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Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Relationship Scarring

It is impossible to go through life without ending up with scars from relationships. The fact that we wound at all is a testament to our humanity.  The fact that we are often as much the deliverers of scars as the receivers of scars speaks loudly to our own brokenness.  Children are scarred by parents.  Siblings grow up leaving scars upon one another.  Co-workers and bosses leave wounds that can range from minor paper-cut like ones to major open, seeping wounds.

Not all scarring from relational squabbles is the same. Minor ones leave their mark as do major ones.   All of them leave a lasting memory and reminder of a battle won or lost.  It seems that the closer the relationships, the deeper and longer lasting the wound and subsequent scar left behind.  Likewise, everyone deals with their relationship wounds in different ways.  Some people are more resilient and successful than others; while the others languish under memories and unforgiveness.

It may come across as naive, but it seems that people expect fellow Christians to never leave a wound or scar upon others, particularly other believers. So, when this does occur, the surprise and hurt go deep.  There is an expectation that “christians” will somehow exhibit a perfected humanity that is devoid of any ability to wound or scar with words, actions or attitudes.  This is far from the case.

The other day I was listening to a fellow believer share the story of their spiritual journey. Raised in a religiously strict, legalistic home, this person was not able to do anything “worldly;” which included among other things going to movies, playing billiards, bowling, attending dances or associating with anyone who did such things.  When this individual finally left home, they discovered a whole different world of Christian beliefs and practices.  It caused them quite a personal identification crisis.

The biggest problem for this individual, however, was not with the particular Christian expression with which they grew up. Instead, it was the readily apparent hypocrisy that was witnessed among parents, established church members and church leadership.  They could spout the doctrines of the faith, display a modicum of religious behavior and then turn right around and speak evil of one another, attack leadership and hold others in disdain.  Spiritual knowledge was greater than the spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Once liberated from their past, the person who shared their story with me expressed the joy of being able to work with other Christians. Seeing how others worshipped and practiced their faith gave a new perspective.  Unfortunately, the story shared with me included many places in the journey where terrible wounds were left by those in church leadership positions.  I felt the pain expressed.  I sensed the hurt and frustration over those that anyone would expect better behavior from in spiritual leadership.  I also knew that any such expectations were wholly unrealistic.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

We are a people of clay feet who follow the leadership of individuals with clay feet. We are a community of broken and wounded sheep who follow broken and wounded leaders.  This is all the more reason that love, acceptance and forgiveness should be the hallmarks of such communities.  Too often these qualities are absent in order to protect the appearance of spiritual perfection.  In the presence of such spiritual “perfection,” one is deemed an authority and a leader, regardless of true inward character.

Too often, what happens behind the closed doors of church offices between staff or at the board meetings or membership meetings of the congregation becomes the place where wounds are given and received. Instead of being the sanctuaries they are touted to be, they become torture chambers of spiritual abuse.  I have personal experiences with those meetings.  Unfortunately, I also have too many friends who have either left ministry or left church altogether because of the stinging scars they still nurse.

The ironic answer to all this lies within the very thing that causes us to hand out scars to others like Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges. It lies in our brokenness.  It is our brokenness within ourselves, towards others and towards God that fails us and causes us to fail others.  Like broken pottery, the shards of our life lie hidden until someone steps upon them or touches them.  Then we leave a wound.

At the same time, our brokenness holds the answer for all of us. Instead of attempting to hold up perfected lives before others to see and applaud, we would be better off acknowledging our broken places.  Instead of playing to our strengths to lord it over others, we would do better to lead and influence from our own woundedness.  Instead of attempting to portray a community of victors and overcomers who have no problems, we would serve ourselves and others better by admitting that we are a community of confessors and repenters.

I am not advocating for a fellowship of moaners and complainers who go around with sullen faces.  I am not suggesting that defeatism and spiritual poverty become the Christian model for spirituality. We have already been down that road before with the Puritans, Quakers and Pietists.  What I am suggesting is a spiritual formation and communal journey that includes a spiritual “sunshine policy.”  A “sunshine policy” is one that allows light upon a situation so that everyone knows what is going on.  It demands honesty, integrity, truthfulness, accountability, and openness.

This approach, of course, offers no guarantee against relationship scarring even among Christians. However, it does offer a more transparent way of healing our self-inflicted wounds upon the body of Christ.  This is much better than just moving from church to church or getting rid of staff for unexplainable reasons.  In this I readily acknowledge that because I am in community with and being led by broken individuals, I cannot expect to never be wounded.  Nor can I expect that I will never deliver a wound because I, too, am broken.  As such, I do understand that continuing in this community will require me to extend love, grace and mercy to others, just as they extend it towards me.

We are not called to lives of perfection on this side of eternity. We do not have the right to expect to come through this life unscarred and unwounded.  God in Christ Jesus gave us the model for dealing with sin and forgiveness.  Only through love, grace and mercy can the relationship scars we receive and deliver become the marks of true spiritual community.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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