Two Franciscan friars were journeying across the country evangelizing people. They came to the bank of a river, but there was no bridge at that point. Standing by the river was a beautiful young lady who also had to cross, but she told the friars that she was afraid to ford the river because she could not swim. So, the first friar immediately offered his assistance. He took the young lady in his arms and carried her across the river. She was so deeply grateful that, before they went their separate ways, she gave him a hug and a kiss. Once the woman had left, the second friar began berating his companion for his reckless, sinful behavior. For two hours, in fact, the first Franciscan walked in silence as his companion recited a litany of faults: holding the woman in his arms, allowing her to hug and kiss him, breaking the rules of chastity, and most certainly placing his soul at risk. When his determined silence appeared unable to stem the flood of complaints, the presumed sinner finally responded: "I carried that woman across the river and left her on the opposite bank. You are still carrying her."
In the final analysis of practically every story of conflict between a member of the clergy and a musician, insecurity, miscommunication, and no communication rank high on the list of causes for the atmosphere of friction that looms over priest and musician, both apostles, who serve God and his people under the banner of Christianity. Most people think of the church as a genteel, dignified institution, whose work is carried out by people with nice manners in an air of civility. But, when I attend various musical gatherings, I often hear the horror stories, the complaints, and the whines, about what Father did, or about "what he won't let me do." Consider the endless complaints of the second friar in my story. He may have meant well, but he didn't know when to drop a subject, when to forgive a fault, or when to forget an incident. Such determination to focus on grievance and protestation usually masks a greater problem such as ignorance, fear, insecurity, or some other self-imposed limitations. The simple cure for such problems is offered in the Scriptures where Jesus admonishes Peter to forgive seventy times seven times. Whether we are in the role of persecutor or persecuted, maintaining a grudge taxes our energy and hardens our hearts. We must find ways to resolve, forgive, and to grow, rather than continuing to sulk, gossip, or fulminate. After all, the task of the church is to fight sin, and we can hardly contribute to this task by fighting each other.
Consider Choir Rehearsals
Consider the average choir rehearsal. The music director chooses the music, marshals the voices, sets the tempo, and prompts the singers to follow. When the baton descends, they had better sing on cue, because the director is the boss and the boss is always right. Even if wrong, the director is still right. If a mistake is made, the job of the choir members is to do what it takes to keep up with their conductor and to make it work. Now take a step back and view the larger picture. Father is there; he is your boss and, as we know, the boss is always right. By nature, we all need and want to be in control, but sometimes our plans get foiled because our way of leading may be different from that of another person. We may not be wrong, only different. At the 1996 NPM Regional Convention in Stamford, CT, during a panel discussion, Rev. Robert Burbank admonished the musicians to "remember who signs your paycheck," and Michael McMahon retorted "remember who pays yours." The issue isn't about who is in control; it is about exploring ways to exercise power for benefit and not for control. Only then will the anarchy, inflated egos, and verbal sniping cease to exist. An old Zen saying sums it up: "The fastest way to get ahead in your chosen profession is to help promote those ahead of you." Only then will tension lead to a healing and not to a grievance hearing.
Conflict in the parish workplace is a pervasive problem that threatens both peace and productivity. It is particularly appropriate to address problems early on, so as to avoid later and potentially tragic consequences. One of the greatest agents of conflict may be stress caused by such things as the loss of a crucial choir member, erratic scheduling, family responsibilities, monotonous tasks, overtime, high goals, a change in staff, fear of competition (for instance, from the "folk group"). Recognizing the true source of conflict and finding appropriate ways to resolve it require fact finding and collaborative problem solving. Autonomy, authoritarian managerial styles, and an absence of decision-making latitude can all produce an oppressive atmosphere where imposed limitations demean or diminish dignity and spirituality, and lead to the fear of failure, or to an attempt to demean another person. Working out conflict with grace, charity, and wisdom is the only solution.
The Language of Listening
A lot of people seem to lack the ability to communicate in the language of listening. It is a language we may not know, because we have never learned it. Instead of keeping our common goals and vision for the future firmly in mind, we frequently let our emotions and the thoughtless actions of others overwhelm us. We spend what might have been productive time dwelling on what we think of others, or what they may think of us. This may be the time to remember exactly what one shares with others in the way of common goals and visions for the future. All too often, however, we are not given the luxury of recalling such basic values. A musician awakes, so to speak, in the midst of a situation already overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, a feeling that nothing can be done that is positive. It may be that another person is unwilling to forgive, to adapt, or deliberate over a dispute. Caught up in a feeling of despair, without taking the needed time to reflect, the musician resigns. And while this may relieve the pain of the current situation, if nothing constructive has been attempted, then the pattern is then in place for repeating this sad history at the next parish.
If at all possible, it is certainly preferable to approach the problem through focusing on common goals and shared visions. But this is not to encourage passive acceptance as a better sort of solution than withdrawal from the scene of battle. In fact, passivity can be a threat to finding a solution. Like high blood pressure, it is a silent enemy. Sometimes the best solution is to terminate employment if someone is destroying us, and we can find no way to resist that destruction, or if, on the other hand, we find ourselves expending valuable energy destroying someone else. In either case, walking away from the situation may be the charitable thing to do, both for self-preservation and for the sake of the other party.
Choose Your Battles
Confrontation is always difficult, even when one supposes that one is right. But not everything is worth fighting for. Not everything in life and work is a contest to win or to lose. Do what can be done and then learn the lesson of letting go. Limitations can breed invention, creativity, and artistic capabilities. The goal is excellence, not perfection. Nobody is perfect and no one is going to become perfect (and remember that this includes Father). So let your employer know what your needs and desires are. Don't hold him responsible if he can't read your mind. If he says "no" because he can't or doesn't understand your point of view, then try to understand his. Accept his decision and move on. When a door is closed, invariably a window is opened.
The ability to recognize and resolve disputes is a valuable job skill that many of us are not trained to use. It can be taught, but finally one has to cultivate and learn what skills one possesses and, as important, what skills one lacks. Only through collaboration, creative effort, mutual respect, and a climate of communication, can a safe and supportive environment be fostered. Start on solutions by cultivating a sense of mutual interest. Engage in conversation, spend time relaxing together. Make sure that the pastor (or other employer) is aware
of all music activities so that he can express an interest in those he would like to attend. Invite him to accompany you to an NPM Convention: joint participation might lead to a common understanding of goals and visions.
I was disappointed that only a handful of people took advantage of Kathy Hendricks's workshop on "conflict management" at the 1996 Stamford Regional. Could it be that we don't attend such programs because we fear that further training will somehow challenge what we are already doing? Maybe the greatest danger to us is the possible discovery that the problem is ours and not someone else's. Perhaps there is more of a problem with our attitudes than with Father's actions. We cannot avoid conflict, but by leaning forward, unclenching our fists, speaking gently, measuring our words, listening, learning, and communicating we may withstand it. If we do not have this talent, even if the propensity for it is not within us, we still may be able to acquire it. And, because we are believers, we should trust St. Luke's promise to those who have to confront authority: "Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you are to say" (Luke 12:11-12). For those who are genuinely called to serve, this surely is enough.