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What pastors, professional athletes and other leaders can do to heal divides
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Rev. Rob Schenck's quest to lead meaningful conversations on the issue of gun violence led him to a gun range. He figured that if he wanted to critique gun culture, he should at least know how it felt to hold top-of-the-line weapons in his hands.

"When you're not familiar with handling those weapons, they're a little intimidating. You instantly know how powerful they are," he said.

Leadership requires legwork like this shooting adventure, as well as humility, listening skills and regular prayers, said the Rev. Schenck, an evangelical pastor whose efforts to address gun violence were explored in a recent documentary, "The Armor of Light."

It's not as simple as saying "Trust me, I'm a pastor," he said. "Not all pastors or ministers are good listeners. Some of them tend to lecture and moralize. That's off-putting to people."

A new LifeWay Research survey confirms his conclusions, illustrating how skeptical Americans have become of traditional community leaders.

Only 1 in 10 U.S. adults (11 percent) say pastors of local churches are in the best position to generate healthy conversations about societal challenges. Elected officials, university professors and professional athletes also fared poorly.

"We've seen public figures assuming that just because they have the platform to create a national conversation" they should, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. "What this research shows is that just because you're in a certain position, it doesn't mean America wants you to start those conversations."

To win the trust of people they serve and start making a difference, pastors, lawmakers and other leaders will need to embrace opportunities to get out of their comfort zone, like the Rev. Schenck did on that gun range, said Melanie Greenberg, president and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

"That's the DNA of peacebuilding: getting out of your comfort zone and understanding other people," she said. "As we understand each other, we find a common identity."

How we got here

Although the LifeWay Research study doesn't delve into the source of people's skepticism, McConnell and Greenberg offered educated guesses.

They said a lack of faith in traditional community leaders may grow out of distrust in institutions, which has been documented by Gallup and other research organizations.

Only 41 percent of U.S. adults said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in their church or organized religion in June 2016, compared to 56 percent in June 2000 and 65 percent in May 1973, according to Gallup. Congress has fallen even further, from 42 percent in May 1973 to 9 percent today.

"This trend is frightening for our democracy. We don't have faith in institutions that once bound us together," Greenberg said.

The rise of social media may have shifted community dynamics, too. Websites like Twitter enable basic national conversations, but don't encourage good listening or collaboration across difference, Greenberg noted.

"It's so easy on social media to only connect with people who feel the same way or think the same thing you do," she said.

Gaining millions of followers gives athletes, celebrities and others the sense that people are excited about what they have to say, but it's not a good indication of their ability to heal divides, McConnell said.

"On social media, people speak to the wind a little bit," he said.

In the Internet age, community leaders must avoid the temptation to seek national attention before they've built strong relationships on the ground, Greenberg said.

"If we fix what we can closer to home, that could trickle up," she said.

McConnell came to a similar conclusion after first being stumped by the survey results. One-third of respondents said "none of these" when asked to choose whether the elected president, local pastors, university professors, members of the media, business leaders, Congress members, professional athletes and musicians would be the best at generating healthy conversations.

"As a surveyor, I was like, 'Who else could we have put on that list?'" McConnell said. "It seems that leading a national conversation is something an individual has to earn," rather than something that comes with a job title.

Leading tough talks

Peacebuilding requires buy-in from everyone, especially in the wake of a contentious election season, Greenberg said. She encourages all people, from parents to the president, to attempt the type of healthy conversations proposed by LifeWay Research's study.

"Identify people, whether they're your neighbor or a friend's uncle, who have different views than you. Just start asking questions about their lives," she said. "By doing that, you're kind of easing in and coming around to these difficult questions."

Community leaders like pastors can be meaningful role models in this process, Greenberg added. Their efforts inspire others.

"I feel it's all connected," she said.

The Rev. Schenck always felt that bridging the gap between people with different political opinions was part of his calling as a minister. But he's had to sharpen his skills in order to lead conversations on gun violence, a subject that sparks outrage and even violent threats.

Some people "have the means to do me or someone else harm if they get too agitated about the subject," he said.

He's learned that the best way to earn the right to lead strained discussions is to stop assuming that you're always right.

"I am very careful to honor everyone's opinion on (gun violence.) In other words, I don't start with the presumption that I'm right and my opponents are wrong," the Rev. Schenck said.

Similarly, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tries to overcome ill will by inviting representatives from both sides to the table.

"As a senator, I've learned the importance of listening to the other side to forge consensus. By giving fair consideration to a diverse set of viewpoints, we can build strong coalitions to tackle the toughest issues facing America's families," he said in a statement.

Hatch recently led a panel discussion on suicide prevention. He said the event reminded him of the role shared interests can play in smoothing tensions.

"Although panel participants came from a variety of different backgrounds, we were all united by a common goal: to address a crisis that is affecting thousands of Americans irrespective of religion, race or creed," Hatch said.

Although the LifeWay Research study might have been disheartening for elected officials, faith leaders and other figures, they should not lose sight of the fact that they're still in a good position to address society's problems, Greenberg said. They have the resources to bring potential enemies around the same table.

"When you get people in a room together and they share their visions of the world they want for their children, there's a bond and a change that happens," she said.
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