It's difficult to manage a parish conflict when too many people are taking side trips.
Side trips are flights from the actual situation in front of us. They are called into play in high level conflict when our anxiety has the best of us. Instead of staying with the very difficult work at hand we flee into illusions where we truly know the "truth" about what's happening and have more control. It helps us feel better. Like a tranquilizer.
Here are three examples. I'll offer related examples from a non-parish conflict many of us are now familiar with--General Theological Seminary.
Broad sweeping statements are made of the parish's bright new figure or impending decline. It's resurrection. It's death. The parish will stronger for this. The parish will never recover from this.
The fact is we don't know what will happen. Well, we do, but not in the sense of being able to predict such outcomes. We know that many will develop an investment in being "right." We know that many will have a very hard time managing their moods and emotions. We know that some will try to damage the reputation and life of their opponents. We know that as people pull further apart they will lose an awareness of the pain they cause others.
There's a reason why the church has been skeptical of fortune tellers, tarot cards and palm readings. We don't get to know the future. We don't have that kind of control. And when we enter the illusion that we do have such control we stop being responsible human beings.
[At GTS - There are a number of fortune tellers. Many predict the closing of the 200 year old institution. It's a reasonable guess. But that's all it is. I have no idea what will happen to GTS. I had had no idea what would happen to the parishes I’ve worked with over the years that were in serious conflict. Years later I look back--some fell apart, others renewed.]
Ignore the fortune tellers. They are a distraction. Set aside the fortune teller within you, dip your hand in the font, make the sign, recall who you are and the life that is yours--"Sealed as Christ's own forever." -- "An inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere..."
False equivalences about behavior and power
The rector is shocked that the bishop is asking her to dial back her language in the pulpit, to get help managing her emotions, and to reverse some of the steps she took to get the conflict under control. "And he's really not asking anything of the lay leaders who are behaving so badly!!"
The false equivalency is usually two fold. The "bad" behavior of the one side is seen as equal to the "bad" behavior of the other side. And, both sides are presented as having equal power. This last doesn't hold up to much (any) thought, but it's assumed.
Employers have considerably more power than workers. They can fire you. [In the GTS situation the Dean and Board have the power to fire the faculty, deprive them of their housing, and leave them without health coverage.] In the parish the rector can assault you from the pulpit (usually not by name but we know who you are), make comments about excommunication, and use religious language to suggest how sinful you are. I recall that in one of my first conflict consultations back in the 70's the rector tried to win my support by letting me know how racist the vestry was (somewhat true). He knew that I had been involved in the civil rights movement and hoped I was stupid enough to fall for the ploy. Some have played "the church isn't a democracy" card and other's begin the vestry meeting with the book of canon law on the table next to a Prayer Book. We do so like to be right and if not right, winning will do.
"All have gone astray." That's my observation and wisdom about what happens in high level conflict. Actually it's Isaiah's. There are no innocent parties. However, those with the greater power in have the most moral responsibility. So, it's up to rector's, seminary deans, and boards of directors to be the first to stop bringing gasoline to the fire. One difficulty with that "truth" is that leaders come to the fight with as much spiritual maturity and emotional intelligence as they have at the moment. In a serious conflict it takes a lot of each to play a constructive role.
Sometime in the early 1970's Loren Mead wrote his unpublished “Myths and Norms in Parish Life: A Guide to Parish Pathology.” It was very funny. He described the piece this way: “comic, but…has since caused grown men and women to beat breasts, tear hair, and weep publicly.” He wrote this about power in parishes - "Power and control are very, very bad. Exception 1: It is okay to exert control through round-about indirect, or manipulative ways. Exception 2: It is okay to exert control by withdrawing (money, self, etc.) since that makes others feel guilty and is really much more effective. Exception 3: It is okay to exert control if you say it’s the Holy Spirit and not you doing it."
All is well
This isn't Julian's "All is well" but our flight into wanting it to be over when in fact it's not over. Some parish leaders will assess a level 5 conflict as level 2 because they can't stand the reality. Some will tell the congregation that "we are back on track" when in fact it's continuing to get worse.
[At GTS we recently saw the Board issue a statement suggesting that the faculty was going back to work. Within days the faculty issued a "clarification." Apparently it's not over.]
When people have entered into high level conflict the emotions involved don't disappear even if a compromise is reached or the parties are separated in some manner. Any compromise is fragile and can easily collapse if the emotions are reactivated. Early in my work in the Diocese of Connecticut (many moons ago) we had a bitter, destructive conflict in a parish. The decision in the Bishop's Office was to work out a way for the parties to separate. The priest received a nice package and moved onto another parish. A few of the most hostile vestry members were asked to leave the parish as part of the agreement. Years later we discovered that some of the rector's adversaries were sending letters to his new parish attempting to undermine him. The rector had also kept himself connected to people in the parish who were fighting a kind of guerrilla war that was really a continuation of the old battle.