The Chinese government has a law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” It uses the law to suppress dissent and undercut the development of civil society. Given the country's history it's understandable for leaders to be concerned about maintaining harmony. Our St. Benedict had the same concern for harmony. He wanted no grumbling in the monastery.
The problem comes when we maintain harmony and neglect taking counsel.
The Episcopal Church and its parishes have no law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” There is no canon or parish bylaw that uses, or would use, such language. Our church culture however has norms that end up creating the same condition. Useful and constructive voices are suppressed along with the chronically unhappy.
There are few parishes that have the structures, processes, and climate necessary to facilitate a parish life characterized by both harmony and the open expression and flow of information and ideas. We tilt toward harmony and seem to establish methods of open conversation only when that harmony is endangered.
We concern ourselves with building trust after trust is already compromised. Benedict paired a no grumbling norm with a taking counsel norm.
Part of the problem is that most clergy and lay leaders lack the skills needed to make trust development a routine part of parish life. We don’t understand the theories and models that can offer conceptual clarity and we lack the skills to manage both grumbling and taking counsel in the parish community. There are exceptions. People that have completed one of the more substantial training programs in parish development are somewhat more likely to be able to manage the polarity. There are some who have picked up the needed knowledge and skills in other places.
A second element in the problem is that we fear power and control. We see it in the frequent sermons attacking hierarchy even though the fact is that we are a hierarchal church (and that there is no human system without some form of hierarchy.) Exploring this second element will need to wait until another time.
What can we do?
1. Recognize the problem.
2. Expand the number of dioceses doing a substantial program in congregational development-- Church Development Institute, College for Congregational Development, Shaping the Parish. It’s good to see that the Diocese of Long Island is beginning a CDI.
3. Provide follow through coaching and support for those attending and those that have completed the programs. Most of those attending such programs understand what the issue is, and have some familiarity with the needed competencies, but have not changed the pattern in their own parish. Even a two-year training program isn’t able to provide all that’s needed. Ongoing support and coaching is necessary both as part of these programs and for a couple of years after.
4. Work with seminaries. It would be relatively easy to shape seminary education so that by the time a seminarian has completed the three years he or she: is able to facilitate small groups in decision making processes, has clarity about personal strengths and weaknesses, understands the impact they have on others in a group, has developed a sustainable spiritual practice, and so on. These competencies are not enough in themselves to manage the polarity in parish life but they are a first step.
It’s understandable that parish leaders will continue the practice of maintaining harmony by avoiding conversation and gently suppressing threats to harmony. If we seek parish communities with both harmony and useful “taking counsel” we need to improve our equipping of first, the parish clergy in charge of congregations, and secondly, a core of lay leaders in each congregation.
Caesura The web page
A program for parish churches
Vaccinating against conflict
Nurturing healthy relationships