Navigating the Difficult Conversations

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“Some problems exist just because people are trying to avoid difficult conversations.” This lesson from my first class at Fuller illuminates a challenge seminaries face amidst the rapid changes of the 21st century. There are difficult conversations waiting to start, but we must challenge the assumption that conflict will always lead to hostility. In fact, the presumption of unity often represses the conflicts needed to achieve unity, and trying to bypass conflict can lead to the hostility that we hope to avoid. A question we might then ask is: How do we address the widening divides within Christianity without being drawn into a cycle of increasingly hostile sectarianism?

Christian traditions are moving into different memories of the past, different experiences in the present, and different visions for the future. Calls for consensus or compromise struggle to keep pace with the normalization of openly hostile dialogue. In the past, Fuller Seminary’s broad evangelical approach provided flexibility for an interdenominational discourse that was constructive instead of destructive. The flexibility of this identifier, however, is being challenged by a popular application of the term “evangelicalism” which refers only to a more rigid, monolithic, sociopolitical movement. How is Fuller to maintain its evangelical theological traditions and the flexibility that the term “evangelical” has provided in the past despite changing external perceptions of the term?

As a seminary with robust programs in psychology and marriage and family therapy, Fuller has interdisciplinary resources at its disposal to help navigate these difficult conversations. When doctrine and ideology no longer serve as common ground, attempts to find an organizing principle centered on shared conclusions is an elusive starting point. But this isn’t the only option we have. Therapists and psychologists manage to forge productive relationships with their clients regardless of whatever ideological gulf lies between them. This does not happen by accident but through training in a code of ethics that has much to offer the world of ministry.

For marriage and family therapists, the professional code of ethics stems from five virtues that protect therapeutic relationships from inappropriate behavior. The virtues are autonomy, fidelity, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence. These virtues apply just as well in theological settings as they do in psychological ones. With autonomy, we can tolerate the full diversity of Christian traditions new and old; with fidelity, we can work to establish trust between people holding differing opinions; with justice, we can identify and correct power imbalances; through beneficence, we can look out for the best interests of the other; and through nonmaleficence, we can guard against the temptations of disrespect, suspicion, and condescension endemic in public conversations about faith.

Holding these virtues does not mean that people will arrive at the same conclusions. Instead, they provide a process-oriented premise about how to be in relationship. When people can trust that they are not being coerced or manipulated, it opens the door to honesty and vulnerability. Then we can pursue truth together—not out of a desire to win an argument but out of a conviction that we all require continual transformation from arrogance toward humility, from retribution toward mercy, from repression toward empowerment, and from despair toward hope.

However, organizing around a process-oriented premise rather than an ideological common ground means that participation in the conversation cannot be closed off due to pre-existing disagreements. The boundaries of dialogue cannot be guarded by credal formulations or statements of faith. While this approach to theology has value, its value does not lie in its ability to navigate conflict. A different kind of unity requires a different kind of strategy. If the boundaries of dialogue were guarded instead by autonomy, fidelity, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence, how might the difficult conversations turn out differently? Who would be excluded from the conversation, and who would be included?

The future has rarely looked more uncertain, but I believe the seminary of the future is positioning itself today by how it engages in dialogue. There will always be a market in the culture wars for Christian institutions that fuel the fires of hostility. However, over the past year, I served on Fuller’s student council and built relationships with students, faculty, administrators, chaplains, and alumni, and I came away from this experience with the conviction that people in this community hold little interest in fueling these fires. For those whose faith is founded on sincere love for the other, there will always be a need for a seminary that is willing to forge a path away from the cyclical escalation of codependent extremes. Fuller’s interdisciplinary resources offer hope in facing these difficult conversations, but it may mean engaging in a new way.

thomas lazo

Thomas Lazo is a student in Fuller’s MS in Marriage and Family Therapy program. He received his BA in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific College and is a trainee therapist at Sync Counseling Center in Sierra Madre, California. He served on the Fuller Student Council as a representative of the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy in the 2020–21 academic year.

