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Leading a Community in Right Relations
Conflict Management in Congregations, Safe Congregations

Phyllis Rickter and Betty Hoskins

Because of our historic beginnings, Unitarian Universalist governance—our polity—ensures that each congregation is independent, self-governing, and autonomous. Because our polity means that governance is local, there is no bishop, chief rabbi, or spiritual leader with veto-power. In a broad sense then, in Unitarian Universalism we all have leadership roles. We’re already congregational leaders, or we may become so. For many, taking a larger role in the organization is a part of belonging.

Unitarian Universalist ordained clergy hold a special relationship within a congregation, unique to only a few denominations that date back to Colonial days. Our mode of governance has a called and settled minister and an elected board, usually laity. The minister is not an employee but is called by a vote of the congregation’s members to minister to and with a congregation.

Unitarian Universalist congregations choose to belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association, which serves its member congregations with institutional guidance and support, including credentialing ministers and enforcing ethical rules as established by the Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association and the Liberal Religious Educators Association are independent membership organizations that provide good practices and enforce a code of professional behavior.

Because “revelation is not sealed,” our movement is adjusting and changing as new generations, ideas, and challenges become important. Underlying it all, however, is the desire to live in a community of harmony, justice, and safety—a community of right relations. Creating and sustaining such a community is the work of leadership.

Donna Bivens of the Women’s Theological Center offers this helpful definition of transformational leadership:

Spiritual or transformational leadership is that aspect of leadership that involves: tending relationships at all levels—personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural or ideological; creating and maintaining environments that inspire growth and transformation in order to support individuals and collectives to live out our deepest, most life-affirming vision, mission, and values.

As leaders, we carry a fiduciary responsibility, which means that we are entrusted with property and power for the benefit of others. Such relationships are based on trust and reliance. Issues of safety and possible liability belong to the board. The board is ultimately responsible for the conduct of persons who serve the church in official capacities.

Many of us aspire to a religious community where there is maximum possible safety—physical safety, safety in our interactions, and spiritual safety. We aspire to a place where we will not be physically or sexually abused; a place where we can give an opinion that rings true to us without being condemned or harshly criticized; a place where our thoughts and emotions are respectfully received and discussed; a place where telling the truth in love is the norm, and the increasing disclosure of ourselves and our thoughts and feelings toward larger realities is welcomed. Even though our world is never totally safe, we aspire and struggle to create a community in right relationship. We believe our congregations yearn to build such communities and that leadership is charged to implement this goal.

Church leaders want to be effective. Knowing how to be effective is a more complex matter. We bring work styles with us and we learn new modes. Underlying our actions is the desire to create and maintain a community of harmony and right relations. We ask ourselves about the qualities of effective religious leadership:

Am I assuming the responsibilities of leadership for the right reasons? What do we mean by “right reasons”? We assume—though realistically we may know better—that there are no hidden agendas or unrealistic ego needs to be met. Ideally, learning to be an effective leader means taking advantage of opportunities to know our religious and spiritual yearnings and the thought and emotional processes that call us to this work; recognizing our favored style; and being willing to change, to grow, and to enjoy the deepening of our relationships with individual people and with the congregation as a whole.

Am I taking into account the assorted skills of co-leaders? This mixture of assorted skills and experiences brings richness—but also complexity—to our leadership. Leaders must pause and ask about appropriate methods. In order to solve a problem, it’s important to understand it. It’s very easy to fall back on our tried-and-true procedures. When we’re puzzled by other’s behaviors, perhaps they are drawing on models that worked elsewhere and are different from our own. Good leadership requires us to be open to learning from each other and to always remember that our goals and solutions may differ because we are a religious, spiritual, rational, and inclusive religious community.

How am I going to work with leaders and followers with different approaches? In a congregation of human beings, there are always areas of difference, varying world views, prejudices, and strongly held, often contradictory, beliefs. We hear such things as, “You can’t talk about the Middle East War here,” “We can’t take sides in this matter,” “Can you be a Republican here?” and “I’m pro-life. Am I welcome here?” In a congregation of right relations, openness about our personal truths is possible if we acknowledge the right and responsibility of others to share their different views.

Do I have a habit of openness and transparency in my communications with others? Leadership includes openness and transparency, truth-telling, in our governance processes. We may know that breaking the silence around forbidden subjects is the beginning of healing, but we also fear that the community will feel unsafe. We may wonder if truth-telling is worth the trouble it will cause? Should we just “let sleeping dogs lie” and negotiate a settlement that “pays the debt to society?” What about confidentiality? What about gossip? In response to clergy sexual misconduct, our work has led to a firm conviction that confidentiality too often becomes secrecy that protects the powerful. Too often the accusation of gossip prevents leadership from validating the story of a real person’s life.

