When Collaboration Mirrors the Trinity (Avery Stafford) - A Review

WHEN COLLABORATION MIRRORS THE TRINITY: Leveraging Unityto Bless Our World. By Avery Stafford. Foreword by Kevin Palau. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2022

For those of us who claim to be part of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Christian unity is said to be one of our core values (see my book Freedom in Covenant: Reflections on the Distinctive Values and Practices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)). Barton Stone, one of the founders of the movement, is said to have proclaimed unity as our polar star, our guiding principle. The truth is, while this motto of unity is an important core value, we have often failed to fully embody it. Nevertheless, for those with ears to hear, the message continues to beckon. While unity is a core value, Stone-Campbell folks are not of one mind when it comes to the Trinity. That is, not all of us are comfortable with the designation Trinitarian. Many will follow the founders and simply note that the word Trinity isn’t found in the New Testament and so we’re better off not using the term. Now, I’m comfortable with the term and the concept of Trinity and find it to be a useful theological concept to envision unity within diversity (See The Triune Nature of God: Conversations Regarding the Trinity by a Disciples of Christ Pastor/Theologian). One who agrees with me on this is Avery Stafford, the author of When Collaboration Mirrors the Trinity.

                While Avery Stafford is also a member of the broader Stone-Campbell Movement, he’s part of another branch of the movement. While I’m a minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) he is a minister within the Churches of Christ. We have the same roots, but we've gone our own way over time [See Anthony L. Dunnavant, Richard T. Hughes, Paul Blowers, Founding Vocation & Future Vision, (Chalice Press)]. The movement of which each of us, Avery and me, is a part has divided several times even though unity is supposed to be our polar star. What Avery and I share though is a commitment not only to unity, which can be theoretical in nature but also to collaboration across traditional boundaries. In other words, he has imbibed the message of the founders, even if in this book they don't make a major appearance. I share this with the reader so that they might understand where the two of us come from.

                Avery Stafford is a pastor of a multicultural congregation in the Portland, Oregon suburb of Beaverton. He is, by self-identification, African American. That is important to note because while at times he draws on more theologically conservative conversation partners, he is very upfront about the realities of being Black in a predominantly White denominational circle. At a time when the racial divide seems to be widening within Christianity (witness recent Supreme Court nomination hearings and anti-CRT efforts across the country), it is important to note that persons of color, even those who are evangelically inclined, are speaking out against injustice committed against them.

               When Collaboration Mirrors the Trinity has roots in a D.Min. project undertaken by the author at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. It's a study of collaborative efforts engaged in by churches. He advocates for such efforts but also uncovers the challenges. Even pastors who might be open to collaboration often face the reality that such efforts are rarely rewarded by congregations or denominations. We tend to live in silos that keep us separated from one another. Stafford knows this to be true from personal experience, even as do I. We can be very protective of our turf, but as he makes clear, ultimately this is short-sighted. Therefore, it needs to be challenged.

                One of the intriguing elements of the book is the way Stafford brings his experiences both as a pastor and as a musician into the conversation. He uses his experience as a musician to help us understand the nature of music and how it illustrates ways in which collaboration is rewarding. While this is intriguing, so is the theological foundation of the conversation. That’s because the central image in this conversation is the Trinity. Stafford suggests that we should look to the Trinity for guidance. He proposes that collaboration among the churches should mirror the relationship that exists within the Trinity. Thus, we start with the premise that the church is one even as God is one. However, within the unity that is God, there is diversity. That is God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He writes that "the Trinity's uniqueness and perfect community is both a theological reality and the ideal model for local church collaboration." The model here, as he shares it, reflects the nature of God. Thus, "collaboration imitates how the Father is for us, the Son is with us, and the Holy Spirit lives in us." (p. 36).

                One of the elements that stands out in the book (and reflects Stafford's musical background) is the chapter titled "Four Rhythms of Collaboration" (chapter 5). He suggests that these four rhythms (relationship, trust, diversity, and inclusion) reflect "four traits of the Trinity's loving unity." Everything starts with relationships. Specifically, it starts with relationships between church leaders (pastors). He points out that one of the challenges to collaboration is that pastors often don't have a relationship with other pastors. As noted earlier, he reminds us that we tend to live in our silos. Therefore, we often don't know each other. Part of that is due to the lack of reward on the part of congregations. There is no reward given to pastors who spend time regularly with other pastors, such as going out for coffee with each other. I know that to be true. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in collaborative efforts and know they start in relationships. As we build relationships, we also build trust. That provides the foundation for a diversity of relationships (here again, he speaks to the importance of celebrating diversity when we tend not to embrace it). Finally, there is inclusion. This is truly an important chapter that can prove helpful for collaborative efforts if only we will pursue them. He builds on this chapter by exploring what he calls the essentials, and there are six of them, along with the hurdles. I will let the reader discover what these are through their own reading (ch. 6).

                At times the book reads like a dissertation. It's full of charts and graphs. It presents records of the results of the interviews he has undertaken. Nevertheless, the message of Avery Stafford’s When Collaboration Mirrors the Trinity is one that the larger church needs to hear. If God's realm is to impact the world positively, then those of good faith will need to collaborate. We can't do this work on our own. Even if collaboration is not rewarded, we need to take the risk. And we also need to remember that we’re not rivals but partners in the work of God. For that, I give thanks to Avery Stafford for bringing this to our attention.

                As I noted that he is both a pastor and a musician, I will note that the book includes the words to a song he wrote called "One." It's a reflection on Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17. I was able to listen to the song on Spotify, though it's also present on other streaming services. The chorus goes like this:

They would all be one (2x)
Like the Father and the Son
Could you imagine what could be done
If they all were one
Community of one
Brothers and Sisters---if they all were one?



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