You’ve recognized a conflict in your congregation. You’ve taken a deep breath and reminded yourself that airing differences is good and that it’s highly likely that everyone involved really loves the congregation and wants the best for it. You’ve taken the time to “unhook” yourself from the conflict and practice differentiation. Now what?
This may take some self-control, but the answer is still “do nothing.” Well, nothing more than listen, that is. Don’t defend, don’t argue, don’t explain, don’t excuse. Just listen. Even if someone is accusing you (or your beloved minister) of being a dictatorial jerk. Even if the story they relate doesn’t align at all with what you remember. Just listen.
Why listen without correcting or explaining? Because you need time to reflect on your choices and next steps. And because the other person really needs to know that you heard them if you are going to be able to engage them in any constructive way. So listen and listen some more.
In systems theory, this is the decision to remain connected. Even though your fight or flight reflex is probably screaming loudly for attention, now is not the time to leave. (Unless you just can’t hold your tongue.) When someone dares to interrupt the peace and air their feelings of dissatisfaction or anger, they are also feeling deeply afraid: afraid they don’t matter, afraid they don’t belong, or afraid the congregation they love is going to abandon them to become something else.
You may feel defensive or want to deflect arguments, but now is not the time. Now is the time to take a deep breath, close your mouth and open your ears and heart. Listen and try to let the person know you’ve heard their feelings. (You don’t have to agree with their opinion or even their particular view of the “facts” to communicate that you understand the feelings behind them.) You might practice old-fashioned reflective listening: “You felt sad and disrespected when you found the banner you made stuffed in a closet.” “You felt betrayed when a decision was made without your input.” “You wonder if there is room for you here because you don’t like the music and poetry the new minister is fond of using on Sunday morning.”
Connection is helpful because down deep, almost no one wants to be alienated from their church community. Religious communities are assumed to be places where we are “like-minded” with similar values and vision. It’s scary and hard when we realize that actually, a congregation is full of conflicting opinions. Yes, there are key values that we share, but how to live those values in the world, organizing the programs and infrastructure of the congregation to support them is sometimes hotly debated. And the stakes seem so high. If we aren’t “like-minded,” what are we? Can we be a community and disagree? As challenging as it can be, when conflict arises, it’s most helpful to articulate and act in ways that remind everyone that they are still connected, still wanted, still important, still welcome.
If the conflict has coalesced around a particular leader, it might be time to remind everyone of that person’s gifts, good intentions, and humanity. If the conflict centers around a decision, it might be helpful to identify the ways that each side of the argument is based in care for the congegation and its future and values. Even those who seem to be fighting every change on principle alone usually have a caring motive underneath it all: they don’t want the changes to put the congregation at risk and they want to preserve the things that made the church appealing and important to them. Often, if people can get reconnected, the heat of emotion will ease a bit. People will remember that being big-hearted is actually far more important than being like-minded. Or, if you prefer the words of a Unitarian hero (Francis David): “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”