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Growing Healthy Communities

Presented by Rev. Ray Drennan
Auberge Le Vieux Presbytère de Bouctouche (1880)

Fredericton Fellowship, March 19, 2006

I believe that the community -- in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures --- is the smallest unit of health and to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. (Wendell Berry)

Do you live in a healthy community? Is this a healthy congregation? If so, what makes it so? If not, what prevents you from becoming one? Obviously I am only going to scratch the surface of our topic this morning, yet I do so because I am growing to believe that that the health of our religious communities IS THE central religious issue for us today. To speak of healthy institutions is not such an odd idea today. In addition to people, institutions and even buildings are now spoken of as being either healthy or in a state of ill-health (sick buildings). Not often enough though, do we Unitarians stop to consider the health of our communities. As I see it, growing healthy communities is vital because unhealthy behaviour in our congregations is killing our Unitarian movement and keeping us small and insignificant. As Peter Steinke has said, Healthy congregations are holy places. (Peter Steinke) Unhealthy religious communities simply contribute to the unhealthy quagmire of our society and world.

The pivotal point of health or un-wellness, as has been pointed out in our readings, is the quality of relationships that exist within the community. I tend to agree with Sellon & Smith, who in their book Practicing Right Relationships, state that our religious communities do not know how to `do' relationships well. I believe this to be a serious problem for us.

Throughout our history we Unitarians and Universalists have often viewed ourselves as the religion of the mature or healthy individual; the one willing and able to think and act independently. In days gone by it was not unusual for those strong-willed and rugged individuals to gather and do battle with one another on a Sunday morning during what they then called ”talk-back.” The winners were often the talking heads that could argue more loudly and often more rudely than others. They argued that each individual was free to let it all hang out intellectually and often to be down-right rude to one another in the name of freedom, truth and being right. If someone happened to have been offended by words or attitudes they were put down with phrases like, “Can’t you stand up to a punch like a man,” or ”Maybe you aren’t meant to be a Unitarian.” In such congregations people often left or went underground and the possibilities for the future of the community were greatly diminished. We were hardly healthy congregations then, nor was this an environment susceptible to developing, “Relationships of caring, playfulness, collaboration, authenticity, and deep trust.” (Practicing Right Relationships: Mary K. Sellon & Daniel P. Smith)

Although things have changed today in our congregations, perhaps we have merely moved to the other side of the emotionally unhealthy pendulum and are no closer to genuine health. Our present-day climate may simply be another form of reactivity to our most recent past, rather than a well-reasoned response to our possible future. Today in many of our communities a climate of politeness, political correctness and hidden orthodoxies seems to offer us all too often only space for shallow relationships. It has gone so far that in one congregation I visited members complained to me that they were afraid to express any opinion on any subject for fear of being branded as insensitive to someone else’s feelings. I would dare to suggest that the winners in our congregations today, rather than being the ones who argue the loudest may be the ones who bleed the most, or at least the most publicly. In such a climate no wonder we live on the surface with each other and are reluctant to explore deep differences. Is such congregational life any healthier than before? Today, it seems that the emotional centre of many of our communities has been hijacked into accommodating itself to the least healthy functioning member – be that the long-standing, revered patriarch or matriarch who acts out or the person with mental challenges that walks through our doors. Rather than healthy, such congregations are “emotionally stuck.” In our congregations today people continue to leave or to go underground and the possibilities for the future of our communities are diminished.

Let me repeat myself. As far as I am concerned, developing a climate that fosters mature relationships, relationships that honour and challenge; support and hold accountable IS THE central issue for us in religious community today. Perhaps it is a sign that we are growing-up as a movement that we are beginning to realize the wisdom of Wendell Berry’s words: “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” Obviously, neither the bearpit of the rugged individual nor the quagmire of emotional fusion is a sign of a healthy congregation.

