Conflict is the beginning of consciousness. – M. Esther Harding
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it. – Mahatma Gandhi
Whether you realize it or not, conflict is likely at the surface or bubbling just beneath the surface in your wards and branches. As the quotes above suggest, such conflict can be a positive thing if members have the abilities and skills to cope with conflict effectively. But, all too often, conflict results in negative consequences. From my personal experiences within the church and by seeing the conflict that is reported on the news every night, I believe that learning about how to best cope with conflict and how to help others do the same is increasingly important.
While I could focus on a variety of sources of conflict within the church, there is one source that I feel is (1) growing increasingly common, and (2) particularly challenging for members to cope with effectively. This source of conflict is diversity. But not diversity in terms of nationality or culture. Rather, diversity of thought, beliefs, and values amongst church members.
To explain this diversity of thought, beliefs, and values amongst church members consider the figure below. It depicts a continuum of thought, beliefs, and values that range from being rather orthodox (i.e., holding strong to church traditions and beliefs) on the left to being rather progressive on the right (i.e., open to new traditions and ideas). In older religions, such as Judaism or Islam, this continuum is often visibly apparent. Take Judaism for example, there are some very orthodox Jews that wear traditional black jackets/robes, a black hat, and have payot (sidelocks), and there are more progressive Jews that have taken on more modern traditions. Although less physically apparent, this continuum exists In the LDS Church, and there is commonly conflict occurring between members on either side of the continuum.
Let me provide several examples of where I have seen such conflict recently.
First, in my ward, a High Priest Group instructor gave a lesson about ministering to members who may be on the fringe. He focused on three different types/groups of people that might be considered on the fringe: single sisters, struggling members, and those with same-gender attraction. More orthodox members of the High Priest Group were not very happy that same-gender attraction was brought up in the meeting, and several went to the Stake President to complain.
Second, in an online forum, an individual stated that his Stake President recently informed his High Counselors that if they had facial hair, they needed to become clean-shaven. This individual asked whether there was anything in the Church Handbooks related to facial hair. In the comments that ensued, there came a very clear distinction in people that had more orthodox views and those that had more progressive views. Those that held more orthodox views promoted the idea of following our church leaders regardless of what they say, and those that held more progressive views promoting the idea that facial hair has little bearing on one’s ability to fulfill their calling and that perhaps the Stake President took his authority a bit too far. While I didn’t think the discussion grew too heated, there was clearly contention between the two camps.
Third, a few months ago, I was teaching a Gospel Doctrine lesson that dealt with the apostasy of members during the Kirtland era. In my lesson, I highlighted some of the reasons why this apostasy occurred, and focused the lesson on what we could learn from that era to help prevent apostasy in our current era. As I was discussing some of the reasons that led members to leave the church during the Kirkland era, conflict occurred in the class because, more orthodox members of the class were upset that I was focusing on what might be considered negative aspects of the church, instead of the positive aspects of the church. One such member stated that rather than focus on why people left, I should focus on why certain people stayed faithful. But, more progressive members of the class made the case that there are a number of people leaving the church, and to prevent this, we need to better understand why people are leaving the church, which may involve having difficult conversations.
Fourth, in August (2017), LDS Living (operated by Deseret Book) posted an article on its Facebook page that discussed the LDS Church releasing a statement in support of the LoveLoud Festival, which was a music festival promoting teen safety, especially amongst LGBT youth. Once again, the commenters largely fell into two camps. One camp seemed to take a more orthodox perspective and seemed against LDS Living posting this article because it dealt with the LGBT community. Even some commenters felt the church never should have released a statement supporting a group that focused on LGBT youth. The other camp seemed to take a more progressive perspective and congratulated the LDS Church for supporting the festival, and LDS Living for posting the article.
From these and other examples, I have seen how divisive conflict between members on opposite ends of the orthodox-progressive continuum can be. The purpose of this article is to ultimately bring members who think and believe differently closer together, not necessarily by changing their thinking and beliefs, but by helping members at either side of the continuum to better understand each other. I believe that with an enhanced understanding of each other there will come a (1) reduction of conflict, contention, and unwanted consequences of such within the church; and (2) enhancement of compassion, peace, and mutuality amongst members in the Church.
To help members on opposite ends of the orthodox-progressive continuum better understand each other, I want to discuss the following:
- Why members on the polar ends of the orthodox-progressive continuum think and believe the way they do
- Why orthodox members can have a hard time with progressive members, and why progressive members can have a hard time with orthodox members
- Recommendations for how conflict can be reduced between members at opposite ends of the orthodox-progressive continuum
Why Members on the Polar Ends of the Orthodox-Progressive Continuum Think and Believe the Way They Do
What leads members within the LDS church to think and believe differently from each other? While the answers are surely many, I want to focus on two individual attributes that strongly contribute to where members stand on the orthodox-progressive continuum. The first attribute is a dimension of personality called openness to experience, and the second attribute is a divide in moral values between community and individuality.
