“Stay at the table”
When Darcey gave her sermon last month about “Watching Over the Love,” I found myself nodding in agreement she spoke about valentine number seven, “Stay at the table.” She was talking about persevering through church conflict.
Church is the last place we want to have to deal with conflict. We have enough stress in our lives outside of church – in our relationships, where we work, in other volunteer organizations. We come here to find love and peace. And we do find a lot of love and peace, but occasionally we also find conflict. Because we expect church to be a haven from the stress of life, conflict in church can be especially disappointing and disillusioning. It’s very tempting to give up and walk out when things get difficult.
During my first five years as a member of UUCAS, we had two significant conflicts. Since childhood I have been afraid of conflict, and the early experiences at UUCAS confirmed my worst fears: that conflict means that relationships will fall apart. Some members – including me - considered leaving the congregation, and several of them actually did leave.
Those painful events preceded my term as president of this congregation. My four years were, thankfully, relatively smooth sailing. But disagreements always arose, and, as president, I had to learn to deal with them. While I’m still not completely comfortable with conflict, I now know that it does not mean that the world is coming to an end. On the contrary, it can lead to learning and growth – if we stay at the table.
I believe that staying at the table is important for three reasons.
First, healthy disagreements help us find better answers. When dissenters leave, we lose important perspectives. I am constantly amazed by the diversity of thought among UUs. I’ve heard issues that I considered “no-brainers” debated hotly at General Assembly and within our own congregation. I would think, “Who wouldn’t agree with this proposal?” – and of course someone always does. And what I thought would be a thirty-minute congregational meeting turns into an hour and a half! But the dissenting opinions always open my eyes to ways of looking at the issue that I had never considered. Because those with opposing views chose to stay at the table, we were able find a better path.
Second, we can be the church we want to be only if the people who see us going off track are willing to push us back on track. Last month we welcomed new members with the following words:
“This congregation charges you to use your fresh and new perspectives to remind us when we seem to be losing our way. Evaluate our words and acts by the words we have just read together. Remind us when we have overlooked them.”
We warn our new members that we don’t always live up to our highest ideals. That shouldn’t be a surprise - we are human, after all. We ask them to stay at the table when we don’t appear to be walking the talk and to help us to put things right.
Finally, staying at the table is important because our world desperately needs people who can resolve conflict peacefully and constructively, and church is an excellent place to develop those skills. I view church as a laboratory. We try to figure out how to create loving community on a small scale, and then we use what we’ve learned to try to transform the rest of the world. If we can’t make it work here, where we share common principles and a covenant to love each other, what hope is there for our world? We need to stay at the table and do the hard work of making peace here, so that we can do it outside.
This congregation is thriving today, 200 years after its founding, because people stayed at the table. In my eleven years, I’ve seen members whose persistent advocacy of a minority viewpoint eventually won over the rest of us and led us to do things of which we were very proud. We have a handicap access ramp, we are a Welcoming Congregation, we have Joys and Concerns in our worship service, we have taken public stands on issues, we have chairs that can be rearranged instead of fixed pews - all because people stayed at the table through the disagreements – and there were disagreements on all of these! - and helped us change and grow.
In any organization of at least two people, conflict is inevitable. It shows that people care. Sometimes conflicts cannot be resolved and people feel they have to leave the table because the wounds are too deep, the disagreements too fundamental, and the emotional energy required to maintain the relationship too great. But I encourage you to try really hard to stay at the table when things get tough. And encourage those who disagree with you to stay, too. We can be the church we want to be – and the world we want to be - if we stay at the table.