Resolving Conflict in a Covenantal Community

by Eileen Spedding, Right Relations Committee

As UUs, we welcome, celebrate and honor diversity of people, beliefs and ideas. And yet, we often struggle with how to negotiate our differences when it comes to making decisions on behalf of our congregation. Important decisions around budgetary allocations, capital projects or even most recently pandemic policies can provoke wildly different, highly emotional and strongly held opinions and positions. These differences of viewpoint can and often do lead to entrenched conflict in which individuals try harder and harder to persuade others to their viewpoint through the strength of their logic or emotion. It is not surprising that this often leads to a deadlock in which everyone is frustrated and no one wins.

Conflict is a reality in our society and our world. Many of us are afraid of conflict, fearing it could dissolve our bonds with members of our community. Yet, conflict in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – If handled in a healthy way. Might we in fact embrace conflict if we believed it could lead us to more creative and inclusive approaches to our problems?

Philosopher and Buddhist priest Yasuhiko Kimura, in his article “Alignment Beyond Agreement,” suggests that there is another way to face and resolve conflict. When we face hard challenges, he suggests that we focus on the alignment of our intentions rather than worrying about the agreement of our opinions. In the article, he writes that “Alignment is congruence of intention in support of the attainment of a particular aim whereas agreement is the congruence of opinion. Alignment does not require agreement as a necessary condition.” What if, as a congregation, we focused on our intentions rather than our opinions? The question, then, is not who is right but, instead, what is best for the fulfillment of our aims and intentions?

Kimura suggests that inherent in alignment is “the spirit of quest generating open and evolving dialogue and the exploration of choices which can be altered or discarded along the way.” Diversity of ideas, united in a shared intention, can actually enrich the process of reaching a desired end, transcending the stronghold of individual opinions. Indeed, in “the spirit of quest” there is a collective intelligence and wisdom which can produce results beyond any one individual’s thinking, and can lead individuals beyond the boundary of their own thinking, breaking down the barriers put up in defense of their ideas.

As a covenantal community, united by covenants and not creed or dogma, our covenants can be a powerful tool in moving us beyond conflict. The covenant is a structure that can help us navigate conflict, moving together as a team. Within covenant, it is possible to arrive at an outcome that might not have been visible before.

In our covenants, we make promises to each other – to keep us safe, to help us be our authentic selves, to support loving and caring relationships within our congregation. Our covenants reflect our collective values, acting as a powerful guide in facing what seem insurmountable differences. Covenants can be our guide in times of conflict, helping us to see shared intent and retain closeness as we explore options. They remind us that we are in this together, bound by the promises we made to each other. Most importantly, these solemn agreements build trust and interdependence, teaching us to walk together across disagreements and find common ground. By focusing on our deepest intentions, our covenants can help us see that perhaps our differences are not so great after all.