Identifying and understanding the differences among us has two primary benefits. First, it helps us to more clearly identify the value in the philosophies of those that think and believe differently than us. And second, it helps us to see the limitations or blind spots in our own philosophies. Together, such identification and understanding allows us to better relate to and understand each other, which is critical to us having charity for one another.
Personality traits are enduring characteristics representing our behavior, temperament, and tendencies. There has been much research on personality, and most psychology researchers agree that there are five primary personality traits (Big Five): openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). The personality trait that explains some of the difference between orthodox and progressive members is openness to experience.
Openness to Experience. Orthodox members have a tendency to be low on openness to experience, which means that they prefer things to be familiar, safe, and dependable. As such, they tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior, they prefer familiar routines, and they generally have a narrow range of interests.
Progressive members have a tendency to be high on openness to experience, which means that they crave novelty, diversity, variety, and new ideas. They tend to cope better with organizational change and are more adaptable. As such, they value traditions less than those low on openness to experience.
A common bias that we all have is that we believe that what comes naturally for us is more valuable, important, or correct. This suggests that orthodox members (those low on openness to experience) have a tendency to overvalue convention and tradition, while progressive members (those high on openness to experiences) have a tendency to undervalue convention and tradition. So, when a topic such as ‘should men always wear white shirts to church?’ comes up, orthodox members are inclined to suggest “yes” because it is conventional, traditional, and safe (and perhaps because they assume it is policy). But, progressive members are going to be more inclined to say “no” because they enjoy variety, diversity, and are more adaptable.
Another more important way this difference manifests itself within the church relates to members’ approach to prophets and prophetic teachings. It is not uncommon for members high on openness to experience to be open to novelty, diversity, and/or change within the church. When such openness is expressed, those low on openness to experience often feel as though such openness is evidence of going against prophets and need for repentance. For example, my family has a fun story that we commonly joke about. Several years ago when the Ordain Women movement was in full force, we were having a family discussion amongst adult family members. In this discussion, I stated that I was open to the idea of women holding the priesthood. A serious response that was provided to this openness was the question: “Do you still hold a temple recommend?” (I did and still do). We laugh about this now, but at the time, what this family member failed to see was that one can be open to novelty and diversity while still believing in prophets, seers, and revelators.
Moral values are standards that we possess that guide our perspectives and decision-making, often related to good versus evil and right versus wrong. Throughout life, we are presented with options. When confronted with such options, we often rely upon our moral values for guidance. For example, when we encounter a homeless person asking for money, we are likely to lean upon our moral values to determine whether to give the person some money. We may cite our values for care and give money, or we may cite our values of fairness (they do not deserve my hard-earned money) and not give money.
One set of moral values that factors into the orthodox-progressive divide is community vs. individuality. Orthodox members have a tendency to place greater value on community and progressive members have a tendency to place greater value on individuality. While I present this as being polar opposites, it is important to remember that many members of the church fall somewhere on the continuum between the poles.
Community vs. Individuality. Members who highly value community value order within the community. They believe that members of the Church need to put their individuality aside and demonstrate their membership by conforming to the standards and norms of the Church. This value often comes with the attitude, “if you join our team, you have to play by our norms and rules.” This is reflected in the facial hair example above where members who value community articulated that members of the church should follow all of their priesthood leaders’ directions (often without question). Doing so helps promote order, and such order helps those that value community over individuality to feel safe and comfortable within the community.
On the other hand, members who highly value individuality place great value on individual agency, value, autonomy, independence, and self-reliance. As such, they do not feel like one’s goals and desires should be constrained by a group. They also believe that the worth of a soul is great in the sight of God, and that devotion and ministering is best done on a one-on-one basis. So, in the facial hair example, members who value individuality are going to suggest that having facial hair is an individual’s agency that has little, if any, bearing on the agency of others. As such, they are going to see little reason why individuals with facial hair need to conform to the norms of a larger group. Members who value individuality commonly feel that individuals within the church should not have to be different than who they are in order to be accepted.
Why Members on the Polar Ends of the Orthodox-Progressive Continuum Have a Tendency to Rub Each Other the Wrong Way
Orthodox and progressive members both feel the need to (1) be safe within the church community and (2) belong. But, the reason why conflict arises between those on either side of the continuum is because the differences in their personality and moral values lead them to feel safe and belong in essentially opposite ways.
