By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 26, 2010
By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 26, 2010
My heart fell into my shoes as I listened to that voice mail nine years ago; it was the president of the board of my former congregation in Portland informing me that he had received a letter from a small group of anonymous dissident congregants, accusing me of not being a good minister and citing complaints about sermons not being intellectual enough, my being too Christian in my beliefs, missing chances for pastoral care, and forcing my opinions about social action priorities onto the congregation.
The letter had come out of the blue, for me; we had had our ups and downs but we had doubled our size in the three years I’d been there, we’d nearly completed the work to become a Welcoming Congregation, we’d instituted an all-congregation social action project serving transitional families, we had a thriving religious education program, and I’d thought the only fly in the ointment was our need to meet at 4 p.m., rather than have a morning service. Instead I learned this little group wanted to fire me.
Boy, I wish I’d known then what I know now about congregational life and how easy it can be for small conflicts to grow into conflagrations that split congregations and cause ministers to pack their bags.
Because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to talk to, or how to talk to them appropriately; I didn’t even know who the dissidents were. I just stewed over it, my hurt feelings growing by the day. I’d been an enthusiastic gardener, enjoying my tomato plants and native flowers, and now I found that, instead of getting my frustrations out with the dirt and weeds, I was brooding over my mistakes while gardening, feeling betrayed by congregants whom I had thought supported me and my leadership.
And the congregation didn’t know what to do either. They’d formed out of dissatisfaction with a larger church in Portland, feeling that they’d be better served by a new start in their own neighborhood, and I’d come to be their first fulltime minister. Yet here they were, struggling to express their discontent and just making things worse in the process, as was I.
In fairness to them, I will say that their complaints about me were understandable; I was a rookie, fresh out of seminary and extremely wet behind the ears, despite thinking I knew everything! I do prefer personal reflections to highly intellectual lectures, I’ve never denied my Christian roots and my Baptist DNA, I hadn’t been able to keep up with pastoral care in every case, and I had pretty much pushed the creation of an all-congregation social action project.
As we struggled to resolve our conflicts, which seemed insurmountable at the time and did result in my deciding to leave that congregation the next year, we all discovered some important things about how to treat each other in conflict, how to forgive and be forgiven, how to move on after a big jolt in our congregational life. There’s more to this story and I’ll tell that part later.
But for now, let’s look at the clumsy process that resulted in a great deal of hurt, people leaving the congregation in anger and frustration, and important changes being delayed until new ways of being together could be established.
The folks who were unhappy with my leadership had some legitimate concerns but didn’t have the tools or the courage to bring them to me directly. And on the few occasions that one or two mentioned something, I tended to get defensive and explain at great length just why I was doing something they didn’t like.
So they’d gripe to each other in the parking lot after church and I’d gripe to my friends outside the congregation or to sympathetic family members. And our unshared grievances grew until they couldn’t be contained and spilled over into congregational life, becoming a conflict that needed outside intervention.
What might have spared this young and inexperienced congregation and minister the pain of such a difficult situation? What might have re-routed the conversation so that it could be used productively rather than destructively? What could we have done differently in the beginning?
Today we are spending time considering a document called a Covenant of Right Relations, which a board-appointed task force has been working on for several months, looking at what the Unitarian Universalist Association suggests for congregations, looking at the work others have done, considering our history as a congregation and what has worked for us here, as well as what we wished we’d done better.
Our first consideration, though, was to understand the term “Covenant” in a religious setting like ours. The word Covenant has several wellknown uses and definitions. In some settings, it’s an agreement that homeowners will not do certain kinds of things on their property, in order to stay in good standing as members of a housing development and it can be somewhat punitive.
In other settings, it can mean contracts, bargains, certain legal documents--- or agreements about religious doctrine. In Christianity and Judaism, for example, God is in covenant with God’s people to provide for them if they keep God’s commandments. In specific Christian denominations, members of that faith covenant to uphold the doctrine of that denomination.
