Respect as a Spiritual Practice in Community

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Respect is  a Living Energy Between Beings

Several years ago I was introduced to a description of “10 Rules for Respect” that seem to me to be more relevant and central to my work with every passing year – especially within a parish setting.

During my visit to Austin, Texas three years ago, The Rev. Greg Rickel (now The Rt. Rev. Gregory Rickel, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia in Western Washington) handed me a copy of 10 Rules for Respect, reflecting the original that was framed and hung on his office wall. He had come across the list of rules through another associate mentor and modified them slightly to his own circumstances.

I’ve worked within other organizational settings and attended a myriad of leadership seminars that address the topic of “respect” in ways that seemed to take what should be understood as THE central dynamic of healthy community and dissected it to such an extent as to leave it lifeless and gutless, spread-eagle and pinned on an endless series of flip-chart sheets.

Respect is a living energy between beings that – when it is present – inspires innovative problem-solving processes and creative vision. Additionally, mutual respect promotes individual confidence as well as team trust, whether the team is composed of 2 people or 20.

Often, I have felt deeply troubled by the variety of ways that people avoid healthy and direct communication in the church environment – the very place where everyone should reasonably expect to be heard and committed to treating one another respectfully.  As an ordained leader, when I have parishioners saying to me that they are personally negatively impacted when I am not treated with respect, then I know there is a significant problem to address systemically within the culture of our church environment.

Respect is particularly at risk within the context of disagreement or conflict.  The attitude seems to be, “Because I disagree with you or don’t like you, I can behave badly toward you.”  Anyone parenting a teenager knows how that bird doesn’t fly.  If disrespect doesn’t serve a family setting well, it definitely doesn’t support the vital life of an organization or community.

The Rules for Respect that I would like to encourage as a spiritual practice within my leadership and parish include:

1.   If you have a problem with me, come to me (privately).

I want people to raise their concerns or observations with me.  However, often the group setting is not the appropriate place to raise them – especially if the concern is of an interpersonal nature and contributes to a dynamic that can derail the work and purpose of the group or task at hand. Taking the time and mustering the healthy courage to meet with leadership privately shows respect in itself, as well as a commitment to both a relationship with me and regard for the work of the group.  If we can develop greater mutual understanding between us, our work together will positively impact work within the group or community setting.

2.  If I have a problem with you, I will come to you (privately).

Leaders can be as guilty as anyone of triangulating – with other parishioners or with their bishop.  So, it’s important in healthy leadership to seek opportunities to speak directly with the person with whom they are having difficulty.  There are times, though, when individuals can also be conflict avoidant, preferring to air their complaints to everyone except the leader.  When people decline to meet or speak with me, it signals to me that an individual is more interested in controlling a situation than in improving it. Genuine respect and commitment to communal health means making the time to talk when we disagree and to always seek reconciliation, which is part of our biblical mandate as a community of faith.

3.  If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me. (I will do the same for you).

Avoid getting sucked into a triangle. Respect means not encouraging conversations about others that devolve into collusive gripe sessions.  Rather please encourage people to have direct conversation with the only person who can actually do anything to address the concerns being raised – the rector.  I won’t encourage the formation of coalitions or “sides” against someone, and I expect the same if someone has an issue with me. It can take a while to develop trust in one another, but without directly addressing our issues with one another, we will not be able to know either individual holistic growth or communal spiritual growth.

4.  If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go to Rachel together.  I am sure she will meet with us.” (I will do the same for you).

Sometimes, people get stuck in a complaining mode and don’t really want relationships and communal life to be any different, because the way things are (even if they aren’t good) is comfortable and familiar.  Engaging the difficult work of healthy communication is just that – work!  In the church community, we need to be present for one another and to challenge one another toward our greatest potential in healthy and whole relationships.  I am committed to listening to you, though there is always the possibility that you may not like what you hear in return – especially if it’s something with which you do not agree.  We can disagree, and we can be mutually respectful as we disagree.

5.   Be careful how you interpret me; I would rather do that.  On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts.  It is easy to misinterpret intentions, which can cause further problems.

I take lots and lots of time and opportunity to provide education explaining why and what I am doing and why I may be making a given change.  However, someone may still have confusion or unanswered questions about what I am saying, instructing or envisioning. I always hope that when there are questions people will share those – if not in the moment, then later or privately.  Chances are good that if one person has a need for clarity, others do as well.  However, one thing that really does frustrate me is – after having carefully explained a change – I overhear the person I have carefully explained it to say to someone else, “We’re doing it this way because Rachel said so!”

