Last night at an anniversary party, I fell into a long conversation with another woman about how to respond to a person in our community who disrupts every group she is in. She often interrupts others, voices criticism of almost every other idea expressed, tends to come in late and leave early at meetings, takes initiative in the name of the group (sometimes in controversial ways) without first consulting with the whole group, and charges ahead with her ideas even when others disagree — and does so in the public eye, which can easily assume she’s acting with the group’s consent. She doesn’t seem open to criticism, though perhaps we’ve not all tried hard enough; she values freedom of speech and outspokenness (especially among women), and perceives the former as in grave danger in our country right now. Instead, the people who aren’t comfortable with conflict, or who find navigating her presence not worth the effort, tend to leave the group. As the woman I was talking with last night put it: “It’s easy for people to say: if it’s going to be like this, I’ll go and fill my cup elsewhere.”
It is easy to long for the harmonious image of the early Christian community we find in Acts 4:32: “The community of believers was of one mind and one heart. None of them claimed anything as their own; rather, everything was held in common.” So perhaps we should be grateful that there was so much conflict in so many early Christian churches, despite this image. We can see signs of conflict all over Paul’s letters to various churches, some of whom wanted to do away with all notion of living by a law (in freedom in Christ), and others wanting to require all Gentiles to become Orthodox Jews before they could be accepted as Christians. Paul’s voice urges this or that direction, but we lack a fuller account of how the controversies were resolved (if at all) in these early churches.
There are many occasions when it’s easy for an Oblate to long for something like the Rule of Benedict in the communities of which we ourselves are a part. Churches and other organizations do often have rules of discipline, or try to articulate their vision for group decision-making processes. But organizations that avoid authoritarian structures can end up very befuddled about how to deal with a disruptive person like the one I’ve described above.
I feel aware of the temptations involved in trying to confront or expel someone from a group. The danger of scapegoating. The danger of abandoning someone without the context of a caring friendship (I’m not sure if anyone feels like a close friend to this particular woman). The dangers that can be involved in seeing patterns of mental illness that we can label: borderline; bipoloar.
My conversation partner last night and I agreed that it’s easier (if still very difficult) to deal with conflicts in a work place or a family–where simply not showing up is harder to do. It’s harder when the group is a voluntary one, with less comprehensive ties on one’s commitments. It’s easier to walk away than figure out how to deal with the dominant disruptive voices.
Any wisdom from others, based on your own experience?