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Suggested Guidelines for Processing Controversial Issues

There are also disagreements about whether or how to process social justice issues with the members of the congregation. Church leaders need to give serious consideration to whether an issue should be acted on or not. Ask:

  • How central is this issue to the identity and core values of the congregation? If core values or how this relates to the congregation’s identity can’t be identified then the issue is not one to bring to the congregation.
  • What is the level of controversy about this issue? Is the issue one in which members of the congregation need some education and they will move on it. Is it one in which a minority of people have strong feelings? Or is it one in which people are really polarized? Judgments about the level of conflict are important in deciding whether and how to process the issue. Sometimes the choices here are very complex and difficult.
  • If a decision is made to bring the issue up for discussion, thought also needs to be given to how to process the issue in the congregation. How much time should be taken to educate the members of the congregation? How much information do people need? Who will be in charge of giving the information? How will meetings be structured?

Below are listed some suggested guidelines for processing controversial social issues or major projects in a congregation:

  • Plan for several months of discussion and debate. It is better to err on the side of talking too long about an issue.
  • Use as many opportunities as possible to educate people, making use of the Sunday service, adult forums, discussion groups, and so on.
  • Allow proponents of all positions on the issue to be represented with adequate time.
  • Set guidelines which focus on facts and issues rather than personalities.
  • Make it clear that the integrity of all participants will be respected at all times and any behavior which does not treat people with dignity will not be tolerated.

After the agreed upon time of education and dialogue has passed, use a voting method that affirms the spirit of an inclusive democratic process and maintains the dignity, and, if necessary, the anonymity of the individuals voting.

One possibility is to have a preparatory meeting at which people can deal with clarifying the language of a resolution. And make sure there is ample time for discussion before a vote is taken at the meeting. Set aside a minimum of an hour for dialogue and debate if needed. Give everyone who wants to speak an opportunity to do so.

If after education and dialogue it looks like a vote will destroy the community, DON’T VOTE. The congregation isn’t ready. Sometimes, this means more information or dialogue is needed. Sometimes it means that everyone needs more time to absorb the information. Sometimes it means the issue should be dropped.

Important Points for Social Justice Advocates in the Congregation

Discussion about controversial issues can sometimes be heated and divisive in the life of a congregation. Sometimes there isn’t time for full discussion and maybe only one side is presented. Pressure or coercion is used to get votes, rather than persuasion. And appeals are made to guilt and not to reason. These are examples of bad process. And they alienate persons and divide congregations.

As a faith community, Unitarian Universalists are trying to live by our Principles and Purposes and respond to crucial social issues at the same time that we honor the values and traditions of our democratic religious communities.

That is why social justice leaders need to take special responsibility for using effective and fair processes which respect the individuals involved and provide ample time for discussion and reflection. It means honoring individual rights while working toward group consensus. It requires making sure there is time for full discussion and that all sides of the argument are presented.

Remember, how the issue is processed is as important as the issue itself. Success in processing one issue creates enthusiasm for taking on other issues in the future.

Social justice leaders need to avoid attitudes of arrogance, and self-righteousness. It is dangerous to divide the world into those who are “moral” and those who are “immoral”. It is important to understand that not everyone in the church or community is going to agree with them about issues, and that is okay.

Social justice advocates need to be responsible in how they conduct their business. Sometimes programs are not well conceived or presented. Persons who speak on issues are poorly prepared. Statements are made that are not thought through or are hastily put together. Simple solutions are offered for complex problems. Social justice leaders need to do their homework. They need to be well prepared for meetings and show that they have studied the issue in depth. They need to be particularly aware of both sides of the arguments.

Important Things to Remember about Dealing with Controversial Social Justice Issues in the Church

  • Conflict doesn’t only happen around social justice issues in the congregation. Many (some would say all) decisions in the life of the church involve conflict. Questions arise: Should the congregation build a new organ or keep the old one? What kind of hymns should be sung? What kind of music should there be on Sunday morning? Should the minister wear a robe or not? Sometimes people can get very heated about these issues.
  • It is unfair to single out social justice as being especially conflict laden. Oftentimes the congregation needs to address how it processes controversy in any area of its life.
  • The decision not to take stands can sometimes alienate people just like the decision to take stands can.
  • Leadership in situations involving controversy involves walking a fine line. Activists need to remember to build the institutions that are a base of support. Institutionalists need to remember that Unitarian Universalism stands for some very important principles in the world. A good way to create a win-win situation is to vote only on controversial issues that will build the ethical integrity and moral identity of congregations. Then let members of the congregation who are concerned about particular issues in the community organize action groups or lobbying groups around those issues.