lakeshore damamgeIf you spent the summer in the Traverse City area, then you remember the major storm/tornado that hit Glen Arbor with hurricane force winds in early August. One of my favorite walks is the hiking trail at Alligator Hill in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Due to fallen trees the National Park Service has closed the trail, but I just had to see for myself the damage the storm had left, so last week Jack, my border collie, and I traced one of our favorite walks through the Alligator Hill area. As a note of caution: unless you are (i) fairly athletic and (ii) very familiar with the area, the fallen trees are going to overwhelm any attempt to walk through the area.

My usual walk with Jack was to turn right on the trail, hike about a half mile, and then leave the trail to walk up a tree-covered hill coming out on a field. It was rather striking to see that 100+ mph winds had filled the hill with sunlight and the ground with scattered tree limbs. As the leader of our expedition, I chose the path Jack and I followed through the maze of fallen trees. I soon discovered that a 6’2″ man and a 40 pound border collie look at the world in very different ways. With longer legs, my preferred way of negotiating an obstacle was to climb over it. With shorter legs, Jack preferred the option of crawling under a fallen trunk. The added challenge of the maze became to find a path that could accommodate both my and Jack’s walking skills. We came to some obstacles that I could easily climb over, but which were too high for Jack to jump over. There were also times where Jack could crawl under an opening that I could not. Choosing a path that would get us both to the top of the hill became one of compromise. My most direct path was not going to work for Jack, and Jack’s preferred route was not going to work for me.

Having served as Clerk of Session at St. Andrews for 2 years, led and participated in discussions at Presbytery, and followed the deliberations of General Assembly, I’ve learned that Presbyterian governance is sometimes like that maze of trees on Alligator Hill. Presbyterians bring different worldviews to their church life. Too often one faction will see a solution it just “knows” is the best, and bolts in that direction without pausing to consider how that solution works for others. Outcomes can be produced in two ways: (i) the side with the votes can impose its preferences; or (ii) compromises can be found that work for both sides. I worry that the first has become the dominant way Presbyterians solve problems, with the undesired side-effect that the denomination shrinks as those who are left out of the process no longer feel a connection to the church’s mission. The search for compromise takes longer, and is harder, but is required to build a stronger and more unified body of Christ.

One of my favorite New Testament passages is Acts 15 – the council of Jerusalem. The early church faced a decision on the issues of circumcision and unclean food. James ultimately makes the compromise judgment of “no needful circumcision” and “no needless offense.” NT Wright comments on James’ judgment:

What impresses me, and what I long to see in the church of today and tomorrow, is the realism with which the question is addressed, rather than the brittle absolutism that so many might prefer. 

That can be the path for our church, but only if we demand that of our leaders, and commit to that path ourselves. Is that a path we’re willing to take?

John McMillan, Author