Dr. Rebecca Blair, Stated Clerk
“Presbyterians behaving badly.” That’s the phrase a colleague used that engaged our attention. This conversation of Presbyterian mid-council (i.e., Presbytery) leaders on Facebook last week concerned the ways in which intense, complex conversations marking various flavors of human conflicts among folks in our churches, conversations persistently claiming our attention, seem to have mushroomed over the past few months. As we virtually considered one another’s frustrations, confusions, sadness and pain, it struck me that this conversation, this virtual conversation in which we could not see the pained cast of each other’s eyes nor hear the uncertain, yet frustrated vocal intonations, felt different—warm, nurturing, and so deeply present.
Why did this conversation feel so different, so meaningful? Reflecting further, I realized the difference was centered in holding space. As we virtually gifted one another with deep presence and careful listening, we were holding space for each other. And as we sought to be present with those in the throes of human conflicts in our presbyteries, to listen for the messy humanity under the surface, we were also trying to figure out together how to hold space for others in these tightly knotted places. We were trying to figure out how to acknowledge in meaningful ways the worth of humans that we love and care about.
What does it mean to “hold space” for someone else? Heather Plett explains that “holding space” means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome, all the elements that contribute to the kinds of churchy conflicts we encounter. When we hold space for other people, she observes, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. To put it in Mr. Rogers terms, we communicate that we “like” or accept others as fellow human beings just the way they are.
In our roles as friends, teachers, ministers, coaches, or colleagues, we often encounter the need to hold space for someone else. But it’s certainly not easy to do. How much simpler to just ignore circumstances, to judge or assign blame, to give advice, to issue directives, to take control, to just fix people and be done with it. Yet, what might happen if we gifted other people with our trust and support? What might happen if we stopped taking away their personal power (agency), blaming and shaming them, or overwhelming them with unneeded advice?
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. As Plett notes, it’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged. All of us should have people in our lives, people in the Presbytery’s covenant community, that we trust to hold space for us. After all, that’s part of what the covenant is all about.
We are still accountable to each other for our actions in covenant community. And holding space for others is one way in which we express that accountability. In those knotty places in which people experience grief, the daunting need to change, the uncertain prompt to grow, how are we prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices? How can we offer them unconditional love and support? How can we supply gentle guidance when it’s needed? How can we assure them that they are safe even when they make mistakes for which they hold accountability? How can we love them even when they’re most unlovable?