However, our faith tradition does not define “Covenant” in those ways. Our faith tradition is not about believing certain things but rather about our behavior toward each other, toward the larger community, and toward the earth on which we live.
“Covenant” means to us to come together in a solemn agreement, making a promise from the heart about how we will be together in this religious community. It is based on our Unitarian Universalist principles and on the Affirmation that we repeat every Sunday.
The task force which created the Covenant words for your consideration today used our Affirmation as its starting point, fleshing it out in two ways: first, to amplify the meaning of the statement we speak every week: “Love is the spirit of this congregation and service is its practice. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to speak truth in love, and to help one another” .
Such simple words. So much meaning. And so the second task was to create a set of promises that we might make to one another in this community, in accordance with our Principles and our Affirmation.
Because, how do we exemplify the Love that is the spirit of this congregation? How do we practice service? What does it mean that we wish to dwell together in peace? To speak truth in love? To help one another? This is what we mean by the term “Right Relations”.
How do we keep these simple words active in our lives, both here in this sacred space and outside in the larger community? It is so easy for simple words to become merely mindless ritual, and, in fact, that’s one reason why some of us are here---when thoughtless repetition of doctrine became uncomfortable and we were looking for a religious faith that came from the heart and the mind.
We want to live our Principles and our Affirmation in all areas of our congregational life and in the larger community. This way of living our beliefs is our quiet witness to the world that Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition that walks its talk, not only in our social justice actions but also in our relationships with each other.
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the transforming power of love and because of this, we seek to create relationships of compassion, respect and forgiveness, to love our neighbor and to recognize that every person is our neighbor.
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in cooperative power, not in coercive power, power with, rather than power over.
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in humility and open-mindedness, knowing we ourselves can make mistakes and that others’ opinions are valid; we are willing to change our minds when we see that we are wrong.
As you have read through the first draft of the Covenant of Right Relations, I hope you have noticed one thing in particular: that these promises are positive in nature, affirming our desire to be our best selves with each other. They are not punitive, but encouraging; they recognize that we may goof up and when we do, we forgive ourselves and others and begin again in love.
These promises are active, not passive. When we say we warmly welcome all, that means that when a visitor walks through the door, we greet them in a friendly way and do what we can to make them comfortable in our midst.
When we promise to speak with honesty, respect, and kindness, that means we curb our tempers and strive to speak our minds with courtesy, not rancor.
When we promise to listen compassionately, that means we don’t interrupt, we pay attention to what the other is saying, so that we have a better understanding of their point of view.
When we promise to express our gratitude for others’ work, that means we say thank you often and express our appreciation, avoiding petty criticism.
When we promise to honor and support one another in life, that means we reach out to those who are hurting, we volunteer our services to make another’s life easier during a tough siege, we are thrilled for each others’ joys and mourn each others’ sorrows.
When we promise to embrace our diversity and the opportunity for different perspectives, we strive to learn more about those who are different from us so that we can learn from their perspectives.
When we address our disagreements directly and openly and move toward resolution, that means we talk directly to the person we are in conflict with, not behind his or her back, and we work toward real resolution and understanding.
When we promise to serve our spiritual community, that means we regularly sign up to be an usher or to serve refreshments or to help with the religious education program or pull weeds in the yard, and we are faithful with our financial support.
And when we goof up, as we all will, on occasion, we apologize, we forgive ourselves, we forgive those who have let us down, and we move forward with renewed commitment to keep our promises.
All healthy relationships and groups have conflict; it’s how we handle the inevitable differences of opinion that will make or break those relationships and so it is, too, with a congregation.
So how did the situation at my former congregation work out? Well, it was bad enough at the beginning that we called upon the services of our local UU district, asking them to help us sort out what had gone wrong and how we might approach it.
And in a set of interviews with congregation members and friends, a team listened carefully to all points of view, interviewed me deeply, and came up with a pretty concise and pointed analysis of what our difficulties were and how we had made missteps in addressing our differences.