Orthodox members feel most safe and most like they belong when members conform to both tradition and community. When everyone acts, looks, and thinks like each other, orthodox members feel (1) like they can trust each other, leading to perceptions of being safe; and (2) a strong sense of unity, leading to feelings of belonging. But, progressive members almost feel the exact opposite. When everyone acts, looks, and thinks like each other, progressive members feel pressure to conform and be different than who they are, leading to perceptions of feeling unwelcome, unsafe, and not fitting in, leading to feelings of isolation.
On the other side, progressive members feel most safe and most like they belong when members accept each other for who they are and are open to moving past (what they may consider to be) outdated dogmas. When everyone is able to be loved and accepted for who they are regardless of whether they follow tradition or conform to norms, progressive members feel like (1) they are safe being who they are; and (2) accepted (not judged). But, as eluded to in the previous paragraph, the idea of breaking tradition and individuality leaves orthodox members feeling like they cannot trust other members and are not united.
Altogether, it is not surprising that orthodox members view progressive members as being disrespectful and cavalier. And, it is not surprising that progressive members view orthodox members as being rigid and judgmental.
But, the good news is that it does not have to be that way.
Recommendations for Reducing Conflict Between Members at Opposite Ends of the Orthodox-Progressive Continuum
There is much information available for how to deal with or respond to a variety of different types of conflict. But much of that information is not necessarily designed to strengthen relationships or bring people together. If the LDS Church wants to be the stone that rolls to fill the whole earth, its members will need to understand more than just how to respond to conflict, rather, they will need to understand how to rise above conflict. The following recommendations are designed to help LDS leaders and members rise above current conflict, get in front of potential future conflict, and ultimately create an environment where members can live and cope with conflict such that it strengthens relationships and brings people together.
Conflict often boils over when individuals place greater emphasis on their differences than they do their similarities. Thus, to prevent conflict from boiling over between orthodox and progressive members, local leaders should promote a shared and unifying purpose. Such a purpose creates a cooperative conflict style as opposed to a competitive conflict style, and it helps members focus on the big and most important things as opposed to focusing on the little things.
Nothing confirms the power of this more than seeing how our country responds to disasters. When our country feels relatively safe, is seems like all we hear about is people in conflict, often conflicting about rather menial things. But, when a disaster occurs (think 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Las Vegas, etc.) people’s and society’s attention changes to focus on a common and shared purpose, and often the things that really matter.
What is interesting about the conflict between orthodox and progressive members is that they tend to hinge closely on organizational norms and standards as opposed to salvific practices and doctrines. Common divides often deal with outward appearances (e.g., white shirts for men, skirts/dresses for women, garment wearing, bikinis, etc.), outward actions (e.g., playing sports or going swimming on Sunday, listening to certain music, not going to Sunday School), or even inward orientations (e.g., same-gender attraction, having doubts about the church or some of its doctrine). Thus, to minimize unnecessary conflict and rise above such conflict, it is important to focus on higher-order purposes and salvific practices and doctrines.
Promote Diversity and Greater Openness to Diversity
In the book, The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, he suggests that people do not expose themselves to diversity like they used to, and a consequence of this is poor thinking and greater conflict. Here is some evidence that people do not expose themselves to diversity like they used to:
- In 1976, less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide
- In 2016, 80 percent of Americans lived in counties that gave either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide victory
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown, uses Bishop’s book to suggest that we have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups in which we silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking, and consume only facts that support our beliefs—making it even easier to ignore evidence that our positions are wrong. Of this, Bishop writes, “As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”
Church leaders need to help members on both sides of the orthodox-progressive continuum become more open to hearing and understanding the perspectives of those on the other side of the continuum. Brené Brown states that “our lack of tolerance for vulnerable, tough conversations is driving our self-sorting and disconnection.” The reality is that members at either end of the orthodox-progressive continuum have very valid perspectives that are worthy of being heard. We need to create space for diverging thoughts, philosophies, and opinions because without such, we not only create a greater divide between each other, but we leave ourselves prone to incorrect biases, poor decision-making, and a lack of charity. Once we see that orthodox and progressive members both have something to contribute, they form a healthy balance between change and stability.
Stepping Beyond the Conflict
This last recommendation may be the hardest for members within the church. Our Church has some strong truth claims. It is ok to have truth claims, and I am surely not suggesting that we get rid of those truth claims. But, having these truth claims often leads members to take very strong and loud stances in favor of the truth claims and other beliefs that the Church holds that may not necessarily be “truth claims.” And, experts on conflict resolution suggest that such strong and loud stances may not help with conflict resolution and with creating an inviting atmosphere within our walls.