Nobody has the absolute corner on truth. Leadership demonstrates and models behaviors of openness and respect for others’ views while being clear about one’s own. This is no easy task. (See “A Systems View of Congregational Life” and “Boundaries and Confidentiality”.)

Am I working with others to define what the problem is before implementing a solution? In order to understand the problem, we need to ground our conversations in our Purposes and Principles as a whole. For instance, our atmosphere of openness and acceptance may invite behaviors that are out of bounds. What is the leadership’s role in setting limits? How do we balance the “inherent dignity and worth of all persons” with individual rights and community maintenance? For the sake of congregational safety, we expect lay leaders and ministers to find the courage and have the skills to confront inappropriate and unwelcome words, touching, and intrusions of intimacy. How do we support leadership in this difficult task?

Creative, effective leadership knows that the congregation must be included in processes of decision-making and implementation. As a possible problem emerges, involve the congregation’s religious professionals and elected leaders as soon as possible. There will be rumors and there will be sides taken. There will be personal reactions on the basis of each individual’s past, private life experiences. Use this opportunity to clarify your hopes for justice. Use the UUA Principles and Purposes as affirmations of diversity and sound judgment. Call your district office. Contact the UUA Office of Ethics and Safety.

Do I place a high priority on training and empowering leaders who will succeed me? Effective and transformational leadership looks to the future. Potential leadership is encouraged and empowered. Skills are taught and learned. We may make mistakes but we can consider them learning experiences. Good leaders encourage others to test their skills and seek the guidance of district leadership when appropriate. Most of all, effective leaders demonstrate an abiding commitment to the well-being of the congregation and its members. Having done your best, you will retire gracefully and move on to further challenges.


A covenant statement is “the promises or commitments that people make to each other in the context of religious community” (see “Writing a Covenant”). Covenanting promotes working together on the question “What are the qualities we want in our life and work together?”

A covenant statement is related to a vision statement, what the congregation wants to create (at the present time) with its ministry, programming, and outreach. A covenant statement is also related to the congregation’s mission statement, what the congregation intends to mean to the community (or communities) in which it resides. How the congregation and its leadership enact their vision and mission depends upon values and skills. As participants in a religious community, we continuously discover our and others’ identities. This is qualitatively different from a relationship of contractual obligations or a relationship focused on the goals and objectives of a particular project.

Becoming a covenanted leader requires openness and learning and a commitment to ongoing congregational transformation. Effective leadership calls for multiple forms of reflection and diagnosis in different situations and thoughtful agreement about appropriate boundaries and action. We bring a variety of skills into the congregational setting. We bring analytical, metaphorical, and management skills. Others bring legal training and professional codes of ethics as teachers, social workers, therapists, and health providers. Use them all to understand difficult situations.

The nature of religious authority is often murky for UUs. Polity means there is no final authority from above. Leaders ask, “What sort of problem is this?” and “What remedy is needed?” and then “Who should exercise authority?”

Ministers often speak of their call to ministry. Candidates for the ministry pursue seminary studies and develop the skills of ministry. At the same time, the minister’s authority derives in large part from the fact that congregations ordain, call, and settle their ministers as their spiritual leaders. Congregations and ministers develop covenantal relationships.

Who calls the Unitarian Universalist laity to do its work? Laity are called by their congregation’s covenantal relationships. We call ourselves by volunteering, learning leadership skills, and being elected by the democratic process of our congregation’s members. We bring skills from our daily lives and work. For effective UU work, we must collectively represent many of the theological and ethical perspectives of our congregations. This means continued study and dialogue by the laity, not just the ordained. Covenanted leadership continuously welcomes new participants, responds thoughtfully and spiritually to new situations, and thanks those who serve.

Given the complexity of life, the complexity of congregational governance, the requirements of law, and the constantly moving cultural milieu in which we live, what can we look for with hope? What do congregations of right relations give us? We have many reasons to doubt, to lose hope, and to despair of our own and others’ behaviors. But despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead we choose right relationships. We choose to act as if people can be good and we can trust them. Trust them not blindly, not foolishly, but hopefully. We do this knowing that human beings are complex and that there are road blocks along the way. When our congregations choose to live our UU Principles and Purposes, we are reaching for right relations.

Effective, transformational leadership, that is leadership by us all, facilitates right relations and safe congregations that nurture us all. Thus our congregations become life-affirming communities where individuals can live out their best intentions, forgive themselves and others when necessary, and celebrate the gift of life and love in community.

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