Anxious people fight about stupid things. I learned this years ago, mostly from congregations. But I was reminded of it recently by a close encounter with party politics during the most recent election cycle, so I thought I would share a political example and prescribe a solution that almost always works to avoid fights in congregations as well as political parties.
A relative spent most of last year organizing rural counties on behalf of a major party candidate who ultimately did not win. In one of his first encounters with a county central committee, members were in full mutiny because the chair had posted a comment to the county’s Facebook page from his personal Facebook account regarding gun violence in the county. The comment was not profane or offensive, just a statement of fact about the number of people shot and killed by county law enforcement in the past year compared to the number of killings in an entire country in Europe during the same period (the same number, apparently).
Some central committee members were upset, not because they thought the comment was untrue but because they were afraid that readers might interpret the comment as having come from the central committee, many of whose members did not want to offend local law enforcement. The meeting happened in mid-summer, when the election was only a few months away, but the committee spent this as well as subsequent meetings debating the Facebook comment rather than strategizing about how to win in a county that typically voted for the other party.
My first response, based on years observing similar arguments in the life of congregations, is that this kind of conflict is not surprising. It’s always easier, although rarely helpful, to fight about personal behavior rather than address larger realities, especially if the larger realities have to do with decline or loss. When we don’t know what to do about the big, important things, we fight about what somebody said.
The solution: adopt good policies
More importantly, though, the central committee could have avoided its Facebook argument altogether by adopting a policy on the use of social media. For example, a policy might limit what members can say using the organization’s accounts, but permit most kinds of postings from personal social media accounts. Most organizations have some version of such a policy. But a group could also decide that its chair can’t post anything to do with the work of the group from or his or her personal social media accounts . Such a policy may raise freedom of speech issues, but it is preferable to having no policy at all and then yelling endlessly about whether someone’s behavior was appropriate or not.
Small groups and groups in small communities often think that “policies” are for bigger groups in larger metropolitan areas, but this is not true. Any time conflict is a possibility, which is to say any time humans are involved, the easiest way to avoid it is to establish written policies that address all the things we’re likely to fight about. All groups need policies about Facebook and other social media. Other topics, some of which are specific to congregations, include, among other things:
- Who can use church computers/technology and for what (e.g., not for creating, watching, or downloading pornography)
- When to conduct background checks on volunteers (e.g., any time a volunteer will be working with children or teenagers)
- Who can drive church vehicles or drive their own vehicles on behalf of the church, what kind of insurance is required, and what to do if there’s an accident or other problem
- Who can use the building, who can give permission to do so, and who cleans up afterward
- Who has access to church databases and under what circumstances
- Who has access to a pastor’s or other church employee’s office
- Who can have keys to the building
- Whether members must be physically present at board or congregational meetings to vote or whether they can vote by proxy or using specified technology
Some topics require complete handbooks of their own, including:
- Internal financial controls, including who counts the money, how many people need to be in the room, who deposits its, who pays the bills, who signs the checks
- Personnel policies, including equal employment opportunity (EEO), bullying and other behavior issues, record retention, how to address performance issues, what to do in cases of theft or substance abuse, how job expectations and standards are established, attendance and punctuality, appearance, confidentiality, conflicts of interest, nepotism, work hours, business expense reimbursement, security, personal use of office equipment, participation in community affairs, solicitation in the work place, compensation, pay procedures, benefits, holidays, time off, personal and maternity leave, professional development, and anything else employees need to know
- Volunteer policies, covering most of the same topics as the personnel policies, but addressed to the needs, actions, and expectations of volunteers
All congregations (and all county central committees), no matter their size, need a full set of policies. And the best time to create and adopt policies is when no one is feeling anxious. Anxious people not only fight about stupid things, they also create bad policy.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.