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Keeping a divided congregation together

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
October 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a series of profiles of Public Insight Network sources who are finding ways to navigate political divisions ahead of Election Day.

Bonnie Wilcox, senior pastor of a Lutheran church in St. Paul, Minn., is trying to keep her congregation united in this election season. (Photo shared by Bonnie Wilcox)

Bonnie Wilcox, senior pastor of a Lutheran church in St. Paul, Minn., is trying to keep her congregation united in this election season. (Photo shared by Bonnie Wilcox)

This is Rev. Bonnie Wilcox, and she has a tough job. Besides the regular duties of a senior pastor — leading a congregation, managing the administrative affairs of the church, and counseling, teaching, and preaching to her congregants — she has the added struggle of keeping everyone focused on the mission of the church, even in the midst of a polarizing election season.

At more politically homogenous churches, that might not be a big deal. But Wilcox estimates her congregation, at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., is split 60/40 between Democrats and Republicans. That lines up with national polls showing white mainline protestants closely divided in the presidential race (though breaking strongly for Mitt Romney only in recent days).

Wilcox looks at it this way — her church’s unity is not in its political affiliation, or even how individual members differ in the way they want to live their lives. “Through personal relationships and open forums about controversial topics, we work at being united in Christ, holding on to our differing personal political opinions,” she says.

Many people who have to keep politics out of the workplace can vent among friends on social media. But for Wilcox, Twitter and Facebook are extensions of her ministry. “I use social media to share news of our congregation and to post items of interest in the world beyond our front door,” she says. “Posting on behalf of a candidate or political party, one way or the other, blocks my ability to be ‘pastor’ to some who will read my post and fear talking to me about other issues.”

But that doesn’t mean Wilcox doesn’t take a stand on any issues. “As the Roman Catholic Church has decided, I do believe that I have some responsibility to state a position on moral issues that may affect voting on items such as amendments to the (state) constitution,” she says. “These conversations, however, are most effective when face-to-face.” (Minnesota has two high-profile amendment issues on this year’s ballot: one about voter ID and the other about gay marriage. Watch how other Public Insight Network sources are choosing sides on the Minnesota marriage amendment.)

To illustrate what she IS comfortable posting in social media, she offers this example from another pastor’s Facebook page ahead of a recent debate: “My prayer is that both candidates are able to present the best version of their vision for the future of our country tonight, rather than watching for who makes the bigger mistake. I also pray for the families of the candidates, who have to listen to all the horrible things said about their loved one.”

>> If you have a story about finding the silver lining in all of the election noise, tell us here.

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