Few, if any of us, truly enjoy conflict. At best, it is uncomfortable, as our “fight or flight” instincts kick into gear. At worst, it can be stressful, exhausting, and often painful. When a conflict arises our default reaction is to deny it or to look the other way in hopes that it might resolve itself. If we can’t escape it, perhaps we talk around it or try to shift the focus elsewhere so that we don’t have to confront the fundamental differences that sparked the conflict to begin with. Some of this may be due to how we, as children, witnessed unhealthy — even violent — responses to conflict between our parents, siblings, or other loved ones. Perhaps we sought to make ourselves invisible, closed our eyes, or tried to wish away the dispute. Maybe we’ve asked plaintively, “can we all get along?” just as Rodney King did in appealing for calm while Los Angeles was convulsed by violent civil disturbances in 1992.
Would that it was so easy or that we could wish conflicts away. The reality is that with imperfect human beings relating to other imperfect human beings, conflict is not just normal, it’s inevitable. We don’t all agree about everything. Yet, people can still love each other and live with each other, even when they have disagreements.
As Unitarian Universalists who come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, our personal perspectives or priorities may clash, even if we try to abide by commonly held principles and values, and even as we strive to live by our covenants. Let’s face it, as passionate people of faith and/or agents of change with strong convictions in the rightness of our causes, we might sometimes let our fears or frustrations with the world and/or each other get the better of us and we vent in ways that do harm to others and our relationships with them. We might say things we later regret. We might see and hear things in ways that another did not intend. Differences become magnified and we lose sight of the things we share.
It’s no secret that conflicts have simmered throughout the UU world and at UUCC in recent years, occasionally boiling over. We are not immune to the poisons that circulate in the outer world. That’s become especially evident with online exchanges where, as one UUCC member recently put it, the discourse sometimes resembles “road rage or drive-by shootings.” Subtlety, tone, and nuance is lost and some say things they would likely never say face-to-face or well-meaning things that unintentionally cause hurt feelings. Trust is diminished, our defenses go up, and we fortify our positions, particularly if we feel attacked in the public square.
Meanwhile, some have come to mourn what they feel is a loss of safe space at UUCC where they hope to come for sanctuary. Like innocent bystanders, bewildered and afraid to engage, some wish that the conflicts would simply go away, effectively asking, “can we all get along?” Others seek to fix blame (“it’s leadership’s fault” or “the Board hasn’t done anything” or “if only those others would . . . “) as if the responsibility to “fix” a systemic issue rests solely with someone else.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the underlying assumption sometimes seems to be that conflict is something to avoid at all costs. But is conflict avoidance possible if we are to remain true to UUCC’s purpose as articulated in our bylaws? That is, can we be “a transforming spiritual community . . . (that) freely explores the mysteries of the universe and acts to make the world better” without encountering conflict? If all we seek is to maintain the quiet “peace” of a status quo by denying or avoiding conflict altogether, then what, exactly, are we “transforming?” How are we truly acting “to make the world better?”
Rather than seeing conflict as inherently bad, could we look at it as an opportunity for us to grow as individuals and as a community? What if we choose to embrace conflict as an opening to engage one another more deeply and come to know and appreciate ourselves and each other better than before?
The Board of Trustees has no real ability or authority to regulate the behavior or discourse of UUCC members. However, we have endeavored to organize different opportunities to promote greater mutual understanding, among UUCC congregants over the past year or so, such as Rev. Paige’s Town Hall Q&A last August, daylong workshops with Paula Cole Jones and CB Beal, a Beloved Conversations program, various book clubs around different themes, and a regular series of Conversation Circles following Sunday services aimed at cultivating active listening skills.
In response to a request from some UUCC congregants for neutral 3rd party facilitation to “resolve points of conflict currently present among UUCC community members,” in early 2020 the Board engaged with the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center (MCRC) of Howard County. MCRC is a local non-profit that has experience in working with communities and congregations in conflict. After initial consultations with UUCC leadership and representatives of the 4th Principle Group, the MCRC submitted a brief proposal on February 28. We were encouraged by MCRC’s perception that UUCC congregants remain committed to Unitarian Universalism and to the congregation, i.e. they found there was “still room for the we” despite the conflicts.
MCRC’s proposed process entailed a survey followed by a 3-hour congregational action planning meeting sometime in late March or in April. We felt it would not be effective to jump right into an action-planning exercise without first doing in-person dialogs or some other process to promote genuine mutual understanding. On March 2, MCRC’s Executive Director agreed to revise their proposal with a view to incorporating a process involving structured dialogs. Unfortunately, the coronavirus emergency hit Maryland days later, delaying our ability to develop an approach and schedule for implementation. MCRC and other mediation experts have advised that this type of conflict resolution process is best done in-person rather than through virtual platforms.
Despite the delay, UUCC leadership remains fully committed to advancing a meaningful, restorative process as soon as we realistically can once we overcome the constraints presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, even as we may explore other avenues to foster dialog, it would be useful to contemplate what the goal of such a process would be. Would it be so we can all simply return to some idyllic “status quo” of times gone by? (“Can we all get along?”) Or might it be to grow into deeper relationship with each other as we strive to be “a transforming spiritual community . . . (that) freely explores the mysteries of the universe and acts to make the world better?”
As Abraham Lincoln put it in his December 1862 message to Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Let us likewise “rise with the occasion” and “think anew and act anew” so that we might go forward together and save our Beloved Community.
With great love and respect, your Board of Trustees,
Carla Gates, President
Tim Lattimer, First Vice President
Colette Gelwicks, Second Vice President
Wendy Ramsey, Treasurer
Ken Rock, Secretary
Amy Brooks, At-large Member
Robin Hessey, At-large Member