Conflict and Resilience in Spiritual Community

This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on resilience in spiritual communities for the Many Gods West conference. There was a spirited engagement from folks who have great experience building local communities and had seen successes and failures across the board.

Some of the memorable points I walked away with were:

  • Knowing the goal or mission of your community, to anchor your efforts.
  • Training and preparing leaders, almost from the first day, so they can continue the mission when the founding leadership is exhausted or passes on.
  • Identifying who is doing the work in your communities—including the invisible labor of organization and the emotional labor of tending and repairing relationships—and making sure they are supported.
  • As a complimentary point those doing the work who feel unsupported or overextended need to feel able to scale back their vision and labor to something that is workable today, to say “no” when needed, to delegate.
  • Skills around conflict are necessary for resilient relationships.

This last point became very important and highlighted during the presentation. We discussed how conflict avoidance in communities and organizations contributes to collapse and rigidity. Sometimes communities devolve into bickering, back-biting, and in-fighting where people attack and defend but never sit at the table to have an open-hearted conflict that brings them back to connection. The other extreme is when communities become hyper-legislative and make rigid requirements and rules to try to manage and process conflict, which similarly makes them brittle and unwieldy or prone to cover-ups when problems do arise.

This is not exclusive to spiritual communities, but in my experience these communities have a particular vulnerability to people acting out their wounds around attachment, their family roles, and their family styles of conflict management. We create powerful containers for connection and self-transformation, places where we want to feel trust so we can become more ourselves, and the spiritual framework often tends to heighten or mythologize the tensions and conflicts. Which provides the opportunity for even more potent healing and transformation… or more damaging explosions.

Image of a person of color holding a firework emitting thick orange smoke, which arcs overhead and obscures their face.
Photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Conflict is inevitable and normal, and successfully allowing and working through conflict strengthens and deepens relationships. So many of us feel that if we were truly honest about our wants and needs then we would be rejected, attacked, ignored, or some other terrifying thing. Perhaps at some point—or many points—in life this happened. Lacking this capacity to say and hear honest expressions of feeling restricts our ability to heal wounds and develop resilient, workable relationships.

Resentment doesn’t go away when we ignore it, it only deepens and becomes toxic. Turning toward and befriending resentment helps us to see the ways in which we’ve taken on tasks that aren’t ours to do, or ignore our needs for someone else’s, which helps us to set cleaner boundaries and even show up in relationship with more generosity and joyfulness.

One question that arose in the workshop was around conflict resolution, and fortunately there was a whole other workshop dedicated to that topic. What occurred to me in that moment was that many of us are not ready for conflict resolution because we still struggle to engage in open conflict. I have a style of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing that showed up during the workshop itself, when two participants began to have a conflict and I reacted by attempting to smooth it over and avoid it with some statement about “we disagree and that’s okay.” A moment later, I realized what I had done, and acknowledged that I had acted out the very dynamic we were discussing as a problem in our communities.

After the workshop, those of us involved in that exchange sat down to discuss where each of us were coming from. I cannot speak for those in attendance, but I felt heartened at the mutual sharing of concerns and emotional responses without shutting each other down. I do not know if any minds changed that night, but I hope the processing and softening of hearts helped us to walk away with things to contemplate.