A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting experience. Some folks from Michigan had inquired about my speaking to a group of nonprofit capacity builders about working with faith-based groups, and the similarities and differences in that work between faith-based and secular clients. I agreed, and as I write this, they are considering the possibility. During the conversation, I noted that one of the key differences between the two kinds of organizations is in the way that faith-based groups check your references and suitability for working with them.
The conversation was barely done when I got a call from a nationally recognized very conservative Christian group who is planning to provide what sounds like superb management training to boards and staff leaders of a large number of crisis nurseries across the country. The person in charge of this effort, who I will call John, was extremely pleasant, and very complimentary of my books, which apparently he has used extensively in his nonprofit education and career. He wanted to know if I was interested in providing management training to the boards and perhaps later, to the staff, based on the writings in my books.
John was very professional and very direct, asking if I knew of the belief structure of the organization, and then what my views were on the key issue at hand: abortion. I told him that everyone I knew, on all sides of the issue, wanted less abortions, and so did I, but that we probably differed on the way of getting there. We talked about his beliefs and mine, his experience and mine around abortion for perhaps 20 minutes.
It was as pleasant and mature a discussion on this viscerally dividing issue as I can recall. But at the end, we agreed that my more liberal views on the issue might make it difficult for some if not all of the trainees to listen to my management advice. We parted friends.
When I got back from the U.K. on Thursday, there was a very nice letter from John, thanking me for my time, and providing me with some reading and videotapes showing what his organization was doing in the area of crisis care.
Two lessons for me here: First is that what John did was totally appropriate. The political/spiritual/ethical underpinnings of a consultant are important to the consultant's fit with the organization. He asked the right questions and in the right way. All nonprofits can learn from his actions, because you don't want to hire people of significantly different values, whether you are faith-based or not.
Second, and more important, is that even though at first glance John and I would seem to be on opposite ends of the abortion issue, we had more common ground that we thought. A lot more. That was very comforting, certainly to me, and I think to him. I have thought about the conversation a great deal, and wondered how many other issues that divide us could be brought into better perspective if only people will sit down, talk (not yell), listen (not wait for their turn to talk), and think (not kneejerk).
Certainly if we can find a common set of things we agree on in an area like abortion we can do it for the many less divisive issues that vex us. Good negotiators know that you start any effort at a settlement with first listing the things that are agreed on.
I'm going to work on that, trying to find the half-full part of the glass first when I have differing views with others. Even if we agree in the end to disagree, as John and I did, we leave knowing we did agree on something. And that is something to hold on to.