Fake Fights and Healthy Conflict
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 26, 2018
One of the reasons I attend the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists known as General Assembly is for the great worship services. UUs gather once a year from across the country and around the world to conduct business, share programs, create a little justice, and do worship. One highlight is always the Sunday morning worship open to the public and attended by thousands of Unitarian Universalists.
My sermon this morning is inspired by the Sunday morning General Assembly worship service from two years back. In 2016, GA was in Columbus, OH and the preacher for Sunday was the Reverend Nancy McDonald Ladd. Her title was “In All Thy Getting, Get Understanding.” (https://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/sunday) The reading from this morning (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/tapping-out-fake-fights) is an excerpt of that sermon.
She began the sermon with a personal story, with great humor and style, of a conflict she experienced as a child in the church where she grew up. She also shared the process of resolution for that conflict, offering it as a template for resolution in any conflict. In the reading, we mostly heard her concern about how we Unitarian Universalists waste our energy on fake fights while the real fight beckons.
What did she mean by this phrase ‘fake fight’? A great example I see that keeps popping up in the news is the “war on Christmas.” It is a fake fight. The debate between “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” is a constructed complaint. Rev. Ladd said a fake fight usually conceals a real fight about our values and relationships. In this example, I would suggest the real fight concealed behind the trumped-up fight about “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” centers around the fear of conservative Christians that Christianity is losing its central seat in the religious life of our country. Perhaps you’ve heard the analysis recently that from a position of privilege, equality can feel like oppression.
It may be helpful to recognize Rev. Ladd’s analysis when you bump into something that feels like a fake fight to you. She said a fake fight often conceals a real fight about our values and relationships.
Where did you learn how to have a healthy fight? When were you given the resources for resolving conflicts in your life?
I did learn some useful skills in my family of origin, but it was a mixed bag. I imagine that is the case for most people. Growing up, my family was good a conflict avoidance, leaving things to simmer. I later learned this is a classic technique in a home touched by alcoholism. We simply denied the existence of the awful tension, hoping it would not explode. One useful skill I learned in that setting was some pretty subtle de-escalation skills.
Later, with some training in psychology in general and Family Systems in particular, I figured out how to have conflict rather than avoid it. And I discovered those childhood defense skills were also useful as relationship skills in healthy settings. Where did you learn how to have a healthy fight? When were you given the resources for resolving conflicts in your life? For me it was through some particular trainings and some reevaluation of what my family of origin taught me.
But conflicts are not just for families! Congregations and churches can have conflict too! Our congregation has periodically hosted a Healthy Communication class for our leaders. This class – and others like it – offer some of the techniques and skills for navigating conflict and differences. A lot of Healthy Communications work is rooted in Family Systems and Congregational Systems theory.
Ed Friedman was a rabbi, therapist, leadership consultant and author of several books including the seminal work on Congregational Systems Generation to Generation. He would say the trick to navigating conflict is to “stay connected while changing yourself.” He wrote, “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.” (A Failure of Nerve)
Start from your own integrity. Lean into the conflict, while staying centered and true to your integrity. The truism stands, “We cannot change others, only ourselves.” The ultimate responsibility of any leader or change agent is to take charge of yourself. The work is not to motivate, move, or manipulate others. Friedman said, “Stay connected while changing yourself.” That doesn’t mean giving in to whatever someone else wants. That means listening to what they want, hearing them, and then responding from your own centered position.
It is an art to disagree with someone and stay connected with them. Our consumeristic society does not encourage it. When we are constantly buying the next thing because we are dissatisfied with the old thing, it is easy for that attitude to seep into our relationship. The commercials bombard us with the upgrade, the improvement, the better version – they sell us dissatisfaction. Often what we are buying is a feeling that we are not enough or we do not have enough or our current product is not good enough. They sell dissatisfaction. Not every commercial does this, but it is a classic sales technique. And it can become a mentality, a consumerist mentality, which pervades other aspects of our life as well, including relationships. After all, why would you hang out with people you don’t really get along with? Thus, relationships become disposable. And it is an art to disagree with someone and stay connected with them.
And this is exactly the point Rev. Ladd made in the first part of her sermon. Back at the Sunday morning GA worship service in Columbus, OH two years back. I mentioned already that she began the sermon with a personal story of a conflict she experienced as a child in the church where she grew up. And, she also shared the process of resolution for that conflict. The resolution essentially was that she and the other person stayed in relationship through their disagreement. Technically, what she said was they were stuck together – neither getting exactly what they initially wanted, but eventually growing on each other.
