March 2016

The Courage to Speak

“Our lives begin to end the day we keep silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In every congregation there are lay people who hold a certain kind of personal authority. I’m sure you know these folks. Among them, they share some common characteristics. They are kind, have a positive outlook, often see the “big picture” and are usually soft spoken, but not always. They possess a certain kind of wisdom that is steeped in humility. Most importantly, they are brave and not afraid to speak the truth.

I knew a matriarch (used in the best sense of the word) with personal authority. At 93 years she would stand at the microphone at diocesan convention, having thoroughly researched the topic about which she is speaking, and convince a whole diocese to vote for her cause, controversial though it may be. Mary was fearless.

There was standing room only at her funeral, and the preacher recalled many situations of conflict and distress that were prayerfully and gracefully resolved when Mary spoke. She spoke up when she saw things going wrong. She headed off parish situations that could have divided the parish, sent the rector away, and put the congregation’s ministry into a tailspin for years to come. She spoke the truth in difficult situations and, in [the Episcopal] Church that is not easy to do. After all, we have no language in the Church for telling each other the hard truth in love, even though the One we follow, told the truth all his life on earth. Even when it “hurt other people’s feelings.”

What keeps us, the laity, from speaking the truth in parish situations where parishioners have “ganged up” on the rector? What keeps us from speaking up, what keeps us silent, is fear. We are afraid of losing the friends we have had for many years. We are afraid that our fellow parishioners won’t like us anymore. We are afraid that telling the truth from our own perspective will alienate us from our parish community. Our own self-interest keeps us silent while we sit by and watch our clergy person eviscerated.

My grandmother (of all knowledge and wisdom) told me once, on the occasion of me not speaking up for a bunch of little kids in our neighborhood who were being bullied by bigger kids, that fear is the opposite of faith. Since I was a very obedient Roman Catholic at the time, I was having none of fear from then on. As I grew in faith (and became an Episcopalian) I learned to live by 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self control.”

As for speaking up in congregations headed down a path of conflict and angst, as laity, we need to be not only courageous but we have to remember that we are actually called to speak up. We promise to do so in our baptismal covenant (respect the dignity of every human being.) How? By speaking up when we see someone being diminished.

C.S. Lewis reminds us “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Courage animates all our virtues: honesty, confidence, humility, compassion, integrity, valor. Without courage all these virtues lie dormant. Without regular use, our courage becomes harder for us to conjure up, less available to us. If we are not regularly courageous, our courage dries up. “Courageous” becomes only a memory of how we used to be.

Please now, allow me to share some ideas for possibly heading off these difficult situations in the future:

To the clergy: When you are called to a congregation, look to identify the laity who you see as those having personal authority. Get to know them. Invite them to get to know you. Really know you. Pick their brains about the “culture” of the congregation. Ask them to tell you their hopes and dreams and you tell them yours. Then cast the net wider, and do the same thing with the whole congregation, a little at a time. It may take a long time depending on the size of the congregation.

H. Coleman McGehee, Bishop in the Diocese of Michigan (now deceased) was a “dove” when it came to war and military action. At his parish in Virginia he had many parishioners with military vocations. He devoted several years to developing authentic relationships. He got to know the parishioners (called “one on ones” in the community organizing community). He got to really know them, not to change people’s minds, but to hear their viewpoints and to share his views with them. Love and respect transcend all sorts of mindsets when people cannot agree on issues. This is not news to you, but “It’s all about relationship.”

To the laity: Read the Catechism regarding the ministry of the laity. Find out what your job is. Look it up in the Book of Common Prayer (page 855). Know your gifts, know what your ministry is, and really commit to it. This is one of the most important things you will do in your life. When you say the baptismal covenant, mean it (after all it is a promise). If you can’t promise that you will respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help, then don’t say those words when the baptismal covenant is renewed. Have generosity of spirit. Be kind. Love your neighbor and be in partnership with the clergy that God has given us. Have courage to speak the truth in love. Commit to being a loving and responsible member of your Christian community. If you have your baptism certificate, as a daily reminder of your primary vocation in life, hang it on the wall near where you get dressed in the morning. Most importantly, get over the fear. Take a deep breath and speak the truth in love. It will set you free.

These suggestions may sound simplistic, but they can be life changing. We are Christ’s beloved. Know that we are called to community to do our work of reconciliation, and always keep in the forefront of your mind that we have promised to respect the dignity of every human being.

Henri Nouwen reminds us “we are cast into communities of people that we would never, in all our life, choose for ourselves.” There’s a life message there: Everything comes from God.

Try This
How healthy is your church when it comes to dealing with conflict? Does your leadership team model ways to build trust within the congregation? How are disagreements handled? Are there opportunities for sharing different viewpoints in a setting where participants feel safe to give their honest opinion? Like many congregations, your church may have some work to do in this area. One place to start? Consider crafting a behavioral covenant that lays out the ground rules: We will start—and end—on time. We will commit to full participation. We will listen attentively. We will turn off our cell phones and computers. We will make our best attempt to attend every meeting. And when we can’t, we will notify the leader in advance. We will not be an air hog, bog, or frog. We agree the content of the meeting is the property of the group; we will not engage in side conversations in the parking lot, restroom, or by email. (See “Covenant of Courtesy” by Richelle Thompson)

Bonnie Anderson recently completed her term as senior warden at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan. She served as President of the House of Deputies from 2006-2012, Vice-President of the House of Deputies from 2003-2006, and served as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Program Budget and Finance for six years. She has been an elected member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and has served on many other Episcopal Church committees on both the diocesan and national level. She is the recipient of five Episcopal Seminary honorary doctorate degrees in Theology and Canon Law. She is a Canon in the Diocese of Ecuador. To learn more about her effort in 2010 to develop Circles of Ministries, building up Laity, Deacon, Priests, and Bishops see “Celebrating the ‘Circle’ of Ministries.”

The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.). It is reprinted with permission. This project developed following a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Episcopal Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying. This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. See the all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucusand The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.


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This article is part of the March 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict