April 3, 2017 by Annette Buchanan

Giving and receiving positive feedback as well as negative (constructive) feedback is a prerequisite for having healthy church relationships. Positive feedback should be easy, however, we sometimes overlook these simple acts of kindness only to have long-term members leaving the church or people feeling neglected.

Negative feedback is more difficult. Some of us are so concerned about hurting someone’s feelings that we say nothing at all, allowing dysfunction to continue. On the opposite end, we may blurt out insensitive words disregarding the impact. It is often hard to find the right balance.

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Topics: Conflict, Leadership
January 31, 2017 by Linda Buskirk

I don’t know all of the particulars about who and how the lessons of the lectionary were chosen, but it seems to me they must have been thinking about Annual Meetings when they chose the ones for Sunday, January 29, this year.

From Micah: “O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

From Psalm 15: “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;”

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November 30, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

The news was frightening – and frighteningly familiar. An attack on students at Ohio State University. Accounts of an active shooter turned into active assailant who by all counts purposefully plowed into a group of students and professors, and then attacked them with a butcher knife. We learned soon that the attacker was from a native of Somalia and a Muslim.

Immediately, I heard calls for tighter immigration controls and see-I-told-you-so’s from people who support a mandate for the government to register (and restrict?) all Muslims.

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Topics: Conflict, Diversity
November 16, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

I planned to be a gracious winner the week after the election.

I wasn’t going to rub it in the faces of folks who had been Donald Trump supporters. My social media presence would be demure, and while I expected to dance a little jig inside, my public persona would call for unity and broad arms to encircle the disenfranchised.

I didn’t expect to be the one needing the arms.

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November 8, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

Today, we vote. And hopefully, we pray.

I have heard time and again from people that they’re so frustrated with this election season, with the vitriol and mud slinging, that the only thing that’s left to do is pray. And I agree. Except on one important point: Prayer is not the last resort in an untenable situation. It’s not what’s left when we’ve mustered all of our own strength to muscle a problem. It’s not scraping the leavings off the turkey tray.

God doesn’t say to work really hard, implement all of our own solutions, then try a few suggested by others. And when all else fails, pray.

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October 27, 2016 by Anna Olson

Years ago, in a pastoral liturgy class at General Seminary, I learned what is still one of my favorite words. Anamnesis is the name for the part of the Eucharistic prayer where we tell the story of how we came to be saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. An- is the Greek prefix for “not” and amnesis is a close cousin of the English word “amnesia.” Anamnesis is the “not-forgetting.” It is the not forgetting the price that was paid, the not wiping away the uncomfortable parts of the story, the not protecting future generations from how bloody the whole thing really was.

I spent several weeks in Germany this summer. It was mostly just a really fun family trip, full of adventures and good laughs and beautiful views and a certain amount of beer drunk before noon (totally socially acceptable in Munich, I swear). There was the time when my daughter was convinced there was a snack car on the train and it turned out to be a toilet. There were the creepily large day-glow paper mache bunnies wearing shorts and holding soccer balls that adorned our low budget rental apartment. So many family inside jokes to last us until we get to travel together again.


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September 22, 2016 by Anna Olson

The fall equinox is here. Days are growing shorter, and even drought-scorched Los Angeles is showing signs of cooling down.

It’s been an overwhelming summer. The unrelenting violence around the nation and the world has gotten to me. Police shooting people. People shooting police. People on trains, in airports and hospitals, celebrating at weddings, seeing their lives turned suddenly to carnage. Earlier this summer, a mom and her 4-year-old daughter shot to death on the way home from the grocery store two blocks from a church I served. Today, news of four people shot, two killed, a block from another church I served. Trouble here, there, everywhere.

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July 8, 2016 by James Mathes

Two hundred and forty years ago, representatives of the thirteen English colonies in North America declared their independence. They took this action on the second of July. We celebrate the day of its signing: July 4th. Of course, fireworks lit the sky and we cheered our nation’s beginning.

