Congregations, Conflict and Mission

Recently, I was on a phone call discussing a colleague’s work when one of the wise women in the conversation said something that made me stop in my tracks. In not too many words, she summed up one of the hardest parts of conflict in our congregations. She said:

“If all you are about is relationship, then when that relationship gets broken, there’s nothing else left to bind you together again, or to know what bigger frame of existence might be able to call you back together.” *

For many of our congregations, and sometimes more particularly for our smaller congregations, there is little articulated sense about why the congregation exists beyond the companionship of others on the journey. When asked about what they like most about their congregations, most people will answer “the community.” Heck, the most prevalent word in names of newer congregations these days is “Community,” so why wouldn’t this be true? Many of us are seeking for community—with distances, travel, moving, and time issues, many of us no longer have the built in community of multi-generational families. We are seeking communities of like-minded people, and frankly if we didn’t enjoy the people in our religious communities, we’d find somewhere else to be.

But herein lies the problem: if it’s only community, only our relationships with one another that calls us together, then what happens when things aren’t going right? What happens when there is disagreement? Without mission—a sense of calling in the world—then many congregations have no real place to turn in the midst of or the aftermath of conflict.

Say, for example, there are two compelling and wonderful things that are possibilities for a congregation, but that it’s not possible to do both things at once. How is a congregation to decide which idea, Giraffes or Tulips, is the one to do? For a congregation with a clear sense of its place in the larger community, the answer is hard, but can reasonably be made: which one helps us live into our sense of who we are supposed to be? Even when the ideas are both excellent, there is often one of them that is more relevant to that mission, and that sense of being.

But in a congregation that isn’t clear about its purpose, other than being a community for the folks in it, the decision is often much tougher. Who argues their case most persuasively? Who has the most number of friends who can be counted upon to side with them? Who has the financial edge in giving, or who has the longevity in the congregation, or, even sometimes, who is the nastier person when they are told no?

All of these scenarios play out in congregations every year—and when you can’t depend on a clear articulation of who you are, and where you want to be in the world, then the decision rests upon, and falls upon, the relationships that exist. And when, as way too often happens, the decision creates friction in the congregation, what is it that people are called back to?

If disruption happens in a congregation where they share a clear sense of mission, there is more than relationship holding them together. It’s that mission—what the congregation stands for—that binds them together. Then they can say yes, I might be annoyed with X, Y and Z people right now, but our responsibility to this community (our mission) is too important to walk away from. And then, through uniting to support that mission, people have a chance to find their way back into relationship.

But if it’s only about relationship, and nothing larger that the congregation feels called to, there is no other rallying cry to bring you back together. What else binds you together? You may have a covenant, but chances are that’s been broken in the process, or at least it’s been stretched beyond belief, and covenant really is just another word for relationship. If you’re not feeling good about X, Y and Z people, then what part of being in covenant or relationship with them is strong enough to bring you back together again? Without that mission and call beyond, you remain stuck with only the broken relationship.

So it seems true—that relationship is not enough when the conflicts begin, and when they go deep. People leave; people become disappointed; the glow of that relational community is not so bright, and in the absence of a shared sense of what you should be about, it’s hard to pick up those pieces. That leads to further problems.

The wise woman continued:

“Without a sense of purpose, beyond being in community, the only factor in decision making becomes what will do the most good to relationship in its currently existing form, or, more likely, the least harm to relationship in its currently existing form. And by definition that forces a community into stagnation.” *

Again—something that happens too often in congregations of all sizes: focus on the self (members) begats more focus on the self (members), and the holding (or forcing) of that self into the same shape and configuration as when the process began. What began as a wonderful service of caring internally then creates the attraction for people who are looking for that kind of internal focus. And just as everything is a nail to a hammer, within the congregation we then often perceive the needs to be the same because it fits our known “solution.”

Conflict, focus on relationship, and stagnation seem to go hand in hand. This is true in congregations, families, workplaces—if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there, and any road will often circle back to the same place so you can feel successful the way you are operating. If you caretake for each other well, then you will keep on looking for more chances to caretake well, and attract only those who need that particular form of caretaking. But when the caretaking is only internal, without an outward focus and mission, then you’re left with only the relationship in the end.

The remedy: take time now, when you’re not in pain and hurting, to figure out what your calling is in the world. What is it that your congregation can give, can do, can be that benefits your wider community, that helps bring hope and possibility into this world? Where are you called to help build the larger Beloved Community, or help bend the arc of justice toward the earth? Remember—loving each other inside your congregation is a wonderful thing. But it’s not enough. When the going gets tough, you have to know who it is you are, and what you stand for, and what you’re moving toward.

Let me know what you think.

* quoting Diane Bosman, with permission

About the Author

Lisa Presley

Lisa Presley is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who was an active lay leader before entering our ministry in 1991. As a lay leader she was board president, board member, worship associate, stewardship campaign chair, religious education teacher, bookkeeper, secretary, and shoveled the snow as...

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