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Passions, Missions, Conflict, or, The Beat Goes On


At church, it's the start of a new year. Technically, this was true a couple of months ago, but we just celebrated our annual Ingathering service, where we mentally get down to business and invite the whole congregation in, rather than quietly trying to get it together behind the scenes.

And this year, once again, I'm on the governing board, doing the same thing as last year (it's a two-year gig).

I know it's going to be better this year. How do I know this? Because it couldn't possibly be worse than it was from September of 2012 to May of 2013. ...Conventional wisdom says that's a bad statement to make; it's like challenging fate to rain down calamity just to make me eat my words. But I'll defy those rules - Ha!

There were many good things about the previous church year. The minister of nine years' tenure had just resigned and we were all sort of in shock from that. But we resolved that the most important thing we could do was to just keep on, and we recognized a perfect opportunity to make some overdue changes. The departed minister, while providing a sense of stability and organization, had become a walking symbol of complacency and stodginess. It was time for change! Decisiveness! Bold action!

Sure. Absolutely. There was change in abundance, personified by our interim minister, a woman named Gwen, who could not have been more different from her predecessor, John. With such a visible break from the past, it seemed like the sky was the limit. All we had to do was spread our wings, let the sunshine in, and SOAR.

The president of our board was Isela, who had an extensive background in business. She and her husband Bert were relative newcomers to the congregation, but they'd both been active and enthusiastic members. Isela had led the effort to revamp our entire organizational structure to make it more streamlined and attractive. She was a doer, which we very obviously needed. She was passionate about our denomination's liberal inclinations, and felt, as many of us did, that this was a perfect time in history to be part of it.

Another board member was Tim, who had been active in our community for a very long time. Not only he, but his wife, four daughters, and in-laws, were exceedingly strong and popular members.Just like Isela, he believed very ardently in our denomination and its role in making the world a better place. He had a long and varied career as an academic and a scholar.

But there was one very crucial difference between Isela and Tim. Isela believed that in order to make Unitarian Universalism a dynamic part of the community, it was necessary to govern the congregation along conventional, tried-and-true lines. She went with the things she understood best: a pragmatic approach, with top-down leadership, vertical mentoring, and limited sharing of information. Looking back now, I see how she endeavored to surround herself with a small group of people who agreed with her and were willing to work at making her vision a reality.

Tim, on the other hand, believed that the seven (very egalitarian, very democratic) principles that guide us also applied to governance. That is, rank-and-file congregants had just as much power and agency as the Board, and should be welcomed in any and all discussions, with no boundaries. He also had very strong opinions when it came to vocabulary. He didn't like the word covenant, believing it was a concept used to justify bondage; he didn't like the word spiritual,because he was an atheist and felt that secular language would be more useful to us going forward. His views were brought up very early in the life of the Board and set the tone for many of our meetings.

Isela had a strong, no-nonsense vision for our congregation. Gwen, being a minister, recognized the need for goodwill and emotional nurturance. Tim believed that everyone, given the opportunity, had the ability to be strong and self-determining without giving in to superstition and woo-woo. Ideally, these three varying views could have synthesized and given congregants a limitless vision for a glorious and exciting future.

But it wasn't meant to be.  Tim and Isela each saw the other as a threat. Isela distrusted Tim in a more personal way, feeling that Tim was subtly sexist and determined to knock her down. Tim (I'm conjecturing here) saw Isela as a symbol of white middle-class oppression and corporate elitism.  Gwen was resolved, above all else, to be fair and consider the needs of the congregation as a whole.

Before the year had progressed very far, a particular issue of some sensitivity had been brought up by a couple of congregants. They had drafted a policy, sent it to the Board, and requested that it be voted on.  Another nearby congregation had grappled with this same debate, so we checked with them to see if they had any recommendations. They did. They had put the policy in place (with some rather strict procedures), and their strongest advice was not to take the question to the congregation because it was too emotional and divisive.

Isela was 100 percent in favor of the policy and felt that we should vote on it quickly and decisively. This was probably all Tim needed to hear; he immediately opposed it on legal, ethical and philosophical grounds. And in direct contradiction to the other church's advice, he pushed to make it an open forum, where every single congregant was encouraged to weigh in on the issue.

I have to admit that for most of the church year I was more in Isela's corner. I liked her full-speed-ahead, get 'er done mindset. I had served on the Board in previous years and found the endless debate on minute details to be tedious and draining. We needed change. Everyone seemed to agree on that, but we were still getting stuck on what kind(s) of change, and how much, and how much leeway did we want to give various people to make it happen? Isela's limited-input view appealed to me because many members of the congregation (especially the newer ones) said they just liked the happy community of the church, and the services, and didn't care to get bogged down in policy-making, and wasn't that why we had a governing board in the first place? I agreed with the proposed policy and when Tim put on the brakes and began dissecting it, I could relate to Isela's frustration.

The debate dragged on. We tried various methods, both on- and off-line, of bringing the question before the congregation. Many people feared that this one topic would sunder us as a community. It didn't, though a couple of key people (including one Board member) felt so strongly about it that they left the church and refused to come back unless it was resolved the way they wanted it. Gwen, meanwhile, insisted gently that the issue was not what it appeared on the surface; there was a lot more underlying emotion that needed to be acknowledged. Isela dismissed this as wishy-washiness. Tim continued reaching out far and wide to as many people as he could think of, and soon there was no turning back. We ended up having first a forum, in which we whittled it down to three general schools of thought, then at the church's annual meeting, a formal vote of the congregation. A lot of people voted. And what they voted for, overwhelmingly, was to leave things just as they were, with no policy in either direction.

And a few weeks later, it was all moot anyway. Isela resigned her presidency before the church year was even done. No one has seen her or Bert. They may have left the church altogether. Tim's board term ended. Gwen considered resigning when things were at their ugliest mid-year, but has started the second half of her interim ministry with us. Tim is still as dedicated and involved as ever. He still enjoys the social capital that Isela had hoped to erode.

I'm still processing all of it. I've come to see Isela's Nixon-esque personality traits, and I'm none too pleased with myself for being so blind to them for so long. Isela and Tim never reached any sort of accord, even though at one point they even enlisted a licensed clinical psychologist to meet with them and try to sort it out. Isela and Gwen stopped working together when Isela said she felt ready to resign, but then changed her mind and blamed Gwen for letting that intention be known to her fellow Board members.

Conflicts still swirl among many of the subgroups in the church.  The committee elected to search for a new permanent minister had to disband recently because the seven members had too many disagreements. This is probably not a bad thing.  After Gwen leaves next summer, we'll get a "temp-to-perm" minister and I have every confidence that we'll do fine with them.  I've noticed two strong tendencies in our congregation. First, a knee-jerk response to any emotional distress is "I quit." Gwen recharacterizes the "healthy debate" we all revere as bullying. That may not be true in every case, but it was true in the year just past. Another thing we're in the habit of doing is hiring people we're familiar with, even if it causes conflicts of interest or sets up well-intentioned individuals to fail. Our congregation has survived more than 60 years of periodic wackiness and I'm sure it will outlast the current crop.

Meanwhile, we still serve the best fair-trade coffee in the Southeast.


The Urban Blabbermouth said…
Wow, reads like a TV drama. My friend's condo has a similar struggle on the management board. It happens in all organizations at all levels.

Do you see any similarity to the Three Languages of Politics?
Vol-E said…
Yes, as a matter of fact, in a congregation like this one, the topic of politics is inescapable. The Libertarian contingent is as forceful as the liberal -- often more so, because they feel outnumbered. Thanks for commenting.

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