I recently took up making of pottery. I am more than a bit of a novice at it, but I can clearly see how the making of pottery, believe it or not, has something in common with Benedict's advice to Abbots. I tend to be a perfectionist, which can be a bad trait in a novice potter. I always want to improve whatever i've thrown. I know if I trim this or that just a bit more, or put more of an outward curve into a bowl, the piece will be perfect! And almost every time, I end up with a pot that needs to be patched, and therefore will likely never look as good as if I'd let it alone. In putting that extra curve to the bowl I send up with at least one side falling into nothing more than a wet pile of clay. If I can become more prudent, and tell myself I can take a step toward perfection with my next effort, I end up learning things which will help me eradicate my errors slowly over time.
Presbyterians, of course, do not have Abbots in their denominational "chain of command." But my experience as an Oblate has allowed me to see how an Abbot is more than anything else, the head of a family. There are times when such a family becomes unruly and things Benedictines consider to be vices can grow. I have been always amazed at the way the Abbots of my abbey stop the unruliness, and its accompanying vices with charity. The things that are going wrong end up being stopped with prudent action and the peace of the family, as much as any family can be completely peaceful, returns.
We as pastors also end up being the head of a church family. That's not the way a Presbyterian congregation should work as our polity tells us that all calls, in and out of a congregation are equal. But whether we like it or not, most pastors end up being seen and treated as family heads. And when the family becomes unruly, the mess ends up o the pastor's desk. Occasionally, to be truthful, the unruliness can also start at the pastor's desk.
As an interim pastor, I have had the dubious privilege of dealing with three congregations in what organizational theorists call level 5 conflict. Level 5 conflict is essentially congregational nuclear war. At slightly lower conflict levels people act in ways intended to drive those who disagree with them out of the congregation, In level 5 conflict those on both sides on the disagreement have lost interest in leaving or driving out their "opponents." Instead they want both sides of an issue to stay in the congregation so they can hurt each other as much as possible.
On two occasions I stepped into a level 5 conflict that had managed to remain hidden. In each case I believe I was able to help the congregation take a few steps toward health before I had to get out to preserve myself. But one occasion everyone, including myself, was very aware of the conflict's existence. Conventional wisdom in conflict resolution says level 5 conflict can only be handled by a professional conflict management institution. The professional institution arrived at the congregation three days after I did. They approached the situation in the same perfectionist way I do when making pottery. They kept adding steps to the resolution process. And just as happens when I try to perfect my pottery, the conflict worsened with each added step. On the surface it looked like progress was being made. But as soon as the organization was finished, the conflict returned with full force.
Being left in the resulting mess, I took Benedict's advice to act prudently and with charity. I also took the advice of another very experienced pastor. I made some drastic changes and when the expected explosion occurred, I did not react to it. Instead I made deliberate efforts to be friendly with the combatants. When things seemed to have died down, I made another drastic change and acted to the explosion in the same way. It took two years, but when I left there was no visible conflict present.
I tell you this story not to hold myself up as an expert in conflict management. In fact, I do not care to repeat the experience. Instead I want to point out that such conflict in a congregational family, when one knows it is present and one is thus prepared to deal with it, can be reduced, or even eliminated by listening to wise advice, by acting prudently, with charity, and as Benedict suggests, to not be too eager too eager to scrape the rust off the vessel.
Thank you Father Benedict, and to the very experienced pastor, for your wise advice. I fervently pray I will not be called on to apply your words of wisdom in a simular situation. But should it occur, I will listen to your words again.
Brother Oscar Romero