One year when I was in Seminary at Starr King School for the Ministry, we were all mysteriously enrolled in a class called “Watching over the love.” This was very unusual because there were no required classes at SKSM. When the entire student body came together for the first class in the one room big enough to hold all 70 of us, a colleague of mine asked “Is this class required?” Our president and professor Dr. Rebecca Parker responded “no, but it is not optional either.” I thought it was a pretty interesting idea; while you can’t require anyone to take care of something like love, each person in a community impacts the quality of relationships that we all feel when we gather. Love is the business of a church, deep real complex human love.
So how do we show our love for our congregation? I want to talk about this in very practical concrete terms: a dozen basic agreements for congregational relationships. Any time you practice these it is like a box of chocolates or bouquet of flowers for your beloved community.
Our First Valentines gift is to make our expectations explicit when adding new people to a group, or starting a new project, or whenever things seem unclear or confused. What a blessing it is to a newcomer to hear things like “Don’t worry about dressing up for church, we are very casual” or “We all pitch in to wash cups at coffee hour.” Many conflicts begin because of conflicting expectations. Maybe Michael is not being rude and thoughtless, maybe he just as different expectations about what being a church member means. Every new group you meet will have different expectations, so it’s worth making explicit even seemingly obvious things. Some congregations go as far as creating a “Covenant of Right Relations” for their community. This is like getting out your snow shovel and ice melt before the first big storm. It’s hard to create agreements about “how we will work together” while the winds are howling.
The 2nd gift, and possibly the most important is… listen. Listen so that everyone feels heard. It is amazing how frustrated and angry we can get when we don’t feel heard, and how much healing and connection grows when someone really listens.
The Third Valentine, one that is a growing edge for most of us, is direct communication, so I’d like to spend some time with this one. Some of the most painful conflicts in congregations happen when a member has a concern and talks about it with everyone except the person it concerns. A concern between 2 people suddenly involves 30 people, many of whom are now anxious or angry and can’t really do anything to help. This is called triangulation. Imagine if Michael complained to you when Rosie put that worm in his sandwich. Now you are thinking “Geeze that Rosie really is a lout” Michael goes home and makes up with Rosie or gets on with life, but you are left thinking about that lout Rosie. The next time you are at coffee hour together, you are thinking “I don’t even want to talk to Rosie after what she did” even though Michael has lightened his load and moved on.
So as an act of love for our congregations, we speak directly. That means when Michael takes me aside in coffee hour to tell me about Rosie, I try to remember to say “When you talk to Rosie you should mention that.” Or if Michael says at a committee meeting, “Rosie should not be allowed to host coffee hour; who knows what she might put in the sandwiches” I hope I will have the courage to say “Rosie is not here with us today, if we have concerns to bring to her, let’s invite her to our next meeting so we can talk about it together.
Now this can be scary- the thought of speaking directly with someone about a conflict or concern. So if Michael says “no I couldn’t do that” I say “would you like me to come with you when you speak to her?” and if that still doesn’t work I can say “Would you like me to talk to her and tell her your concern?” In such a case we always use names. Let us try never to give anonymous feedback- because “I hear you’ve been putting gross things in people’s sandwiches” does not really help with healing and reconciliation.
Most likely you all have talked about direct communication here over these 200 years together, but it’s easy for the culture to shift; when one person falls off the wagon, most of the rest of us will fall off as well. At the same time it only takes one or two people to start de-triangulating to help everyone climb back on.
Because sometimes we do need to get advice from a friend, or get help troubleshooting a difficult relationship, but when we are acting out of our best self, we return as quickly as possible to direct communication so that our friend doesn’t get triangulated. It’s like the evil magic done by the white witch in Narnia; no one can save the animals she has turned to stone until she is gone. No one can de-triangulate all the people I bring into my concerns about church life except me. So for example if I say to the Committee on Ministry “Gee, I just don’t know how to solve a problem with Rosie, and I’m frustrated. Can you give me some advice?” I will be sure to go back to them later and say “I talked to Rosie this week and I think we are back on track”
The 4th valentine’s gift is “speak the truth with love.” We need to be able to tell one another the truth: In the words of this morning’s story: “Rosie is my friend. When she honest and truly wanted to know if she walked like a kangaroo, I honestly told her.” But the truth is powerful- we need to share it with love. A terse or fiery e-mail dashed off at 2 in the morning can do a lot of harm to feelings and morale, even if the facts in the e-mail are all true. How we say something can have a ripple effect that impacts the whole church system. In church life “how” we say the truth is as important as “what” we say.
The 5th valentine present is good boundaries. Being loving doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries, only that we express them in a compassionate way. It is important that we have the courage to say “When you made that joke I felt hurt” This is CRUCIAL! If someone is being hurtful or violating boundaries, or not keep their commitments, we as church leaders must speak up. Consider, for example, the clergy sexual abuse that we have heard about on the news. We ask now in retrospect: “Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why didn’t anyone stand up to the abuser?”
These boundaries are important on more subtle levels as well. If Michael sprays cool whip in your sneakers, or doesn’t do the action items he agreed to at the last committee meeting, it’s important to say something in a loving way.
Now of course there are plenty of small transgressions that we can just let go of- no one is perfect. If Michael made punctuation errors in this week’s order of service, it’s probably fine to let that go- they are on their way to the recycling bin anyway. But if I decide let it go, I have to really be able to LET IT GO. When I feel like I must talk to Alvin Alpert about the worm Rosie put in my sandwich, I know I have not really let it go. It’s time to talk to Rosie.
