Happy Families Are All Alike

The holiday season is a time for many of us to be with our families, and all the joy and the heartache (often both) that that may entail. But family dynamics can also be a lesson for us in how human organizations work – and don’t.

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


It seems we all have survived another Thanksgiving Day. What many people do on this holiday, of course, is get together with family. Not infrequently, this is a complex undertaking. Many people love their families and are glad to see them, and it’s certainly not unusual for the Thanksgiving table to be a place of love and contentment. It’s also not unusual for family gatherings of this sort to be fraught with pain and unresolved hurts.

Leo Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina memorably opens with the assertion: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy then proceeds to elaborate, for the next eight-hundred-or-so pages, on the travails of some unhappy families, each indeed quite miserable in its own way. He doesn’t give us as much insight into happy ones, or why they’re all alike. It’s worth considering whether or not happy families actually share common characteristics. Other relationships in our lives are not identical to families, but we know that workplaces and neighborhoods, nations and yes, churches have some things in common with families. If we understand what makes happy families happy, we might gain further insight into how other connections in our lives can be happier.

So many of us have the idea in our heads, even unconsciously, that addressing conflicts and concerns directly is somehow inherently hurtful. Certainly there are ways to deal with disagreements that can be damaging, but there are plenty of ways in which not dealing with conflict can be profoundly destructive. I would much rather someone say to me, “I’m angry and upset about something that you did, and I want to talk to you about it,” than say nothing — or worse, say nothing to me, but complain to others. To tell one another about our concerns in a mature, honest, frank manner is innately respectful. Doing so says: I think you are a capable adult and that you can handle candid discussion. Not doing so, in fact, says clearly that we don’t have much faith in one another. Isn’t it altogether harmonious with our religious faith to practice appropriate ways of showing anger or fear? There’s a big difference between, “I want to talk to you about something that’s upsetting me,” and silence, or “I hate you!” Yet we can also get into problems when we forget that honesty is not inherently respectful in and of itself. Just because we are sincere, that doesn’t mean we are therefore being respectful. It’s true that duplicity is a form of disrespect, but we have to be more than truthful in our interactions with one another. We have all heard people making excuses for their abusive behavior by asserting, “Well, this is just how I feel!” — as if the authenticity of the person’s rage somehow makes it acceptable to be abusive. When I have been tempted to verbally abuse another, I at least try to ask myself, “How can I say this in a way that will indicate that I desire ongoing connection?” I can’t claim to have never abused anyone; I don’t think anyone can. Respect means striving to be mindful of every conflict as an opportunity for learning — certainly those are opportunities to learn about how to creatively and constructively manage conflict, but they are also opportunities to learn about ourselves.

Persons who physically or emotionally harm others need to be given a clear and direct message that that kind of conduct will not be tolerated. It is not always possible to allow everyone to participate in the life of a congregation. Acknowledging this is a challenge; congregations are often focused intensely on being welcoming and inclusive — as they should be. So talk of deliberately excluding anyone can be quite unsettling and even painful. Being truly welcoming means that sometimes painful choices have to be made. I know of a congregation in which, during Candles of Joy and Concern, a man would sometimes stand up and make demeaning and threatening remarks toward other members of the congregation. This same man sometimes made unwanted sexual advances to female members of the congregation and its staff. What is the proper response to that kind of behavior? The appropriate and right response is to not tolerate it. The congregation’s lay leadership and pastor met to deal with the situation, and the result was that this man was told that he could not attend church, unless and until some kind of assurances could be offered that his inappropriate and destructive behavior would not be repeated. That was hard. But it was the right thing to do. What kind of message does it send to the whole congregation if this hadn’t been the response? If congregational leaders just said, “Well, we don’t want to exclude anyone,” the very clear message that sends is: It’s okay to be abusive and totally inappropriate here. If someone threatens you, violates you, hurts you in this community, no one will help you. Hurtful behavior is acceptable here. Certainly no religious institution can an instrument of hope and healing in this broken world with that kind of attitude.

No one took any pleasure in telling this troubled man that he couldn’t come to church anymore. It was intensely painful. No one regretted it, either, because it was the right thing to do. It was also the right thing to do to not abandon this man, but to actively seek ways in which he could be safely re-integrated into the community. It turns out this man was in treatment for significant mental health problems. A member of the lay leadership was a psychiatrist by profession, and he offered to work with this man to make sure he was taking his prescribed medication and receiving the help he needed. When it became abundantly clear that the man was doing better, he was allowed to return to church. The staff and many lay leaders of the congregation were well aware of the situation, and kept a close eye on the man to make sure that he was all right, and that everyone else was safe also. This wasn’t demonizing or self-righteous snooping. It was done caringly and thoughtfully. I learned of this situation many years ago, and it is still a difficult scenario for me to contemplate. On the one hand, I recognize that that man deserved to be treated like a human being. I do wonder what his return was like for the people with whom he had been inappropriate. Sometimes we have to accept that our solutions are going to be far from perfect.

I admit I had never heard of Harvey Weinstein until these horrible stories started coming out not too long ago stating that he has, for years, engaged in disgustingly abusive behavior toward women. Now it seems like hardly a week goes by that there aren’t new revelations and accusations about yet another man in public life conducting himself in an astoundingly inappropriate and hurtful manner. Sad to say, anyone who has been paying attention knows that these kinds of abuses have been going on for a long, long time. And yet I wonder if what we are seeing now is a renewed commitment to a simple and powerful idea: nobody should ever have to put up with such behavior, and the perpetrators should face consequences. No one can be glad that these kinds of cruel and dehumanizing behaviors exist, but perhaps we should take hope and courage that our culture seems to be at some kind of turning point in which good people are saying: this has to stop. But like the situation I knew of in that church all those years ago with that abusive man, it’s may not be that hard to identify what’s wrong; it can be harder to know what the right and best response is. A photograph was recently revealed of Al Franken, before he was a US Senator, behaving in a totally inappropriate an unacceptable manner with the radio broadcaster Leeann Tweeden, and he has been accused of other misconduct as well. There is no doubt in my mind that Franken should have to answer for these intolerable behaviors. But how? Should he be forced to resign? Or is some other consequence more suitable? And is there ever a place for redemption? These questions do not admit of easy answers.

We wrestle with questions like these in any family or community or organization. Certainly we face questions like these in churches, because in churches — as in any other place of human connection — there are going to be misunderstandings and disappointments and hurts in our relationships. If happy families are all alike, they’re probably all alike in that they have all figured out how to balance the need for acceptance and connection with a need to set boundaries. If happy churches are all alike, it’s probably because no person, no group, no program, no tradition or project or plan is more important to them than the core values of love and respect that make the church more than a pleasant social club, more than a service organization, that make the church a place where fallible mortals are trying to live their lives anchored in something of transcendent worth. Church is church above all because we finite, mortal beings are trying to align our individual and collective existences in things — like love and respect — that are echoes of that which is infinite and eternal.