Conflict in Spiritual Community

We live in a world filled with conflict, which can be very upsetting. We come to church looking for perspective on conflict, how to remain human when we disagree with someone, or when someone is upset with us. We may want our church community to be a place where we will not have to experience conflict at all.

Jesus told us to love one another the way he loved us (John 13:34), and to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matt 5:44). He never said, just hang out with the people who will never disagree with you.

J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard professor who specialized in group organization, spoke about conflict in groups in the PBS series, This Emotional Life. He gave some surprising advice: Move towards conflict rather than away from it. He believed it was not possible to avoid conflict, and have nice, smooth, harmonious group interaction all the time. Even if it were possible, he did not think it desirable. “It is in the conflict that we really capture the differences of perspective that is the reason for having a group in the first place.”

Some people say that the Episcopal Church has a big umbrella, meaning, there is room under its roof for many different viewpoints, for a variety of perspectives on God and how to live our lives faithfully. Most of us do not want to be told what to believe and how to live, but we hold back from sharing our deepest values and opinions for fear of creating conflict.

Here’s where the practice of listening deeply and respectfully can play a big role. The practice of letting go of our agenda and truly trying to understand another human being can be liberating in unexpected ways. Listening without comment or argument, listening prayerfully and welcoming growth and discomfort, can greatly enliven and enrich our lives. Jesus always moved towards conflict. His love is the biggest umbrella of all.

At St. Mary’s, we want to offer the opportunity for each person who wants one to be in a small group that meets regularly. A small group can be a place where we explore our deepest selves in the company of others we may or may not agree with.

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