Small congregations are really good at giving the 6th valentine – we all share the work. When you know everyone by name, it’s easier to see plainly that if you don’t wash your coffee cup then Michel will have to. Not everyone can or should serve on the Board or teach Sunday school, but each of us can find a way to help build our community. This also means no one needs to burn themselves out. Burned out volunteers don’t make for a healthy happy community. We have to trust one another that if it’s really important and I just can’t do it, someone will emerge.
Being explicit about what we can and cannot do helps. If you say you can take on a project, and life happens, let folks know so they can respond. Tell your teammates: “we’re under-staffed at work and I need another week to type up those minutes” or “I can’t make that mural about the web of life now that my arthritis has flared up.” Sometimes the occasional e-mail saying “no progress yet on the mural, but it’s on my radar and I’m scheduling it for spring break” can be a relief to our team mates. That also gives them a chance to say “but spring break the UUA is coming to take photos of our new mural for the World magazine, can I give you a hand to get it done before then?”
Valentine #7 is: ask for what you want and need. Be as clear and specific as you can be. “Some of us want more spiritual sermons” is hard to respond to. “I notice you haven’t mentioned any Buddhist or Hindu teachings in the last 2 months, and I miss that” is very concrete. And, if the worship team knows who it is they are making changes for, they can check back in: “I thought of you when I tied my sermon into a passage from the Bhagavad Gita last week, did that help?”
When we are concrete and specific “No one cares about me” becomes “I felt lonely when I was in the hospital and no one from the congregation called or visited.” Now your community has a sense of where they came up short and what they can do to reconnect. The same is true for positive things as well. YOU know Michael makes the most amazing scones for coffee hour, but I bet Michael would like to hear it. It probably would lead to more delicious scones in the long term as well.
Valentine #8 is a hard one. It is: staying at the table. I know that sometimes congregations have tough conflicts, and it can be uncomfortable to come to church during such a conflict. Says Rev. Steve Bierly “Show others in the small church that ‘We’re in this thing together and I’ll stick it out as long as you all will’ and in this way conflict actually helps draw congregations closer together. [Bierly p. 56] Often we walk away from things that are hard. If coffee is bad at the coffee shop, I can just find another coffee shop. But I believe that church should be different. I believe in second chances for our beloved community, and third chances.
We know, however, that sometimes reconciliation is not possible, but still we can take care of how we leave and how we let others go. Says another church expert Arthur Boers: “Sometimes believers have to say: “I disagree with you sharply... But for the … well-being of the church, why do you not go your way and I go mine and …. perhaps someday we can reconnect in a healthier way.” [Boers, p. 90] If someone in our congregation resigns, we make sure someone in leadership reaches out and says goodbye, and asks about their experience so that they feel heard and so that we can grow in wisdom about our community.
The 9th valentine is simple but important. Use I statements. How different does it sound to hear “You are a jerk” than to hear “I am really angry.” When I say “I,” I get to say my truth, and I don’t have to worry about hurting someone else. Also, when people know you are not attacking or blaming them, they are more likely to keep listening. Now you have to be careful with this “I am really angry that you are being a jerk” doesn’t count. The usual formulation is “when you didn’t send out the minutes I felt frustrated.” or “ I really needed those minutes to prepare for tonight’s meeting, and when I didn’t get them I felt frustrated.” How do you know if you formulated it correctly? If you feel centered in yourself afterward you got it right.
This goes with the 10th; no insulting or name-calling. This is a very clear guideline. There is no case where a person can cross this line and still be in right relationship. Here is where Judith Viorst and I part ways. If I call Michael a Banana Head in the heat of an argument, I owe Michael an apology. And hopefully Michael can say back, “I forgive you, and I’m sorry I called you a monkey face.”
The 11th Valentine gift is to pay attention to process and to feelings. One committee I served on adopted an informal process monitor to notice and speak up when the tone was getting adversarial, when folks seemed discouraged, or when someone had violated one of our agreements about how we would treat one another. Almost as soon as she took on this role, other committee members would say “here’s something for the energy monitor” because everyone was becoming conscious of how we were with each other, watching over the love. Any member should be able to stop a class, a board meeting or congregational meeting and ask “where is the love right now?” and if the answer is not clear, then that is arguably the most important work that group can do together.
According to Peter Steinke, who is a consultant on church health for the Alban Institute “Mood, tone, spirit of church is very important.” As the hymn says “Love is the spirit of this church.” This is something you can feel if it’s present, and its absence can be felt as well. This is why we need to celebrate and laugh together. Says Steinke: “humor and church growth are directly related”. He encourages us to feed each other, to nourish each other. This church is very good about feeding one another, not only with food but in other ways as well. This is what makes community worthwhile, and what gets you through the hard times.
The last Valentine gift is to uphold your agreements ESPECIALLY when you least feel like it. It’s easy to speak the truth with love when all is peaceful and well. It is much harder when your supposed friend has put a worm in your sandwich. But this is when it really counts. If you act with love and compassion, and follow the agreements your community has laid out together during the rough times, the challenges we face together hold the possibility of bringing us closer together and strengthening our community.
If our goal is building and sustaining the beloved community here at UUCAS, each of us is responsible for watching over the love, each of us plays a role in the quality of relationship that binds us together. What better occasion than Valentine’s day to give this gift to one another.
Judith Biorst “Rosie and Michael” (New York:Atheneum, 1983).
Steve R. Bierly “Help for the Small-Chrurch Pastor” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).
Peter L. Steinke “Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach” (New York: Alban Institute, 1996).
David Augsburger “Never Call them Jerks” (New York: Alban Institute, 1999).