If we’re honest with ourselves, conflict is inevitable in all areas of life, and church is no exception. But my experience is that churches are particularly bad at conflict. Perhaps it’s because we hope that church will somehow be immune from strife. Or maybe we feel that we need to be all “churchy nice.” Possibly it’s that churchgoers tend to be conflict avoidant. Whatever the reason, churches love to sweep conflict under the rug, slap a fresh layer of nice on it, or ignore it and hope that it goes away. As a result, conflict lurks right beneath the surface in many parishes, growing, festering, just waiting for an opportunity to come roaring back, destroying everything in its path.
But I recently came across a good example of a diocese and church that is handling conflict in the right way. The Memorial Church of All Souls in DC, lovingly referred to as the “Church of all Sorts” for its long history of inclusion, is working through a tsunami of conflict. And the way it’s going about it is a refreshing change.
To be sure, conflict at the church goes way back. Indeed, living close to the parish, I’ve long been on the periphery of parish life, well aware of the ebb and flow of life at the church, while having had my own experience with possibly snotty behavior in the church that led me to keep my distance.
It’s also fair to say that the issue was not on the diocese’s radar, even though it should have been long ago. Indeed, the diocese only sat up and paid attention with the recent departure of the church’s rector, Jadon Hartsuff, who took over the helm just four years ago. His decision was neither a resignation nor a termination, but as he put it, a decision to step away for the wellbeing of the church, and as a matter of self care.
As a result, the diocese stepped in, and is pursuing a formal reconciliation process. To the church’s credit, the written proposal and timeline is available on the church’s website, and can be found here.
The church has already begun work towards next steps, including discussion about potentially calling a priest in charge. As part of this, leaders have been clear that the church would:
1. Need to call a priest with the skills needed to affect change.
2. Need to recognize its DNA, including the notion that, “We are a parish that is understanding and very tolerant AND we have a history of conflict and aggression seldom addressed and often glossed over.”
Of course, if you are Episcopal, you may well already be scratching your head and saying, “What the heck?” I mean, as God’s frozen chosen, we never complain, never explain, and we sure as heck don’t post stuff like this online.
But doing so recognizes that, for healing to occur, conversation needs to happen. Specifically, people need to listen, acknowledge the hurt they’ve caused, sincerely apologize, then figure out how to engage going forward. And they need to do it without trying to explain or justify their conduct, or to attack the other person, or to claim that people’s recollection of events is faulty.
In my experience, those behaviors are uncommon in Episcopal churches. Indeed, I have seen myriad instances in which clergy and parishioners alike will lie about their conduct and that of others. Or in which they will simply attack someone they don’t like. Or play the Mean Girls/Boys game.
In addition to the participation of the diocese, which in my experience is unusual, and the involvement of professional facilitators, also unusual, it’s noteworthy that the reconciliation documents talk about doing the heavy lifting of preparing for a new rector. My experience is that many dioceses hire transitional clergy who are nothing but glorified benchwarmers, often with little understanding of reconciliation, and even less interest in pursuing that goal. Yes, they may slip the occasional hint into their sermon about kindness and compassion, but very few do more than that. Or the diocese sends some aging narcissist by to turn on the charm and flirt with the old ladies, even as they do very little else.
But perhaps the most promising sign is that the parish already already has a commitment to openness.
Indeed, when was the last time you saw a “governance” section on a church site? This non-anxious transparency bodes well, especially since the usual church response is to deny everything, or behave like it just killed the Lindbergh baby. There’s also a lot of information on the church’s website about the causes of the current conflict and underlying concerns.
I feel very optimistic about the efforts at All Souls and will be watching closely as the reconciliation process moves forward.
In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the church’s website and, if you are so inclined, offer your prayers or financial support.
I truly believe we are going to see great things at All Souls.