Looking Forward, Looking Back

By Connie Goodbread, Natalie Briscoe

Who knew that watching the Inauguration and the restoration of basic operations of our government would make us feel such a mixture of emotions. The years of broken norms within our government and the horrors of the pandemics of both racism and COVID-19 have made many of us long for a better and kinder world. A world we have never seen.

The new administration promises to “Build Back Better,” and a lot of what will change should have changed a long time ago. To create lasting change that liberates everyone and is beneficial to us all, Americans need to be able to have difficult conversations. We must not tolerate behaviors, ideologies and parts of the system which work against liberation. Our liberation depends on the liberation of all.

As congregations look to the year ahead, in hopes of returning to in-person gathering, could we remember that we come back together carrying the weight of what we have witnessed - suffered - lost and gained. Could we move kindly into how we will be together? Could we examine parts of our congregations which were not working well before? Could we build our congregations back better? Could we have productive, difficult conversations in our congregations, where we are grounded in shared grace, purpose, values, and covenant?

As UUA Staff who work with congregations in conflict, here are ways we see congregations faithfully engaging conflict and building back better:

  • Begin by recognizing our members have experienced trauma.
  • Everyone agrees on a covenant that we take into our hearts. It lives in the sacred space of our hearts. We each call ourselves back to the covenant before expecting others to do the same. We make the covenant together. We keep it together. It lives in the sacred space between us. We break in together. It is broken in relationship. We come back to the covenant together. The vow is made holy and whole again.
  • Everyone shares their expectations for the work we will do together. Everyone decides what expectations can be accomplished.
  • Everyone engages in deep discussion on why we are doing the work.
  • Everyone agrees that we do not individually have the only truth. Everyone brings their truth to the table. Everyone agrees that more than one thing can be true at the same time.
  • Everyone admits they could be wrong.
  • Everyone holds themselves accountable for past behavior as well as what they do and say in the here and now.
  • Everyone agrees to share their own stories not the stories of others. This is hard to do—it is a discipline.
  • When the facts are unclear, everyone agrees not to make up the missing pieces of the story.
  • No one presumes to give motives to the truth of others.
  • Gaslighting, manipulation, coercion, name-calling, bullying, dismissive behavior, gossip or lying are not tolerated.
  • Forgiveness for causing harm comes when people hold themselves accountable. We will hold ourselves accountable and be forgiving.
  • Everyone agrees to be open-minded and curious, seeking to understand.
  • Everyone will build trust.
  • Everyone honors their own emotions and the emotions of others as information, keeping a curious mind while exploring what the emotions reveal.
  • We plan together, using transparency and open communication.
  • We give the time that is needed for processes to play out.
  • We know the goal is not the absence of conflict - it is liberation and that will take creative, healthy conflict.

Conflict is a relationship asking to go deeper. Someone else said this - I wish I could remember who - it's brilliant.

Remember that you are not alone in this long-haul work of building your congregation back better. Remember that you have the support of your UUA staff and, in particular, the Southern Region staff team.

Looking Forward, Looking Back, Natalie

We are living through a prolonged state of trauma right now. Throughout the past four years, people living in the United States have been gaslit, systematically abused, and terrorized by our leaders. We live in constant fear for our health and safety because of the global pandemic. White supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and capitalism openly starve, murder, and imprison the most vulnerable members of our society every single day. People with marginalized identities have experienced a lifetime of trauma and are re-experiencing every moment right now, as we collectively enter a new year, but not necessarily a new hope.

It is in this liminal moment when congregations have begun to ask about gathering again. At this time, there is no way to be able to tell when that might be possible, or if “church” will ever look like it did in 2019. What I can tell you, however, is that this trauma that we have all experienced in the past four years - and longer - will be present with us when we do begin to regather. It is already beginning to show its presence even in our virtual gatherings and spaces. Our leaders have less capacity, which may be experienced as “COVID brain.” We can’t think, can’t act, can’t feel. The smallest things make us so angry, and we lash out at those around us - because they are around us constantly.

Building Beloved Community, then, becomes terribly difficult. Yet, we are called to continue to answer the call of love. To sustain ourselves and our communities, we must intentionally build trauma-informed communities. It is just as important that congregations become centers of rest and healing as it is important that they become centers of work and transformation.

Being trauma-informed means realizing how trauma affects people; recognizing the signs; responding by changing practices; and resisting re-traumatization by addressing trauma and toxic stress in the lives of both staff and people served.

In other words, responding to this moment means recognizing that we are all hurting. The hurt will last for a long time and show up in ways we are not yet aware of. And when that pain appears in our relationships, we are called to respond with Empathy, though it is so very difficult during this time.

Empathy involves understanding and knowing something about the feelings of the people around you, feeling the interconnected web of existence of which we are a part, and moving about in ways that honor and hold up this awareness. It is easy to become irritable, frustrated, and angry with one another right now as we continue into an unknown number of months left in this transitioning world. Grounding ourselves in spiritual practice - both personal spiritual practice and group religious practice - will help regulate our emotions during a time in which we are reeling from loss, wading through trauma, and experiencing so much grief.

One such practice being offered by the Side with Love Campaign at the Unitarian Universalist Association is Thirty Days of Love, which offers many spiritual practices - both personal and collective - to help cultivate love - and its siblings' empathy and compassion. You can visit Thirty Days of Love to see all of the activities.

As Connie said above, you are not alone. We see you. We see how hard you have worked, and how difficult this has been. We continue to hold our member congregations in our hearts as we move forward into even more unknown. But where we go, we go together.

About the Authors

Connie Goodbread

Connie Goodbread is serving Unitarian Universalism as HOPE for Us Conflict Engagement Team Director. Connie served as Co-Lead of UUA Southern Region for three years.

Natalie Briscoe

Natalie Briscoe is the Lead of the Southern Region's Congregational Life staff team.

For more information contact .