So, there is the diagnosis …pretty self-evident stuff. The diagnosis is the easy part. No sooner has the priest or rabbi or minister defined the problem than the call rings out, ”Physician heal yourself!” In the field of quality human relationships there is no one who has it right. A short conversation with my partner Ann would tell you that I do much better with all of this right relationship stuff speaking to you than I do within my own family. In spite of this I gain comfort from a short story told of a rabbi who found himself lost in the woods. After years of groping around, he runs into members of his own congregation. They greet him with joy. “Rabbi, we are so glad to find you. We are lost and want you to show us the way out of the forest.” The Rabbi looked at them lovingly and said, ”Oh, I have to tell you that unfortunately I am also lost, however; I have more experience being lost than you do. So maybe together we can find our way out.”

The more difficult question of course is HOW does a community move from unhealthy functioning into living a greater sense of health and vitality? I guess there is only one way. Hard work. There is no magic wand. Let me spend the few minutes that remain outlining only four aspects of health and well-being that can move a community closer to healthy living.

1.Balancing Self-awareness and tactfulness

Firstly, healthy congregations are made up of leaders, whether formal or informal, who have a high degree of self-awareness (differentiation) and who have the courage and tact to act on that knowledge. Edwin Friedman, a family therapist and rabbi, once wrote, If we are going to survive as a species we need to develop greater self-awareness. Self-awareness in the maturing person allows one to realize what he or she is feeling in the moment and realize where those feelings are coming from and whether expressing them is some form in the present is appropriate or, more often than not, not appropriate. The unaware individuals feels what they feel and blurts out what they feel when they feel it, whether the feeling is appropriate or not to the present situation or is a reaction from a past hurt that hasn't yet been resolved.

Self-awareness is that moment which makes the difference between REACTING to something or someone and thoughtfully RESPONDING to them. Only when we take that moment, away from our natural lower-brain reactivity do we have choice in how we will respond. The well-differentiated person –(This does not mean the rugged individual but rather the person who can self-define IN RELATIONSHIP) The well-differentiated person has multiple responses.

Edwin Friedman said something very alarming. He believed that the most immature people are controlling and manipulating most of our congregations. This doesn’t necessarily mean the formal leadership, but rather the ones who have the ability to control (perhaps manipulate) the emotional space. In the unhealthy congregation the leadership is either not well differentiated (self-aware) or is unwilling to act on their awareness. Because of this they allow the congregation to adapt its functioning to that of the lowest functioning person. This is a disaster.

We Unitarians and Universalists get confused about something. There is a big difference between affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of someone and making that person president of the congregation. Unaware and poorly differentiated individuals are invasive. They volunteer to be President and are hurt when turned down. Congregations, and especially Unitarian congregations, act like magnets for such poorly differentiated persons. How does a congregation deal with these sticky situations?

The leadership of all of our congregations must establish “Covenants of Behaviour” or “Covenants of Right Relations.” These statements of congregational life set out how we want to be treated here and how we agree to treat others. They set out our OBLIGATION to one another to speak our truth – even though we may rather ignore the problem or the problem person’s behaviour, and even though we would rather not confront for fear of the person’s reaction or that people will leave the community. Such a covenant of right relations also sets out our OBLIGATION at times to hold our tongue. Such covenants hold people to account for their behaviour, and we Unitarians often resist such accountability in the name of Freedom. I do not believe that someone should be free in our congregations to allow their ill-health, social or psychological, to allow their lack of self-awareness to control our communities.

Was it not Winston Churchill who once said, “The evil of governments is proportional to the weakness of the virtuous.” We could paraphrase it for our purposes, ”The ill-health of a congregation is proportional to the weakness (timidity) of the healthy leaders.”

Those who most oppose such covenants of right relations are often the very ones who most offend or most control the congregation by their unhealthy behaviour. Boundaries are necessary to all life from the single cell to the very complex organization that is a congregation. You know the characteristics of one who acts from ill-health. They have no boundaries. They respect no boundaries. They go where they don't belong. They don't learn from experience and they will do it again. So, healthy congregations are made up of leaders who have a good balance of self-awareness and tactfulness.