Like so much of the past, we too easily see this moment in time through rose-colored glasses. John Turnbull’s iconic mural of the declaration’s signing that adorns the Capital rotunda conveys confidence, unity, and grandeur. The reality was quite different. Even for its principal author, the debate on the declaration was torturous as he watched his masterpiece be whittled down through compromise. While history reports the passage of the declaration as a unanimous vote, that assertion masks the deep divisions over the question. Indeed, the New York delegation abstained on the final vote, and several delegates abstained or voted against the measure. John Dickson, delegate from Pennsylvania and noted founding father, abstained and even declined to sign the final proclamation.

In this season, when there is so much division in our political life, we do well to recognize that even our moments of greatest achievement, that call forth our greatest celebrations, are not easy affairs. Conflict and division are present in all critical moments in our history. However, what is notable about that fateful and hot July day was the commitment to the commonwealth. The debate and decisions about a vision for common life, while not perfect, were transcendent. Those gathered delegates dared to hope that a new covenant of governance and rights could be achieved. Despite ragtag armies in retreat and empty coffers, they stepped forward.

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Topics: Conflict
July 7, 2016 by Anna Olson

There are so many different ways to imagine a country. In the US, we often focus on politics and power. Who’s the president? Who’s in Congress? Who are our friends and enemies? How can we make deals that are good for us? How strong is our economy?

This July 4 weekend, I found myself imagining us in another way: as a giant collection of neighbors. As I preached to my congregation, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, and aren’t quite sure if they are even included in what is being celebrated on July 4, I preached about neighbors. I preached about Jesus sending us out to make neighbors out of strangers. I preached about Jesus sending strangers who seek to be our neighbors, bearing only an offer of peace. I preached about the riskiness and fragility of a project that is entirely predicated on the offer of peace and the gift of hospitality. I preached about the power Jesus saw in such simple actions, and the disciples’ wonder and joy at how well it actually seemed to work.

We live in a time when the threads that bind us together are often invisible. We have probably never been more connected to neighbors around the world -- through the internet and trade and global economies and foreign wars and mass migration. But we may also have never felt quite so disconnected from one another close to home. Divisions loom large. Urban, suburban, rural. Latino, Black, White, Asian, Indigenous, Multiracial. Northern, Southern Eastern, Western, Midwestern. Coastal, middle of the country. Republican, Democrat, disaffected, confused, despairing. Prosperous, insecure, unemployed. Afraid of the police, afraid of terrorists, afraid of each other.

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Topics: Conflict
May 5, 2016 by Greg Syler

Shortly after arriving at St. George’s, nearly nine years ago, I had lunch with the extended supply priest who preceded me. “One thing I really worked hard on while I was serving there,” she said that afternoon, “was to confront and, I think, end ‘parking lot’ conversations.” Even though her official title wasn’t interim or even priest-in-charge, she obviously drew on her extensive training in interim ministry. In so many ways I’m glad she did.

I hadn’t heard about ‘parking lot’ conversations before arriving here. I must’ve said as much to my predecessor at lunch that day. Perhaps, I thought, that was because I had previously come from a much larger, urban congregation. Folks in larger congregations, especially city churches, I thought, don’t have time to chitchat about mundane things. They certainly don’t have time to hang around the parking lot after meetings. Looking back, however, I think my naïveté had mostly to do with the fact that my previous call was curate – you know, the quaint and easily beloved young priest who shows up to the congregation and accepts all the old-timer’s accolades and praise. Maybe that’s not in the general job description of curate but, as it turns out, it was very much in mine. Looking back now, I know exactly the ones who were hosting those ‘parking lot’ conversations – they just weren’t in the parking lot; they were those beloved long-timer’s, the Thursday morning group who, ostensibly were there to fold bulletins but who really loved to sit with me – and curates before me, as it turns out – and pick my brain and get some good gossip.

To be perfectly honest, I look back on those Thursday morning gab sessions with fondness and joy. I learned a great deal – that proper gentlemen always carry a handkerchief in their pocket being one of them – and I treasured those moments and love those women and men, many of whom are moving on to greater life. And to be even more honest, my predecessor didn’t end the parking lot conversations here. I’m glad she raised the issue and I’m glad she pointed it out to me, but they’ve never really stopped.

