Being real community

RCL Year A, Proper 18

At retreats and other events, I’ve had the chance to spend time with monastics over the years, and I always find myself delighted by their humor and bracing honesty. They are people who know themselves and others very well. One monk I saw as spiritual director would always warn me against my own pretensions, saying, ‘Human motives are always mixed.’ Nobody is pure. And in other conversations, when monks were asked, what’s the hardest thing about being a monk?, the answer has always been clear: ‘Other monks.’ Whatever drew them into the monastic life in the first place, they have had to deal with the other people who are there as well. And monasteries, like churches, are often full of people who are more difficult than most. We’re the island of misfit toys, as some say about the church. But the thing is, dealing with one another is how we really grow in knowledge of and love towards God.

There’s a theory of group development by Bruce Tuckman, a psychologist who was at Princeton in the 1960s. He listed five stages of development for any group gathered around a common task, which he called forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. (Why the ridiculous rhyming words? because it comes from the Dilbert management speak world. But there’s still some useful truth in it nevertheless.) In the forming stage, the group is polite, conversations stay on the surface, and everyone stays comfortable. They rely on the group’s leader to feel safe, and that strong desire for safety means that not much really gets done. In the storming stage, conflict develops. Different agendas emerge, the leader is questioned, personalities clash, and everything starts feeling less safe for everyone. Cliques develop of likeminded people, and sometimes turn into factions. But if the group is able to move through those conflicts successfully, then they move into the third stage, where they listen to one another well, are willing to change their minds and learn from one another, and trust each other. They share the leadership, and the group is able to move ahead with its mission. If the group is really good, it will move to the performing stage, a high level of maturity and productivity, both as a group and in the work of each individual. And some groups come to an end eventually, the adjourning stage.

No theory of development ever claims to be linear, however. And not every group goes through all the stages. As a group continues its life, further conflicts may develop. New members will come and old members will leave, adding to the uncertainty and moving the group backward along the stages of development. So the group will need to reform around its mission again and again. Many groups never make it out of stage one at all, because they fear conflict too much – they dip a toe into an area of difficulty and quickly retreat. Everyone stays where they feel safe, but the purpose of the group, the task it is meant to accomplish, is lost.

It’s a theory that works pretty well for churches. A congregation is a group gathered around a shared task or mission, and it grows over time in the depth of community it can sustain. But there’s no guarantee that a church, or any other group, will develop real community – because to do so, they have to go into the hard stuff together. People get to know each other, and before too long, they stop being quite as nice to each other and start battling for who gets to be in charge. And somebody steps on somebody else’s toes. No wonder that within the first century of the church’s life, they were already talking about how to deal with conflict and forgive one another – what our gospel passage talks about today.

So what do you do when conflict erupts in your community? says Jesus. Well, you deal with it directly. Go and talk to the person who stepped on your toes, privately. If that doesn’t address the problem, then talk to them again, with the help of a few trusted friends. If the problem continues further, then you have to involve the whole community, all the way to the potential bitter end of deciding as a community to exclude the troublemaker. That’s where we tend to draw back, alarmed. Exclude someone from the church? We’re supposed to be loving and inclusive here. We could never do that.

Of course, that’s not step one of the process. The early church knew well that 99% of all conflicts in community would be resolved with simply talking honestly and openly with the person you have trouble with. Because when you do that, you have to be vulnerable. And vulnerability tends to invite vulnerability in return from most people. And so you begin to trust and care for people that you previously were in conflict with. Which is how community, real community, begins to grow.

You notice that Jesus does not say, when someone offends you, go and talk about it to your other friends. Get them to agree with you how horrible that person is, and when you’ve really got your clique convinced, shun that person. And yet, too often that is how we work in church. It’s the 7th grade lunchroom all over again.

Like so many other things, I think it comes down to fear. We’re afraid of the other person’s reaction, if we go to them and tell them something they did upset us. We’re afraid of hurting their feelings, or them hurting ours even more. We’re afraid of making a scene, or being thought difficult ourselves. We’re afraid our nice community won’t feel so nice anymore if we openly rock the boat.

But Jesus’ point, as lots of groups have experienced, is that without going directly to the person who has offended us, we never allow the opportunity to mend a broken relationship. We never heal the wound. The resentment and hurt linger on, often on both sides. And our community suffers from it, consciously and unconsciously. We won’t go to the level where the hurt is, and so we never get to the level where we can start living out our mission.

And the other thing is that without being direct and honest with one another, it is hard to be direct and honest about ourselves. Sometimes the offense really is more about us, buttons that have gotten pushed, than about any malicious intent by the other person. Sometimes we’re really part of the conflict ourselves and need to change our own behavior and attitude. But when we refuse to engage with our fellow community member, we never see what we should be seeing in ourselves.

Jesus’ message about conflict was pertinent to the first-century church, and it still is today. As the monks will tell you, human nature is the same today as it’s always been. Our congregation and pretty much every other one around the globe need to hear these words, this surprisingly straightforward practical advice from scripture. When someone offends you, go and talk to that person. Take the risk for the sake of love. Step forward in the name of love. Because ultimately when we are willing to do the work of reconciliation, when we take steps to forgive and be forgiven, then we really are living our mission – which is to be Jesus’ people in the world. Jesus is the one who forgives and reconciles us; when we forgive and reconcile, we do Jesus’ work. And we know more powerfully the truth of God’s undying love for us, and for all.