Some of you may know that I conducted a survey of Free Range UUs a couple months back, and I will be reporting on that in depth here later. But one thing that stunned me was the number of Free Rangers who have been to our congregations and left, repelled by less than inspiring worship or an exhausting congregational conflict or our issues with power and authority. A significant portion of Free Rangers are former board members who left demoralized under the unrealistic pressures of their role. A target for all sorts of ugliness. This keeps me up at night. It makes my heart ache.
Many of our congregations allow bad behavior in the effort to preserve “the inherent worth and dignity of all.” More often than not, this bad behavior becomes part of the cultural norm: arguing the fine points of final reports at congregational meetings, using candles of joys and concerns for public service announcements, assuming there is one politically correct way to be Unitarian Universalist, triangulating and undermining leadership, using email for heated discussion, and using consensus as a weapon to get one’s way are just a few of my favorite examples. There is nothing worthy or dignified in this behavior. The youth call this kind of behavior “throwing chalices.” A loving intervention and firm, clear boundaries are the way to promote worth and dignity.
Of the many reasons that I am grateful to work with Stefan one is that if I’ve eaten a spinach salad and some is stuck in between my teeth, he is going to tell me. I can count on it. And when I am particularly snarky on an email or neglect to pull the right people into a conversation, I trust that Stefan is going to lovingly point it out if I don’t see it and then give me the space and freedom to fix it. Sometimes I’m at a loss as to how to repair a gaff and need help. I have the support to ask for the help and receive guidance. This culture of safety, respect and constant learning brings out my best. There isn’t the pressure to be perfect. Some of us weren’t born with a Manual of Appropriate Behavior and it’s helpful for others to shine light on the parameters when we simply can’t find them through the fog.
Most of our healthy congregations have a Covenant of Right Relations. This is could be thought of as the Congregational Manual of Appropriate Behavior. Here is a great example of one: Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Seattle, WA.
There are documents that support a Covenant of Right Relations:
- Conflict Resolution Guidelines
- Email Guidelines
- Policy on Taking a Stand on Controversial Public Issues
- Procedure for Addressing Disruptive Behavior
- Safe Congregations Policies.
You can find excellent examples from the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Pt. Townsend, WA under Part III of their Operations Manual.
I was leading a workshop this summer, and we co-created a covenant for that moment in time together. Someone raised their hand and asked me unpack the term “covenant” for them. “Is a covenant a promise you won’t ever break?” they asked. “Quite the contrary,” I answered. It’s a promise you can count on breaking because it calls us to our highest selves and we are merely human. I think the most important part of the covenant isn’t the “how to” but the “what happens when we fail and need to get back on track.” Ministers and/or Pastoral Care Teams may get involved to help people in their personal discernment of remorse and individual path toward forgiveness. Many congregations now offer trainings on Compassionate Listening, and many districts have a Healthy Congregations Team, which provides training, consultation and assessment for congregations who wish to embrace healthy communications and proactively deal with conflict.
Addressing conflict is sacred faith formation and a deepening of spiritual maturity. It is serious love.
When I have failed and need to find my way back into right relations I have relied heavily on the Jewish process of repentance, teshuva:
- Recognize and discontinue the inappropriate behavior or mistake.
- Verbally confess the behavior, action and/ or mistake to the person(s) to who was affected.
- Regret the behavior, action and/ or mistake. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on you or on others.
- Devise a plan to rectify the behavior, action and/or mistake. Sometimes something cannot be repaired, but you may be able to change a pattern or cycle so that the chance that a repeat offense will take place is minimized.
- Then you may (must?) ask for forgiveness from those to whom you have done wrong.
What a process! I crave this for our religious communities.
This is the hard, loving work of intentional religious communities living into our collective calling. When we live into our best selves as individuals and as a community love and joy are free to stream in. We don’t have to get it perfect. But it helps to know what the expectations are and to be given the freedom and support to fix it when we get it wrong. This is real transformational growth. I want that for everyone.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Please feel free to share links to the documents that guide your religious community well.
The chalice featured in the picture is from Southern Blackberry Designs.