into ways of being that make space for the expression of divergent points of views.

We can see the value in variety outside human groups. In creation, for example, a healthy environment is one in which diversity thrives. A single species environment—one kind of tomato plant, one kind of tree, one breed of dog—is vulnerable to disease and decline. One illness or predator can wipe out an entire species. Variations in tomato plants, trees and dogs increase the chances that some forms will be able to withstand threats and survive into the future.

Environment Canada’s website says, “Canada is home to over 100,000 plant and animal species spread throughout a variety of climates and ecosystems. [This] variety . . . contributes to maintaining the integrity of our environment.” What an affirmation of the Creator’s intention that diversity be a primary feature in environmental health. Awesome!

In spiritual terms, we can look to Christian understandings of the Trinity. God has revealed God’s self to us in three distinct and interrelated forms. God as Creator, Jesus and Spirit demonstrates oneness, respect and delight in diversity, a model that we are called to partake of and imitate.

As I noted before, my pastor colleague was not highlighting his leadership as the church wrestled with a difficult topic. However, leaders do have a key role. Our churches and families are composed of increasingly diverse memberships. To be healthy, we need the capacity to name our myriad views, understand and respect each other’s perspective, and allow the Spirit to reveal God’s activity to us in the midst of such variety.

Churches and families are entities in which differences emerge regularly. It is easy to find examples of how variety has created tension, conflict and enrichment in our settings. Consider events like worship and fellowship, mealtimes and life transitions. How are a variety of songs—or even the multiple voices of Scripture, for that matter—included in worship? How do the potluck dishes enrich us? What happens when the politically left, right and centre gather around the dinner table? How do we unite as a family to raise the young, seal covenants and bury the dead, fluidly navigating the various ways these tasks are conducted?

Leaders—pastors, congregational chairs, Sunday school teachers, parents, elders—bear a weighty honour. Our “relational muscles” are strengthened as we nurture generous space where each person can freely offer his or her perspective, so that the body may benefit from these God-given variations and live into the mutuality of the Trinity. May we each do our part to create and tend this space. Our health depends on it.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mymts.net) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.

See Melissa’s other columns in the Healthy Families series:
Healthy families adapt 
Healthy leadership 

Healthy citizens

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