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Topics: Conflict
May 3, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

The dinner conversation was light and fun, sharing jokes and stories of work, until my dad turned to me.

“Richelle, you’re smart in so many ways, but you’re also naïve when it comes to politics.”

I braced myself. This wasn’t my first rodeo with my ultra-conservative father. I let him unspool for a few minutes while my mind wandered. Good food at the restaurant. Interesting décor. I need to do a load of laundry when I get home and study spelling words with my son. I circled my attention back for a brief check in.

The loop continued. I’ve heard it before. He just doesn’t understand how someone who cares for her family, who wants the best for her children, could support liberal policies and Democratic candidates. At a break in his words, I interrupted.

“So I’m really excited about our vacation this summer…” I could tell he wanted more persuasion time, but he gamely moved into safe conversation territory, and we enjoyed the rest of our evening.

I steamed a bit on the way home. How can he respect me in my vocations as daughter, mother, writer, wife, volunteer, but be so dismissive of my political opinions? Does he think that I embrace a liberal stance with whimsy when I’m decidedly independent and assertive in other areas of my life? Ugh. Grrr. Sizzle. And other onomatopoeia words that express frustration.

And yet, if I’m honest, I perform some of the same calculations as I scroll through my social media channels. I divide folks into us and them based on the memes they post, the political ads they share. Just this morning, I mentally moved a college friend from the ‘us’ to ‘them’ column when I saw she went to a Trump rally. Before I could catch myself, I thought, “She’s smarter than that. She’s naïve when it comes to politics.”

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Topics: Conflict
April 13, 2016 by Anna Olson

I’ve finally figured it out. Jesus is a chaos muppet.

Bear with me. For those of you who are uptight about taking the Lord’s name in vain, I’m not really suggesting that Jesus is a muppet, not in any literal sort of sense. Though there is apparently a Muppet album of songs from “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”

If you haven’t read Dahlia Lithwick’s delightful treatise on Muppet Theory, you should. Here’s the basic idea: we can understand humanity by dividing everyone into two categories: order muppets and chaos muppets. If you are a Sesame Street fan, think of Bert and Ernie. Or even better, Bert and Cookie Monster. Bert craves order. Cookie Monster wreaks havoc. If you’re more of a Muppet Show fan, then of course Animal would be your prototypical chaos muppet.

Ever since my own family became acquainted with muppet theory, we have engaged in a lively, ongoing, all-ages debate about who is who in the family. When my spouse -- an order muppet if ever there was one -- is out of town, and I am struggling to get out the door in time to get my kids to school, I can hear the older one muttering, “Chaos muppet!” It’s all relative, of course. I generally do get the kids to school on time, but not with the sort of precision that my husband manages. There’s an element of uncertainty, a return trip for a forgotten phone, a detour in search of misplaced glasses or keys. No one really breathes deeply until we arrive at our destination. I’m not saying I’m not a chaos muppet, just that there are muppets far more chaotic than I.

Jesus, for example. I may lose my keys, but Jesus turns things upside down. He requires things of us that go against our better judgment, especially when it comes to our more annoying neighbors. He makes the scribes and Pharisees (order muppets!) very nervous by refusing to be predictable and delighting in undermining the rules. In his finest hour, he commits what I once heard the late, great Robert McAfee Brown describe as “the ultimate act of civil disobedience.” The Romans execute him, and he refuses to stay dead. A total chaos muppet. Just ask Pilate. Or Herod. Jesus comes on the scene, and despite everyone’s best efforts to contain him, chaos ensues.

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Topics: Conflict
April 6, 2016 by Nancy Davidge


Conflict may take several forms. Many times it has to do with an imbalance of power or a sense that everyone is not being treated fairly. It may be visible to all or more subtly, be building bit by bit despite the best efforts of those determined to avoid conflict at all costs.

Our articles this month offer approaches for congregational leaders to consider when faced with conflict.


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Topics: Conflict
March 2, 2016 by Nancy Davidge


What is it about human behavior that lends itself to conflict? As followers of Christ, rather than pretending differences or bad behaviors don’t exist, can we break the cycle and instead learn new ways of building up the beloved community?