“Some problems exist just because people are trying to avoid difficult conversations.” This lesson from my first class at Fuller illuminates a challenge seminaries face amidst the rapid changes of the 21st century. There are difficult conversations waiting to start, but we must challenge the assumption that conflict will always lead to hostility. In fact, the presumption of unity often represses the conflicts needed to achieve unity, and trying to bypass conflict can lead to the hostility that we hope to avoid. A question we might then ask is: How do we address the widening divides within Christianity without being drawn into a cycle of increasingly hostile sectarianism?

Christian traditions are moving into different memories of the past, different experiences in the present, and different visions for the future. Calls for consensus or compromise struggle to keep pace with the normalization of openly hostile dialogue. In the past, Fuller Seminary’s broad evangelical approach provided flexibility for an interdenominational discourse that was constructive instead of destructive. The flexibility of this identifier, however, is being challenged by a popular application of the term “evangelicalism” which refers only to a more rigid, monolithic, sociopolitical movement. How is Fuller to maintain its evangelical theological traditions and the flexibility that the term “evangelical” has provided in the past despite changing external perceptions of the term?

As a seminary with robust programs in psychology and marriage and family therapy, Fuller has interdisciplinary resources at its disposal to help navigate these difficult conversations. When doctrine and ideology no longer serve as common ground, attempts to find an organizing principle centered on shared conclusions is an elusive starting point. But this isn’t the only option we have. Therapists and psychologists manage to forge productive relationships with their clients regardless of whatever ideological gulf lies between them. This does not happen by accident but through training in a code of ethics that has much to offer the world of ministry.

For marriage and family therapists, the professional code of ethics stems from five virtues that protect therapeutic relationships from inappropriate behavior. The virtues are autonomy, fidelity, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence. These virtues apply just as well in theological settings as they do in psychological ones. With autonomy, we can tolerate the full diversity of Christian traditions new and old; with fidelity, we can work to establish trust between people holding differing opinions; with justice, we can identify and correct power imbalances; through beneficence, we can look out for the best interests of the other; and through nonmaleficence, we can guard against the temptations of disrespect, suspicion, and condescension endemic in public conversations about faith.

Holding these virtues does not mean that people will arrive at the same conclusions. Instead, they provide a process-oriented premise about how to be in relationship. When people can trust that they are not being coerced or manipulated, it opens the door to honesty and vulnerability. Then we can pursue truth together—not out of a desire to win an argument but out of a conviction that we all require continual transformation from arrogance toward humility, from retribution toward mercy, from repression toward empowerment, and from despair toward hope.

However, organizing around a process-oriented premise rather than an ideological common ground means that participation in the conversation cannot be closed off due to pre-existing disagreements. The boundaries of dialogue cannot be guarded by credal formulations or statements of faith. While this approach to theology has value, its value does not lie in its ability to navigate conflict. A different kind of unity requires a different kind of strategy. If the boundaries of dialogue were guarded instead by autonomy, fidelity, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence, how might the difficult conversations turn out differently? Who would be excluded from the conversation, and who would be included?

The future has rarely looked more uncertain, but I believe the seminary of the future is positioning itself today by how it engages in dialogue. There will always be a market in the culture wars for Christian institutions that fuel the fires of hostility. However, over the past year, I served on Fuller’s student council and built relationships with students, faculty, administrators, chaplains, and alumni, and I came away from this experience with the conviction that people in this community hold little interest in fueling these fires. For those whose faith is founded on sincere love for the other, there will always be a need for a seminary that is willing to forge a path away from the cyclical escalation of codependent extremes. Fuller’s interdisciplinary resources offer hope in facing these difficult conversations, but it may mean engaging in a new way.

Written By

Thomas Lazo is a student in Fuller’s MS in Marriage and Family Therapy program. He received his BA in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific College and is a trainee therapist at Sync Counseling Center in Sierra Madre, California. He served on the Fuller Student Council as a representative of the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy in the 2020–21 academic year.

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