In a TedTalk on the Moral Mind, Jonathan Haidt states:
“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease… You can’t just go charging in, saying ‘You’re wrong, and I’m right.’ Because…everybody thinks they are right. A lot of problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are—understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right—and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out… Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, as least, has some reasons—even if you disagree with them—everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out. And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.”
In her latest book, Brené Brown calls this stepping out ‘braving the wilderness’ (also the title of the book). Braving the wilderness is being able to step out of the battle, not initially taking a side, and stand alone with yourself in a place that might be uncertain, vulnerable, and open to criticism. (If you want honesty… because of the truth claims our Church possesses, we are not very good about being uncertain, vulnerable, and open to criticism, which actually fuels conflict).
Brené Brown goes on to state that paradoxes (think contrasting views between orthodox and progressive members) are part of the human experience, and that rather than avoid these paradoxes, she suggests that: “Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” Stated differently, it is only when we come to accept the paradoxes that we face, rather than fight against them, that we can understand and have a fullness of life. Otherwise, we just have one side or perspective (or less) of life.
Thus, my last recommendation is not to avoid conflict or potential conflict, promote truth claims, or even just being open to diversity. Rather, my last recommendation, and the recommendation of conflict experts, is to step beyond the conflict. See the conflict from a higher level, where you can take in multiple perspectives and you can sit with those perspectives. Rather than try to promote the idea that (a) orthodoxy is the ‘correct’ side of the continuum (blue), (b) progressivism is the ‘correct’ side of the continuum (yellow), or even (c) somewhere in the middle is the best way to compromise (green), it means that we allow people to stand where they are, accept them for who they are and their unique perspective (as opposed to try to change them), and we understand their perspective. We need to remember that people can have more orthodox inclinations or more progressive inclinations, but still believe in Christ and sustain our Prophet and Apostles (even though it may seem foreign to someone at the opposite end of the continuum).
When there are disagreements related to the orthodox/progressive divide, we need to be able to talk civilly about those disagreements because where those disagreements occur identifies where more attention and conversation is needed. But, if we are emotionally reacting to what someone states, how someone behaves, or the stance someone takes, we are stepping into the conflict, not beyond it. We need to remember that what binds us together should be more than what we believe, it should be who we are, which should involve kindness, love, and encouragement, among other qualities.
Several months ago, Leading Saints released an article that I wrote on how leaders can help minister to Millennials. Since the LDS church (and all religions) is losing a meaningful number of Millennial members, this is a topic that needs greater attention and civil conversations. In an attempt to create attention and civil conversations on the topic, I wrote the article to bring people together to help retain the Church’s Millennial population. The response to that article was, let’s call it…interesting. You can read some of the comments yourself. The article was picked up and posted on LDS Living’s Facebook page, and the comments there were even more…interesting. What I observed as I saw the comments come in was the formation of two clear camps: an orthodox camp and a progressive camp. Each camp was emotionally reacting to either the article or each other. What few seemed to be doing (at least those that were commenting) is stepping beyond the conflict and seeking to understand the different perspectives that members had. Rather, they were engaging in conflict that only seemed to create a greater divide and little conversation about what really mattered (retaining Millennials), the exact opposite of what I intended.
Our society is definitely struggling with conflict right now, and the same could be said about members within our church, whether you see it or not. Such conflict is typically divisive and unhealthy. But, I believe in the quotes at the beginning of this article:
Conflict is the beginning of consciousness. – M. Esther Harding
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it. – Mahatma Gandhi
Conflict can spur us to become more conscious, and we probably won’t be able to avoid conflict moving forward, but we can improve our ability to cope with it. To do so, I have provided three recommendations:
- Focus on a singular and overarching purpose
- Promote diversity and greater openness to diversity
- Step beyond the conflict
It is also important to recognize that members, regardless of where they are on the continuum, all believe in Christ, they all follow their covenants, hold temple recommends, serve faithfully, give their hearts to God and others etc. What matters little is where someone stands on the continuum. What matters much more is where someone’s heart is.
It is my hope that this article will help local leaders within the LDS Church help those under their stewardship face and deal with conflict. Additionally, I hope that this article helps all LDS members to become more conscious and able to cope with conflict. Remember, as the stone rolls to fill the whole earth, it is only going to absorb increasingly diverse opinions and perspectives. As this occurs, it is my hope that we will focus on each others’ hearts and be less concerned about where one stands on the continuum.