Our articles this month may help congregations to do just that:



We start by looking back to the early days of Christianity. In “Factions to Families: Lessons from 1 Corinthians,” C.K. Robertson reminds us that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians has stood the test of time. He suggests we have a choice: Unlike the Corinthians who ignored Paul’s advice, we can choose to listen and take seriously the challenge he offers us.

Leadership and finances are the areas most cited by Episcopal churches as sources of conflict. Often, the response is to accept this conflict and try to manage it. Jerry Keucher’s, “Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom” suggests a different approach: addressing the underlying problem(s) fueling that conflict.


“One size fits all” never fits anyone well. In “Conflict: Is Everyone Being Heard?” Anna Olson reminds us that cultural expectations related to accepted forms of communication vary. She identifies two dominant norms for managing conflict that, given the cultural context of a congregation, may undermine attempts to support healthier communication.

Can we learn new ways of dealing with conflict? Kay Collier McLaughlin’s “Getting Along in a Really Strange, Big Family” offers an approach to help congregational leaders identify destructive behaviors and replace them with healthier alternatives.


We encourage you to think about how the ideas presented in this and every issue can provide an impetus for evaluating and reflecting on what you could learn from the experiences of others.To help in your discernment, at the end of each article we offer a list of the resources related to the topic. If you have a resource you’d like to share, please email me with the link or add it to the site using the Your Turn feature.

If you are interested in Spanish language content, please visit our searchable index for our Spanish content here.

Please share this issue of Vestry Papers with your colleagues and to invite them to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices. Subscriptions are free. New subscribers are asked to fill out a short registration form to have Vestry Papers and ECF Vital Practices content delivered twice a month to your email inbox.

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Topics: Conflict
February 16, 2016 by Richelle Thompson
The campfire song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
I’ve never heard the lyrics with substitutes, like, “They’ll know we are Christians because we’re right.” Or because the other person was more wrong (at least according to our smug categorization).
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wasn’t my favorite. I disagreed with many of his views, from gun control to the rights of gays and lesbians. But the relish many took in his death is deeply disturbing. He was a son, a husband, a father, and a friend. He was committed to seeking justice, even if he understood it in a different way than me. He was a legal scholar and a devoted American.
I felt similarly after the death of Osama bin Laden. (Not to lump Justice Scalia in even the same universe!). Death, even if deserved in the case of bin Laden, is not to be celebrated with glee. Even if we loathe the person, we must still summon compassion for those reeling from loss and grief.
In our Episcopal tradition, I cherish the weekly reminder to pray for our leaders in government.

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Topics: Conflict
January 11, 2016 by Jeremiah Sierra

It’s easier to avoid the difficult stories. We know this in our personal lives, of course: no one really likes to talk about their divorce, or the time they got fired. It’s also true in communities: we don’t talk about the families who left because of theological disagreement, the split in the vestry a few years ago. Telling these stories feels like gossip or dwelling on the bad moments, but perhaps there is a time and a place to tell them.

As my wife and I prepare for our baby, I’ve begun reading books about raising children. In the book I’ve been reading recently called The Whole Brain Child, the authors explain that children need to tell stories. It helps them make sense of their experiences.

It’s tempting to simply distract children from their difficult moments with ice cream or to insist that they are now fine so they shouldn’t worry. But recounting again and again the time they fell off their bike or got sick at school helps them move forward. The story doesn’t stop at the painful experience, but continues on to how mom or dad took care of them, how the painful moment was resolved.

This is relevant to adults, too, and communities. Just as we sometimes need to talk about things with a friend or partner or therapist, sometimes a community needs to talk things out. While we don’t want to recount stories that are none of our business, neither do want to simply distract ourselves from the difficult times or pretend that they no longer matter. This never gives us a chance to come to terms with the painful things that happened and why, and also how they were resolved. If we never have a resolution, then they still feel threatening. We need to tell the story because the story is how we make them into a meaningful narrative.

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Topics: Conflict
December 23, 2015 by Anna Olson

My kids learned a phrase at summer camp that has come in handy during many family meals: “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.”

