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Leadership with Vision
Conflict Management in Congregations, Safe Congregations

Ken Brown and Angela Merkert

In order to create a transformational congregation, it is crucial to understand the culture and heritage of the community and articulate a clear, shared mission. A congregation that has a shared mission, based on covenantal relationships, finds it easier to confront unethical behavior because it is so clearly outside the bounds of the mission. With a clear mission, it is easier for the leadership to create policies and procedures that deal with boundary issues.

To be a transformational leader in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation means to lead with a clear vision of a vital, strong congregation. Core factors in that leadership are clear principles and strong character and a covenant to be in right relation with other leadership, the congregation, and the larger community. Without this covenant, trust is not possible and a leader loses his or her moral authority. The following eight qualities for transformational leaders in our congregations relate to how one deals with boundary concerns in a congregation. A transformational leader:

  • is mission-driven and asks him or herself, “What am I called to do and to be, given my role as a religious professional at this time and in this place?”
  • continually casts a vision, celebrates successes, and challenges the congregation to keep moving forward
  • practices “radical hospitality” in all that he or she does, leads in love, and is welcoming to all
  • values results more than activity by recognizing that life in a congregation often creates more activity than is needed or healthy for its vision; welcomes assessment of the ministry as a means of strengthening the vision and future of the congregation
  • works with the polarity of safety and risk, knowing when to take risks that may bring the congregation to the edge without going over it (avoiding risk and change is maintenance rather than transformation)
  • focuses on opportunities rather than problems; sees a glass as an opportunity to add more water rather than as half-full or half-empty
  • thinks in terms of we rather than I; works with staff and lay leadership as a team; and models shared leadership in moving toward the vision; empowers people, thus increasing the capacity to engage in an ever-expanding ministry
  • understands the culture of the congregation; knows that to be truly transformational, the congregation needs to engage with the larger community

All of these characteristics of a transformational leader require the ability to both honor and question the existing norms and status quo. A leader must be a risk taker who is not motivated by ego and considers the greater good of the congregation. Leaders—religious, professional, or lay—need a clear understanding of the boundaries of their respective roles and the need for boundaries within congregational life.

One way that congregations have been proactive in dealing with the full range of relational concerns goes two steps beyond the articulation of a shared mission. First is the creation of a congregational covenant, through a workshop or series of meetings, that holds members accountable for how they treat each other. Churchworks by district executive Anne Heller offers a model. The next step is to create a congregational conflict engagement team that is trained to mediate and help leaders understand how to cope with conflict. Ideally this team trains committee chairpersons and other leaders in how to deal with low-level conflict and when to ask for help from the team. The team must also determine when to ask district staff for support in dealing with a conflict situation. Committees on ministry may also contribute ensuring that their assessment of congregational health includes consideration of the health of the relationships within the congregation.

Leaders, by the nature of their roles, are accorded trust, integrity, and respect. When the responsibilities of leadership are not engaged with integrity and the leader focuses on power over in contrast to power with and empowerment, the ability to be in healthy relationship is challenged. Open communications, clear statements of roles and responsibilities, and authority commensurate with responsibility are all important foundational characteristics of a congregation in which ethical leadership is supported.

It is not okay for leaders to threaten or misuse their influence to intimidate or take advantage of anyone in the congregational community, whether physically, psychologically, or emotionally. People of integrity “walk their talk” and their behaviors are consistent with the values they espouse. Unitarian Universalist leaders, both professional religious and lay, continually affirm the seven Principles. These Principles provide a strong basis for ethical behavior and are not always easy to engage. They continually challenge us to live with integrity in the face of competing priorities.

Our Universalist tradition offers the concept of universal love and various sources charge us to “do no harm.” Yet we live in a real world where we must sometimes acknowledge and engage with a violation of the covenant that holds us together as a congregation.

A breach of ethics on the part of a minister is an egregious act that is destructive to congregations. In some ways we are still learning about the effects of such violations. In these circumstances, understanding the culture and heritage of the faith community is vital for leaders because they may be dealing with actions that are based in the past. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association have developed strong policies and guidelines dealing with misconduct by religious professionals. Such proactive action by our leadership has been helpful to congregations trying to move forward after such an incident.

Congregations also struggle when a lay person breaches ethical standards. As district staff, congregations have occasionally asked us to deal with sexual predators who use the congregational community and our tradition of not drawing clear boundaries to prey on lay people, ministers, and children. These can be delicate situations in which the congregation does not want to get involved in a legal battle and is often frightened and reluctant to take action. In one situation, a member of the congregation was stalking the minister and the board was notified. After deep discussion and continued boundary violations, the board voted to remove the perpetrator from membership and asked him to leave the congregation. This strong action by the board to support the minister brought to an end a situation that could have gotten much worse if they had not acted.

In nearly all states the law requires us to report cases of sexual misconduct involving an adult and a child. In this situation the board must take strong action. Proactive work like background checks on all people working with youth and children may not uncover a tendency to inappropriate behavior. In a number of situations the board has supported the staff of a congregation when they removed someone working with youth. In such situations the board may be informed in executive session about the action taken, but there also has to be a trusting relationship between the governing board and the staff in order to support the staff in protecting youth and children. In these and other situations the leadership must protect the privacy of all parties; the information must remain confidential. In these circumstances the whole congregation does not have the right to know what happened.

Leadership also needs to be aware that not all inappropriate behavior is sexual in nature. There have been a number of situations in which people have been abusive to other members or staff verbally and even physically. Again, a proactive stance represented by a covenant or at least a safety policy is the best way to be prepared for such situations. But even without such policies in place we recommend that congregations use the language in their mission or vision statements or even the seven Principles to talk to such people about their actions. If the abusive behavior persists, the board may have to proceed by asking the person to leave the congregation. Unfortunately this period of conflict with a member is not the time to write a policy or develop a covenant. Yet if we are truly committed to creating transformational congregations where people feel safe in taking part in all our activities, leadership must take action.

In some cases, boundary violators have left one congregation when confronted and moved to another nearby to continue their predatory behavior. Thus congregations need to communicate with each other about people who behave inappropriately. Transformational leadership understands that taking action in such cases is truly part of leadership that is mission-driven, vision-casting, radically hospitable, and understanding of the culture of the congregation. Leadership must be willing to take the risk of making changes that can eventually create a safe and vital congregation.

Leadership must also understand that the policies or covenants within a congregation should also deal with situations in which people act in a way that is destructive to community life. A safe congregation does not allow people to verbally attack others or use strong derogatory language and strident voices to suppress diverse ideas and genuine dialogue. In situations where such behavior has been allowed to continue, newcomers and members have chosen either to not become a part of the community or to remove themselves from the congregation.

To create transformational congregations where we help to change lives for the better, we must draw boundaries and use proactive tools. Transformational leadership does not ignore inappropriate actions or believe that destructive behavior can be changed by one-on-one conversation. The role of the leader is to help provide a safe environment where the majority of the congregation’s membership can make their spiritual journey in a supportive community. Our congregations can be places where faith development includes the understanding that within our communities we have responsibilities to each other. If we choose to allow a few individuals to define the way we interact by virtue of their destructive behavior, we will never create the Beloved Community. If we truly want to develop and be transformational leaders, we need to take seriously the responsibility for making our congregations safe for all.

Read Next>> Writing a Covenant

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