The potato salad school of conflict resolution

By Nick Knisely

At certain point, when you get involved in enough diocesan and national church programs, you become a connoisseur of meetings and agendas.

Lately, as costs have risen and free time decreased, church meetings and conventions have been shortened by a few days. The result is that meetings start early in the day, and business sessions run well into the night. (I guess if you’re spending all that money to bring people to a meeting, you want to make sure that it’s going be produce a lot of material.)

So I was shocked when I attended my first meeting of the ecumenical dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church. At the time, I was a priest of the Diocese of Bethlehem, living in a city founded by Moravians, and one in which they still maintain a strong presence. I had been asked to participate in this dialogue with the idea that my special duty would be to coordinate local initiatives in the Diocese of Bethlehem between Episcopal and Moravian congregations. I had prepared for this by bringing along a copy of the master diocesan calendar, parish calendars, notebooks full of information and as many sheets of paper as I could cram into my suitcase.

But the meeting that I attended was very different than the one I expected. We spent pretty much the entire first day “checking in” with each other about what had been going on in our lives. I’m familiar with “checking in” as a process tool, and have experienced it before in Episcopal Church settings; but generally when we do it, it’s over in about half an hour and we get down to the business at hand. But here, the business at hand *was* the checking in. We adjourned late in the afternoon and drove across town to the home of one of our hosts, and spent the evening sitting in lawn chairs, eating chicken and potato salad and watching the sun set. The whole evening consisted of telling stories about our families and our friends, and discovering with delight how many of the latter we all had in common.

By the second day of the three day meeting I had the sense that something very different was happening and that this meeting had a radically different agenda than other church meetings that I had attended. I finally asked some of the folks about it. (I think I wondered out loud if we were going to get any work done, or something nearly as polite.)

My hosts explained to me that the Moravian Church was not a confessional church – it was, like the Episcopal Church can sometime be, an intentionally relational church. The structures of the church are best understood as serving to builds the bonds of common love between the members of the Church which then show forth the love of Christ to the larger world. The Moravians took this part seriously, and unlike the Episcopal Church with its need to generate voluminous reports, position papers and long action lists, they seem to focus on leaving a meeting with better relationships than they had arrived with.

There’s a real and valuable payoff for them in this. The Moravian Church is struggling with the same issues that the Episcopal Church is at the moment. They have groups and congregations breaking away over the same concerns, and they have to manage the same sorts of resolutions that we do at our national meetings. But the tenor of their conversation is remarkably different than ours. They simply won’t fight and insult each other in the manner in which some Episcopalians revel. They’ve grown up with each other, often attending the same schools, and their families have been connected with each other for years. More importantly they have done the basic spade work of maintaining their friendships and their community in a way we Episcopalians have neglected, and we can see their benefit and our loss. Their strong personal relationships and deep ties to each other have inoculated them to the rancor and bile that we are experiencing.

I may be the one person in the Episcopal Church who would consider making General Convention a longer and larger event if it meant there would be more time for shared dinners with each other, for chance conversations in the hallways and for more opportunities to renew friendships. I feel the same way about diocesan events and other national events as well. I may get frustrated by not accomplishing as many tasks as we might have, but if I can keep my sense that the building of relationships is at least as important as taking positions, then I think I’ll be able to quiet my inner work-a-holic. And if we could do this, I truly believe our conversations would be radically different – and that people might actually know our Lord because of the love we have for each other.

Bless the Moravian Church, and their missional focus on being the yeast for the dough, that has taught me this truth.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz., and chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication. His blog is Entangled States.


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