In church, yum-yucking is probably less of a problem than at summer camp. There’s usually enough food on the potluck table that you can just avoid that fruitcake or those deviled eggs that rub you the wrong way. I happen to love both fruitcake and deviled eggs, and will happily eat your share.

In church, the big one is “other people’s beautiful.” Especially if your church is as culturally diverse as mine, there are bound to be differences of opinion around beauty. We just don’t all see things the same way. We haven’t grown up with the same ways of signaling and perceiving beauty. That fiber-optic miniature Christmas tree that makes you cringe is someone’s offering of color and light in honor of the baby Jesus. Those boring, unpainted wooden figures quietly arranged in an all-brown Nativity scene represent someone else’s sense of classy and timeless.

In case you think I am just making things up, both the fiber optic tree and the unvarnished wooden figures are on display in my church, right now.

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Topics: Conflict
November 19, 2015 by Anna Olson

My grief for this broken week in the world caught up with me during church on Sunday, as our associate rector led a beautiful and gentle children’s sermon about hearing scary news. The sermon ended with our kids carrying candles to place on the altar, a gift to many of us bigger folks who needed to let a few quiet tears flow.

So now what? For those who have lost loved ones in terror attacks, the grief is just beginning. For the rest of us, beyond the French flag on Facebook pages, and the verbal expressions of solidarity, what more can we do?

Here is one thing. Maybe not the only thing, but important.

We can consider the implications of the news that at least one of the Paris attackers may have arrived as a “refugee” from Syria. Many are already considering that very question. Twenty-six American states -- more than half of our country -- have announced that they are no longer willing to resettle Syrian refugees.

We can help our fellow Christians to think about this very real question theologically. We who profess to be part of a body. We who believe in a God whose reach is beyond the grave. We who believe that perfect love casts out fear. We who are commanded to love one another.

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Topics: Conflict
November 3, 2015 by Richelle Thompson

We failed. Not a big, catastrophic failure. Nothing that will change the future of humankind, the nature of the neighborhood, or the flavor of the church.

But a fundraiser idea that I pitched and planned two years ago has died. Essentially, I thought it would be easy to add a Christmas boutique to an already existing fundraiser (a spaghetti dinner). The idea was that vendors could reserve a table at no cost and give a tithe – 10 percent – to the church of their sales. If they made out like bandits, awesome. It’s a win-win. If these small, mostly self-employed folks didn’t sell anything, they lost a couple of hours but no money. (You can read about it in more detail).

It seemed easy all around. The work required a bit of coordination with vendors and easy set up around the fellowship hall. But it caused consternation. Our fellowship hall is small and the vendor tables meant fewer places to eat for the spaghetti dinner, which was raising money for an in-house ministry. I think perhaps some of the folks coordinating the dinner felt like the boutique took away from the focus of the dinner. Some of the vendors sold quite a bit (especially the booth featuring delicious peanut brittle); others were disappointed.

At the end of the day, we decided to pull the plug—at least on this iteration of a combined boutique/fundraiser. There’s some energy to host a boutique at another time, perhaps after worship on a Sunday. We’ll see. I think the important thing though is the acknowledgement and acceptance that we tried something, it didn’t work, and that’s OK.

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Topics: Conflict
October 5, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra

Sometimes my dog barks.

I know, this is not unusual, but I wish he wouldn’t. We have neighbors. Sometimes he startles me. But he’s a dog so he barks.

In fact, he does all sorts of things I wish he wouldn’t. He growls at other dogs, licks things, sniffs garbage.

My wife and I are working on training him a little better so he barks a little less and plays better with strangers, but there are limits to what we can do. Ultimately, we have to let him lick and bark and be a dog.

This is a lesson I’ve gradually been learning in my life and work: to let other people be themselves. Sometimes people in my life behave differently than I’d like. My coworkers go on tangents during meetings, for example, or my wife might confront someone when I might just let it go. I can make my preferences clear, we can talk and make sure we’re generally on the same page, but ultimately I can’t control other people and I shouldn’t try.

Not that I’m a controlling person, actually. But sometimes when people do things that I wouldn’t—maybe they talk a little loud or say things I wouldn’t—it makes me anxious or grumpy.

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Topics: Conflict