To the congregation they pointed out that talking behind the back of those they disagreed with was not a fair way of enacting change, that direct and respectful conversation with the other person was the best way of addressing problems. They mentioned instances in which a dissident member had been publicly disrespectful to me and to other leaders. They mentioned secret meetings and email conversations in which people planned how they could fire me.
To me, they were also pretty clear. I had made some unwise moves myself and needed to change my own behavior. They informed me that my energy and enthusiasm can feel disempowering and controlling to those I work with. They reminded me of the times someone had tried to talk with me about a difference of opinion and how I’d responded defensively, not compassionately. And they reminded me that I need to remember that my casual words and occasional flip remarks can easily be misinterpreted.
They made these pronouncements at a congregational meeting in early November of that year and in a private conference with me. There was an initial flurry of disagreement from all sides but once we settled down, most of us could see how the conflict had grown to the proportions it had. The team then suggested that after some period of reflection the congregation might begin work on a Covenant of Right Relations to help them work through any future conflicts more productively.
I went about my work from that point on acutely aware of my own errors, feeling embarrassed by my mistakes, and yet hopeful that I might be able to bring more resolution to my hurting congregation and myself in the next few months before my resignation took effect. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I was still in a lot of pain.
The week before Thanksgiving, I was preparing my annual sermon of gratitude for blessings and feeling pretty sad about the situation we’d just come through. I still felt hurt, our dissidents had not been happy about the recommendations the visiting team had made, and I was having a hard time being joyful as the holiday season began.
I came home from a meeting one afternoon to find a voicemail on my answering machine. I recognized the number on the caller ID; it was the phone number of the one person I’d felt most betrayed by, a woman I thought was a strong supporter. I was almost afraid to listen to her message, feeling beaten down by all the criticism I’d endured for the past months and fearing she was going to give me some more.
But I was in for a surprise. Her familiar voice just said, “Kit, this is Betty. I feel terrible about how I’ve treated you during these past few months. Can we talk?” And talk we did, for a long time, and we came to a new understanding of how our relationship had been damaged by our poor communication.
Over coffee, we sorted out the ways we had hurt each other, we apologized to each other, and we made a commitment to share our reconciliation and our new relationship with the congregation.
And on Thanksgiving Sunday, after re-thinking my Thanksgiving sermon, I apologized to the congregation for my mistakes and told them what I hoped we could accomplish together during the last few months of my time with them. We lit candles of hope at the end of the service and acknowledged the journey of reconciliation that lay ahead for us as a congregation.
During the next months, several others in the dissident group came to me to apologize and to receive my direct apology for ways I had hurt them.
I wouldn’t say that all was sunshine and roses from then on, but we had received a powerful lesson in what NOT to do and how to mend our broken ties. We had lost several strong members because they couldn’t stomach the conflict; our Sunday attendance dropped dramatically, I found it hard to look out at the gathering while preaching and note who wasn’t there.
But we made it through the year with some regained self-respect, knowing we had done the best we could with a tough situation.
And, once peace was restored, in the next few years, as I understand it, that congregation began work on a Covenant of Right Relations, so that they would always be reminded of their own role in maintaining the Spirit of Love in the congregation.
As we move ahead to develop a Covenant of Right Relations that works for us, expresses our hopes and commitments in the ways we feel most valuable, I am grateful that we already have a foundation of many peaceful years together and that creating this document is mostly a matter of confirming the respectful ways we already treat each other.
The plan is to discuss the proposed draft today, with facilitators at each table making notes about suggestions and concerns. The task force will take all those notes into consideration, will create a second draft for your approval, and we will repeat this process as often as necessary. It will culminate in a vote at a congregation meeting in the future, when the final draft is completed.
In our work this afternoon, I hope we’ll share the many ways we already show our care and concern for each other, consider other ways we might add, and get started on the work of Covenanting together.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have a precious connection to one another in this faith community. May we seek to strengthen and protect that connection by making our love for one another visible through our actions and may we extend our love beyond these walls into the larger community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.