I want to bang my head on a wall whenever I overhear this, because I am actually not a dictator – as convenient as someone may find it to evoke my name in order to get something done quickly.  I prefer and strive to model collaborative leadership by continually seeking input from others.  If you wonder why something “dreadful” is happening, it’s quite likely that I would not want you to have the experience of it as dreadful. So, please check out the motivations that may be assigned to me by actually asking me if it’s what I intended to communicate, be or do. If someone has questions about my intentions, please direct them to speak with me directly. Just because a person may be scared to talk with me doesn’t mean I’m actually a scary person.

6.  I will be careful how I interpret you.

It has been said, “It’s lonely at the top.” This can be especially true when leaders of a community imagine that “the villagers” are coming after them with pitchforks and bearing kindling for a one-stake fire. In the same way that parishioners can allow their thoughts to run along the line of, “The rector hasn’t visited or phoned and therefore doesn’t care,” rector’s can allow the negative comments of a volatile few to overwhelm the extremely positive comments of the other 200 people in their pews.  Chances are high that if a parishioner is having the experience that “no one at church cares about my illness/condition/surgery/plight,” it’s because no one has thought to pass along the fact that the parishioner even has an illness/condition/surgery/ plight to the rector. Chances are also high that the parishioner with a simple process question is not one who is leading a campaign to burn down the rectory.

7.  If it’s confidential, do not share it. If you or anyone comes to me in confidence, I will not share it unless: a) the person is going to harm himself/herself, b) the person is going to physically harm someone else, or c) a child has been physically or sexually abused.  I expect the same from you.

The number one reason why “things fall apart” within a church organization is due to the inability to maintain confidentiality.  People serving in professional corporate settings where confidentiality is critical are used to keeping confidences.  However, not everyone serving in the various volunteer ministries and leadership groups within a parish has had the experience of keeping confidential information.

The great thing about me being a priest is that you can say anything you need to say to me in the way you need to say it, and I will always assure you of God’s (and my) love and confidentiality.  Remember that I am ethically (and in the case of sexual abuse of minors, legally) obliged to take steps to prevent harm to self or others.  When I share privileged information with my pastoral peers (and that means lay leaders and parishioners as well as clergy), it’s because I have determined that you need to be aware of the information for the greater care of people. Please keep that care always before you, even when it’s challenging, and never pressure anyone to reveal confidential information for which they are responsible.

8.  I do not read unsigned letters or notes.

Anonymity is the epitome of opting out of relationship.  The foundation of community is relationship.  Not providing a name is not about a commitment to relationship or to community building.  Anonymity is about fear and violence directed toward individuals in positions of authority or responsibility who have influence that the anonymous person seeks to challenge in the unhealthiest of ways; intimidation is the hallmark of a bully, and I will not indulge bullies.

9.  I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you.  Do not let others manipulate me through you.

As much as people might like to apply the term “family” to a church community, not every family has known the experience of healthy and mature communication or ways of relating to one another.  A healthy community requires pushing back on those who would hide their intentions by asking others to represent them.  If someone encourages you to do or say something on their behalf, challenge them to speak for themselves; do not shield them from either the responsibility or consequences of their sentiments or actions.

10.  When in doubt, just say it. The only problematic questions are those that don’t get asked.  At the end of the day, our relationships with one another are the most important aspect of our communal life and shared work.  So, if you have a concern, pray and then (if led) speak up.  If I can answer it without misrepresenting someone or breaking a confidence, I will.

“Trust” is the watchword of healthy relationship.  Developing trust in relationships with one another and within relationships with leaders may take time for some but it also takes commitment from everyone.  The wellbeing of parishioners and the development and implementation of the vision and life of the community does not belong to only to the ordained leadership but to the full Body of Christ that is the membership and the ministry of the Baptized.

We serve one another; without words and actions that embody authentic respect for one another we have nothing different to offer the world beyond our doors except more of what it is already used to.  Respect must be our spiritual practice as a community of faith.

The Divine in Me Honors the Divine in You

2 thoughts on “Respect as a Spiritual Practice in Community

  1. The Ordained Diva blog provides some great reflections and guidelines for respectful communication in the Church. These can easily be adapted to any conversation/situation. As one people, we owe each other the respect that Rev. Rachel so eloquently outlines here.

  2. I am in agreement. Over the years we taught and used a similar set of standards when doing consultations at congregations. I pray that I will live by these all of my life.

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