Their disagreement did not go away, but neither did they. She said “[the] friction of our difference is what made change passible.” By staying in relationship, something new developed. Rev. Ladd offered this quote from Evangelical and Social Activist Micky ScottBey Jones:
Relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship – consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own – it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
When we stay in relationship with people who are different from us, who hold opposing opinions from us, who have different identities and perspectives from us, then we open ourselves to the possibility of real encounter. We may not resolve the disagreement, but the disagreement may become less important when we begin to understand the values at stake underneath the conflict.
Now, as I’ve been talking about fake fights and church conflicts, perhaps you’ve started pondering your own experiences here in our beloved congregation. Perhaps you’ve even started to wonder if I would risk naming a few recent or even current topics for consideration as ‘fake fights.’ The answer is, ‘Yes.’ I will take that risk.
Joys and Sorrows. We have had some conflict together about how we do Joys and Sorrows as a congregation. I mentioned at Kit H.’s memorial service a month ago that Kit and I had a difference of opinion on how Joys and Sorrows was being done that nearly did damage to our relationship. The way through was in listening to the values behind our different positions. The way forward was in seeing the shared values we held despite the differing conclusions we held. The blending of written and spoken Joys and Sorrows is a compromise borne of hearing the values beneath the disagreement.
Here’s another one. Do you still use the word ‘church’ when naming or describing our building? Our official name is the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, NY. We changed the “C” in “UUCB” from “Church” to “Congregation” decades back to be more inclusive. But the word ‘congregation’ is usually referring to the people. What do you call the building? And do you get into disagreements about it with people? Do you correct people? Now consider, what are the values and relationships at stake in this? I tend to use both. I almost see it as akin to the Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays fight. Different people connect to different words.
Now, this is quite at the level of a ‘fight’ here. Ours is a fairly healthy congregation and I’m having to dig a little to get to this stuff. Some congregations fight about money or justice issues. Here we go after other things.
Change often breeds conflict. And we are in the midst of some major changes in several aspects of the life of this congregation right now. I was away on sabbatical this past winter. During that time, we were actively shifting into this new Family Ministry model and took steps to hire a new staff person as Director of Family Ministry. With the expanded seating capacity in the sanctuary we went from two to one worship service on Sunday mornings starting in January. We also, while I was away on sabbatical, hosted major conversations about renovations and a capital campaign. There was a lot going on! Do you know what I heard about when I returned in May? Which issue stirred up conflict? It was the problem of what time the worship service would start.
We are making radical changes to our religious education program. We are actually doing that capital campaign we keep saying we want to do but somehow have avoided doing until now. I was gone for 4 months, usually that’s plenty of time for conflict against the minister to ferment. And what rises to the top of our concern? The start time of our worship service.
Okay, remember – a fake fight is usually concealing a real fight just below the surface. Do you want to know what the real fight is? Do you want to know what all of these fake fights are really about? People are asking themselves, “Am I still included? If we pick an early start time and I can’t make it, will they notice? Is my voice important? Do I matter here if I am not one of the new family or if I am not volunteering all the time or if I am not one of the big givers? Do I matter? Am I still part of this community?”
The fake fight is about lighting a candle or dropping a stone in water for Joys and Sorrows. The fake fight is about 10:00 or 11:00. The fake fight is about the word ‘Congregation’ or ‘Church.’ The real conflict is a question about how much you matter in this community. “Does this community still care about me?”
I hear you. I see you out there. And to be clear, “Yes.”
In her sermon, Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd signaled her unwillingness to linger in the fake fights, the distractions, when there was significant work to be done. Rev. Ladd said, “The world does not need another place for like-minded liberal leading people to hang out together and fight about who’s in charge.”
What the world needs is progressive religious communities like ours who take seriously our mission. You all keep showing up on Sundays to have encounters with the holy – by which I mean encounters with other people, with the world, and with the mystery that undergirds life. We keep showing up to be authentic, to heal, to grow and to serve. We don’t come for the fight. We come for the joy and we come for the truth. We are here to carry each other – to meet each other across our differences, through our shared values.
Senator John McCain (1936-2018) said, “Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again.”
It is an art to disagree with someone and stay connected with them. Earlier this week Bill T. said “I hated taking the pews out. I loved those pews. I was against selling them. Now, I love the chairs and I’m glad I lost that vote.” Ron C. says much the same about a vote we had about the windows in the sanctuary 20 years ago. It is important for each of us to speak up. To have differences. To express, with integrity, where we stand even if the rest of the congregation disagrees. Disagreements and conflict are part of the cost of our freedom. It means we are doing something important together.
The trick is not to avoid all conflict. The trick is to acknowledge conflict when it arises and not let it break our relationships. It is to listen for the values underneath the conflict that can lead to compromise. It is to attend to the life-saving mission of our congregation in all things. And to not get distracted from the higher calling we have to be a beacon of love and justice to a world in desperate need of our message.
In a world without end
May it be so.