Tag Archives: conflict

After you make the decision, what next?

Replaces post that disappeared during Web host problems.

We were in a meeting talking about how our congregation makes decisions. And engineer told us what happened after they made decisions in her for-profit workplace. She said, “We used to have a saying: Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.”

In congregational life, as in the for-profit world, there’s usually a fourth option: Disagree and sabotage. A decision is made by a duly constituted authority, or through an established democratic process, and a small group of people who disagree with the decision start to sabotage it. And why wouldn’t we behave in this way? That’s the way democracy in America works: once a decision is made, many politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) go out of their way to sabotage the implementation of the decision. Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example.

But I think our congregations should be countercultural; we should not do democracy the way many U.S. politicians do democracy. We shouldn’t blindly adopt the standard from the engineering world, but it might be a good starting place:

Agree and commit;
Disagree and commit; or
Get out of the way.

Dissent within the non-profit

What’s the role of dissent within a non-profit organization? Here’s Peter Drucker’s answer, from his book Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Principles and Practices (Drucker includes churches as non-profit organizations):

…Important decisions are risky. They should be controversial. Acclamation means that nobody has done the homework.

Because it is essential in an effective discussion to understand what it is really about, there has to be dissent and disagreement. If you make a decision by acclamation, it is almost bound to be made on the apparent symptoms rather than on the real issue. You need dissent; but you have to make it productive.

About seventy years ago, an American political scientist, Mary Parker Follet, said that when you have dissent in an organization, you should never ask who is right. You should not even ask what is right. You must assume that each faction gives the right answer, but to a different question. Each sees a different reality.

Personally, I have found dissent to be a source of energy and inspiration in my work in UU congregations. Dissent may not be comfortable (especially when the people who dissent from me turn out to be right, as is often the case) — but a congregation without dissent would be dead.

Conflict and theology

My favorite branch of theology has become ecclesiology, which I define as the study of how congregations should work ideally, how they do work in reality, and how individual congregations cooperate together. I also contend that too many of us Unitarian Universalists reduce theology to ontological theology, or the study of the nature of ultimate reality (i.e., whether God exists or not, etc.) — which I actually find fairly pointless because no one ever seems to get anywhere with ontological theology. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, is something that you can actually experience, and observe, and experiment with.

More and more, I’ve been reading up on the sociology of congregations to try to gain some insight into how congregations work in reality. I don’t want to oversimplify, but one of the biggest realities in most congregations is conflict — conflict is a fact of life. I found a great resource online for understanding conflict in congregations — a concise summary of “Levels of Conflict” — Alban Institute’s model for conflict management in congregations.

If you haven’t run into this model before, click on that link above and scan the summary. If you have run into the model before, this is the best summary I’ve run across