2.Balancing Comfort and pain

Healthy congregations are made up of leaders, whether formal or informal who are at ease (non-anxious -- maybe just less anxious) with situations of pain. If anything today most of our congregations are at ease with and err on the side of too much comfort. We tolerate what should not be tolerated for fear of causing pain to another. Right relationships in community are not simply the good stuff, i.e. all honour and support. Right relations also mean challenging people and holding them accountable for their behaviour. That is the hard stuff. That is the pain that we so often run away from.

The maturity of a congregation can be judged by how well they handle pain. (When Congregations are Stuck, Peter Steinke, The Christian Century April 7, 1999)

I wish it were otherwise but it seems that far too often pain is essential for growth. No pain, no growth.

During a three-day workshop on healthy congregations that I recently attended Peter Steinke told of a problem experienced among Californian fruit growers. The fruit was falling off the tree pre-maturely. It was discovered that the problem was that there was not enough wind in the region. Wind (or adversity or pain) strengthens the branches to hold the fruit until it is ripe. What an image for our congregations!

Here is another hard one. Congregations show ill-health when they have, a low threshold for pain... unwilling to engage in (healthy) conflict ... (When Congregations are Stuck, Peter Steinke, The Christian Century April 7, 1999) When those painful conversations and incidents happen in our congregations do not most of us run for cover? The person challenging the status quo, calling out that the emperor has no clothes on, is often left on their own to fend for themselves. What a difference it would make in congregational life if the well-differentiated ones, the ones at ease with comfort and pain would stick together! It is self evident that anxiety is contagious. The good news however is that calm reflective responsive behaviour is also contagious. As Peter Steinke says, It just takes longer. Congregational leaders, those who know how to stay non-anxious (or less anxious) in the midst of high anxiety and refrain from being reactive can influence the whole group. Congregations can live up as well as down to behaviour. So, healthy congregations are made up of leaders who live equally balanced with comfort and pain.

3.Balancing closeness and apartness

Thirdly, healthy congregations are made up of leaders who live with balance between a need for closeness and apartness.

Neither the rugged individual nor the emotionally stuck person lives out healthy models. It is The interplay of two counterbalancing needs -- separateness and closeness -- (that) is important in all significant relationship ... Too often congregational life seems emotionally stuck, ... captive of the need for solidarity ... susceptible to anxious togetherness. (When Congregations are Stuck, Peter Steinke, The Christian Century April 7, 1999) The well differentiated person or congregation enjoys both closeness and aloneness. They have developed a secure base which allows them to be comfortable in community and to venture out of community. Enough said on that one.

4.Balancing sameness and difference

Finally, healthy congregations are made up of leaders who live a good balance between the need for sameness and difference in their lives. What is it that makes change so difficult for us? Is it not that too often our identity is tied up emotionally with what is superficial. When the superficial is taken away we get all upset. Is this not why some congregations get all upset over a change in the hour of the Sunday morning gathering or in the order of things or in the name of the institution?

When we are not confident in our own sense of self, rather when our sense of self is defined over against another then we grasp on to sameness for dear life. When a congregation is stuck, or fused, it is saying, I am only going to be comfortable in this relationship the more SAME you are to me. Hardly a Unitarian virtue!

We must remember I can only celebrate and be curious about the difference you are when I am grounded in the complexity that I am. (I am not sure if someone else said that but I just put that together.)

So, in closing remember that growing healthy congregations is hard work and important work. Congregations, according to P. Steinke, that will change and embraces the future have the following characteristics:

  1. They have strong leadership whether professional or lay with a high degree of self-awareness
  2. They have members who are well-educated and open to new learning
  3. They are not afraid of and know how to engage in healthy conflict
  4. They have a clearer idea about the congregation's sense of its purpose (mission)

You and I need healthy congregations. They are holy places. (Steinke) Those people out there who have no religious home will never become members of our congregations if our congregations do not grow towards greater health and wholeness. Our world is such an unhealthy place. Our global community needs communities like yours to be healthy. You, as a community, need leaders who live out their lives in greater self-awareness and encourage authentic, playful, accountable relationships, for they are life-giving. This congregation is counting on you and your growing health. So is our world.