Why is it that many of us are surprised when conflicts arise in our churches and communities of faith? Is it because we think that a common call to worship will overcome our individual differences? Do we think that we have a special ability to leave our difficult and sometimes wounded personalities outside on Sundays? Do we believe that divisive political and social issues shouldn’t and won’t surface in the pews and fellowship halls?

I’ve been interested in the formation (and deformation) of church communities for a long time, and have a perspective shaped by membership in conflicted churches and as a mediator of church conflict. As a church member, I have shared the surprise that conflict “is happening here, in our church! After all, we’re a community of faith!” As a mediator, however, I am not surprised. I know that we carry our gifts and shadows, our hopes and fears, our wholeness and brokenness wherever we go…including into our communities of faith. As the saying goes – “wherever we go, there we are!”

Conflicts can, and do, divide congregations and disillusion its members. Churches, however, as Parker reflects in his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, are one of the most important institutions in which we learn about getting along, building healthy communities, and even forming strong democracies. Healthy churches do this by helping its membership develop “habits of the heart,” those “deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being and responding to life that involve our mind, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose in life.” These habits are:

  • An understanding that we are all in this together;
  • An appreciation of the value of “otherness”;
  • An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways;
  • A sense of personal voice and agency; and
  • A capacity to create community.

Recently at a conference for Episcopal parishes, Courage & Renewal facilitator Nathan Kirkpatrick and I led a session for wardens (lay leaders) during which we explored the connections between these habits of the heart and the health of their congregations. We invited participants to form small groups and then to reflect upon each of these “habits” and its presence or absence in their own congregation. It was interesting to hear initial responses change as the conversation deepened around questions like “how do we appreciate and value otherness, while still holding true to our traditions?” and “what are the limits of our appreciation of difference?” On area of general agreement was that the “ability to hold tension in life-giving ways” was one of the most challenging habits. Time pressures and a culture of “getting things done” often push church leadership to resolve difficult issues by voting, often at the cost of alienating many.

What do you think about the role of these “habits of the heart” have in creating healthy congregations?

John Fenner is director of Courage & Renewal programs for Clergy and Congregational Leaders. For more information about these programs, click here.