A congregational board member called to ask what their church might do about their building. Like so many New England churches, theirs is old, labyrinthine, mostly inaccessible, and larger than they need now. Every year the costs to maintain, repair and heat the building take up a larger and larger chunk of the budget. Those costs can't be sustained much longer by either the current membership or the shrinking endowment. Meanwhile, the pandemic has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the building's ventilation system. It also has some members asking new questions about whether they need a building at all, let alone this one.
Opinions about this in the congregation abound. Strong ones. Heated ones. Well articulated ones. Well crafted other ones. Opinions based in data, fantasy, hope, science, nostalgia, disappointment, fear. Consequently, the Parish Committee in its various configurations over more than a decade has been avoiding making any major building-related decisions. How can a congregation with so many differing opinions come to agreement on a matter that must be addressed or the decision will be made for them?
But what if a congregation facing a hard challenge like this were to focus on alignment before worrying about agreement? In "Alignment Beyond Agreement," philosopher and Buddhist priest Yasuhiko Kimura writes, "Alignment is congruence of intention, whereas agreement is congruence of opinion." What if congregations asked, "What are our intentions as a congregation?" before they asked, "What is everyone's opinion on this matter?"
My experience of congregations confirms Kimura's observation that we tend to elevate our own opinions "to the status of a conclusion held to be right but not substantiated by positive proof." Differences of opinion, therefore, often turn into arguments to establish which opinion is right. Agreement-based congregations tend to experience polarities, cliques, and internal conflicts. When agreement cannot be resolved through argument and debate, "the illogic of might tends to enter the realm of right." In other words, the people with the most power get their way, thereby marginalizing individuals and groups with less power.
Alignment-based congregations, on the other hand, may have disagreements, but differences of opinion are engaged in what Kimura calls "the spirit of quest."
The spirit of quest generates open and evolving dialogue-in-action. Participants of a quest bring in diverse points of view while remaining united in the same quest. When they jointly choose a course of action, they know that the choice is a tentative mutual agreement, to be modified, altered, or even discarded along the way. The question is not "who is right" but "what is best" for the fulfillment of the intention.
In alignment-based congregations, people are less attached to personal preferences and ego-needs than they are to sorting through ideas to find those most likely to move the congregation toward its aims. In such congregations, each ministry, every allocation of resources (space, time, money, equipment, etc.), and all decisions support the aims and intentions of the whole — rather than the interests and preferences of a portion.
The huge existential challenges facing so many UU congregations today mirror the challenges facing humanity today which, in Kimura's words,
...includes the challenge of whether or not we can shift our value focus from opinion to intention, whether or not we can affirm common intentions, whether or not we can transcend differences of opinion and unite in common intentions, whether or not we can forge a planetary alignment for the achievement of our common intentions, and whether or not we can reconcile seemingly conflicting or misaligned intentions.
Making these shifts within UU congregations involves all the practices of Spiritual Leadership. The transformation from being an agreement-based congregation to an alignment-based one means centering in the unique gifts of its people and the congregation as a whole and delivering those gifts here in this place and now at this time. It means doing inner work as people learn to have hard conversations (both within and beyond the congregation) across differences of ideology, culture, identity, and theology and to tap into the s/Spirit that animates our lives and offers strength, courage and resilience. It invites binding to tradition by connecting to Unitarian Universalist history, religious heritage, ancestors, and theology and allowing the congregation to be claimed by that tradition — honoring the gifts of the tradition to be carried into the future and taking up responsibility to seek repair for past harm caused by that tradition. It means practicing covenant, not as a recitation of words, but, in the words of Dr. King, as "a willingness to go to any length to restore community." And it means taking faithful risks as it discerns how to align with its intentions even if that means risking failure or loss.
The good news of Unitarian Universalism is not in the opinions of its people but the intention of the faith to liberate humanity from attitudes, behaviors and conditions that are death-dealing rather than life-affirming.