by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff
With the current election cycle coming to a close, the divisiveness in our nation’s politics, and gridlock in Washington, talk of democracy is everywhere. It has been a topic of conversation in the news, social media, and in our congregations, as well. I have conversations with our congregational leaders quite often about what it means to be a representative democracy. I am often asked how the Fifth Principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” applies to congregational life. To have a voice and be heard, to feel a part of the decision making process, and to have a vote in our church home are key components of our polity for sure, but what that really means can be fuzzy around the edges. Sometimes we forget to apply relationship to the equation. Our Principles are not "siloed" statements; they are meant to go hand in hand, much like nesting bowls. They build upon one another, and should not be selected individually to suit our agenda of the day, or we can miss the beauty, depth and meaning in the full message.
Our congregational polity states that our congregations are self-governing and set their own bylaws, policies and procedures, but there are always questions and struggles around board authority and decision-making. So tell me if you have heard something like this, “Well, I didn’t vote on that! Who made that decision?” or “Who gave them the authority to make that decision?” I bet most of you have heard that in your congregations about one thing or another. Sometimes it’s a really small thing like rearranging the chairs of the sanctuary or changing the brand of coffee being served, something slightly bigger like changing the color of a wall, or maybe even a big thing like professional ministry or a second service. No matter what the issue is, I’m willing to gamble that you have uttered or heard some combination of those words. Queries like those beg the question---where is the relationship in statements like that? Where is the trust that we are all serving our congregation's mission and moving toward the building up of beloved community?
I often see leaders try to ‘fix’ an adaptive relational issue with a technical solution, AKA a vote. Voting around an adaptive issue only polarizes the situation. If you have 50% that wants to paint the fellowship hall yellow, and 50% that wants it painted blue and you put it to a vote, what do you think will happen? Maybe by some strange happenstance you get a winner by a vote or two, but there will still be many members with very hurt feelings who are left feeling unheard. Yes, you might have a resolution, but no relationship. As I am known to repeat often, it’s all about our relationships! How will you reestablish communication between those two groups? How could this issue have been rectified before coming to this division of people who love each other? A few conversations around why the yellow paint people are so passionate about their choice of color might have been a good start. And what about the blue paint people? Why are they so passionate about their choice of color? There is a chance that the blue walls might make the yellow paint people feel closed in. Or maybe the yellow walls cause a glare that hurt the blue paint people’s eyes with the florescent lights in the room. I’m willing to bet there is a solution here that doesn’t involve a vote! Changing out the light bulbs to a softer tone might help the blue paint people adjust their eyes better to the yellow walls, or changing the shade of blue would make the room feel bigger to the yellow paint people. You will never know that if all you do is put it to a vote.
We are the people of democracy, but a representative democracy, which means we must have faith in and trust those who we vote into our church leadership to represent the whole of the membership. This is especially hard when we are so very discouraged by what our leaders are, or are not, doing on the national stage. Serving your congregation is hard work; I thank you for giving of your time and talent! For those courageous enough to step up to the call of service the least we can do is empower them to do the job we have elected them to do---lead us to the betterment of our congregational mission. You cannot vote a relationship in to being; you can only work on it a piece at a time, day by day. This is what it is to be in covenantal relationship.
Theodore Parker said, ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but “You are as good as I am.” I would like us all to remember our leaders come from a place of congregational greatest good. Our leaders want the greatest good for their members and for our faith just like we do. Why else would they serve? If you don’t feel that your leaders are moving your congregation in that direction then there is always the next election cycle to voice your opinion via your vote. Democracy and voting cannot ‘fix’ a relational issue; only genuine conversation and deep listening can heal a divide and find a way forward.
Please don’t beat up your leaders with the Fifth Principle, or use it as a bullying stick! Instead, support the greatest Faith we can imagine by supporting and empowering your elected leaders to lead you and your congregation in to the next phase of being. And to our leaders---lead us! If you are working for the greatest good of the mission, you have nothing to fear. Be bold, and lead us in to the next stage of building the beloved community!
With Gratitude and Appreciation,