“It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind are the Cenobites: those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot.” - Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 1.
Benedictines live in community. In essence an abbey is a family; a gathering of people of differing abilities and gifts living under the authority of an abbot. As in the case for all families there are times of disagreement. Our own congregations are also families; families in which bad behavior is often tolerated. Confronting someone on their behavior, it seems, is not the “Christian thing to do.” Interestingly enough those exact same words have also been heard in synagogues.
There is, however, a very large difference between our own congregations and a Benedictine Abbey. Benedict created the rule while living in community. Since one of those communities tried to poison him, he was very aware of how disagreements can occur. To counter this, the rule included regulations about behavior. Someone who joins such a community knows in advance how he or she is expected to behave in times of calm and times of conflict. The rule includes ways to correct those who violate these rules which mirror the instructions of Matthew, Chapter 18. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV.
The rule contains many steps toward the correction or errors. But in the end, one follows the rule’s instructions or one leaves the community. Yet even then, the abbot is called to reach out pastorally to those who have left. They are to be reached out to and taught, not as one who is anathema to the community, but as one who has not yet learned how to live and act under the rule. After all, Jesus treated Gentiles and Tax Collectors better than he treated religious leaders.
As leaders of congregations pastors are often greatly impacted by bad behavior. They feel it hurt them and see it hurt congregational members. Of course our denominations and congregations do have rules regulating behavior. But all too often those joining a congregation don’t know the rules, or understand the effects of their behavior. In congregations where bad behavior reigns, we all need to be reminded of our own rules. We may also need to adopt additional rules. In the Presbyterian Church (USA) a good example of an additional behavioral rule is found in the Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement. In some extreme cases we need to invite in outside help. If you happen to be in such a situation, the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is an excellent source for help. It is also a good place for clerics to learn about themselves and how they function in conflict situations.
We pastors need to also understand we are all too often major players in congregational conflict. Benedict insisted that Abbots were subject to the same rule as other monks. We pastors should take note of that. If we don’t obey the rules, or if we verbally open fire on a congregant, we shouldn’t be surprised by return fire. So when we find ourselves in such a situation there are several things we need to do right off the bat. First, pray. We follow the Lord of Peace. Who better else to talk to when peace is needed? Second, find your own community. We need places where we aren’t in charge; places where rubbing elbows with other community members can reveal our own weaknesses and direct us on Christ’s path. Third, treat those with whom we disagree as other children of God. We need to follow Christ's example in reacting toward combatants. Fourth, and by no means last, we need to get help. Don’t try to carry the burden alone. Let your ecclesiastical superiors know what is going on. Hint, if you find yourself at the point where all you can think of, and talk about, is the conflict you are in too deep. Get professional help for yourself.
Oh, and by the way, if you need a community in which to rub off your rough edges and help you in your own spiritual journey, run, don’t walk, to a Benedictine Abbey. I happen to know one who will be interested in talking to you.