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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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Engaging A World

This is the time of year when many churches, at least Assemblies of God churches, hold an annual business meeting.  It is an annual report to the members of the congregation from the pastor(s), deacon board, and church leaders.  The previous year’s and next year’s budget is reviewed and approved.  Reports on church events and happening from ministry leaders are received.  Everyone, especially, anticipates the senior pastor’s report on the congregation, which relates the advances of he previous year and the hopeful future of the next.

As a senior pastor, leading these meetings could be a challenge.  Coming to a new congregation, it was always curious to me how these events were misused and abused by church leaders and congregants alike.  I always determined to set a different tone and expectations for these meetings.  In twenty-plus years of being involved in them, I never had a bad annual business meeting (Thank the Lord!).

I have heard stories of meetings that were contentious and troublesome.  Decisions came to depend on “pre-business meeting” politics.  Leaders railroaded there agendas through the decision making process.  Congregants ended up in yelling matches with the churches leaders or one another.  Most churches I stepped into at one level or another violated their own Constitution & Bylaws in moving the meeting’s date, electing officers, approving (or disapproving) pastoral continuance, along with a number of other things.

It is no wonder that so many people today are soured toward the church as an institution, denomination, or organization.  Many of us cannot even run a business meeting in “decency and order”.  I am not surprised that many people attending church today refuse to become members of their church because of their bad experiences.  There reason is always, “I don’t want to get involved in church politics.”  And who can blame them.

There are many reasons for a church to slide into such petty and meaningless schemes and unhealthy relationships.  However, let me focus on one that I believe may be the biggest reason.  It is simply this:  A church body that has slid so low in its relationships has done so because it is unengaged in the Kingdom of God and its mission.  It has become self-focused.  It has turned inward to war against itself rather than war against the kingdom of darkness that surrounds it.  James, the brother of Jesus, in his New Testament letter warned the church that this will only lead the church to “devour one another.”

This brings us back to a church’s annual business meeting.  How it is run and what its focus becomes can be a symptom of a larger problem.  I have sat through too many business meetings as a parishioner where the most important things talked about was the next church maintenance project, the selection of a color for furniture, the proper setting for the temperature in the sanctuary, and what kinds of foods should be served at the “Fellowship Hour”.

Other than the building, everyone was satisfied to know that the number of “butts and bucks” coming into the church was relatively unchanged or slightly improved.  A small decline in those numbers did not warrant alarm since the church experienced those before.  An alarm was only set off only if there was a mass exodus of those “butts and bucks”.  Only then did the pastor need to start to sweat the security of his job.

If these things are the only focus of an annual business meeting, the days are numbered for a congregation.  It will not be long before inward focus upon personal comforts and preferences become the main talking points in every gathering.  The church has lost its focus and reason for being.  Jesus did not say, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not spoil its convenience and comfort.”  No.  He said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  The church is made to be engaged in warfare.

I propose that any church’s annual business meeting or congregational meeting should focused on two simple things:  First, reporting what God has done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His people and through His Church the previous year.  And, second, projecting what the church leadership team – pastor(s), deacons, ministry leaders – prayerfully believes God wants done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His Church the next year.  Admittedly, those are tougher things to report and project!

The focus will necessarily be upon how the church was engaged in its mission to the world.  No reports from its leaders will be sufficient that just lists events and activities.  Keeping busy for the Lord is not an indication of fulfilling the church’s mission.  Activities do not equate to Kingdom engagement!  Money collections do not indicate Kingdom involvement!  It requires a congregation and its leaders to ask the hard questions:

  • How many of us were engaged with our time, treasure and talents in God’s mission in the world?
  • How many who were unengaged in God’s mission the previous year became engaged in it this last year?
  • How many were trained for a specific mission in God’s Kingdom to be obedient to carry out the task He has called them to do for Him?
  • How many of those in our community who were unengaged with the Kingdom of God before this last year became engaged with the Kingdom of God through our church’s efforts or the efforts of an individual from our church?
  • How many of those outside our church did we engage with the Kingdom of God – locally, nationally or internationally?
  • In what specific ways did our church or individuals from our church engage our larger local community with the Kingdom of God through acts of service – feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the orphan, care for the widow, look after those in prison, stand against injustice?
  • What persons in our community are unengaged with the gospel that we can reach out to by serving them and sharing God’s love in order to engage them with the Kingdom of God?

These questions – and there are others that could be asked along these lines – help us to celebrate what God is doing in and through the Body of Christ.  They keep everyone’s eyes upon the most important mission of a church – glorifying God by lifting up His Son, Jesus Christ.  It helps everyone to realize that there are more important things than color coordination, room temperatures, and choices between desserts or salads.  The important task of sharing God’s love is never done.  Yet, when it is done in faith and obedience it should be celebrated.  That becomes the reason for holding an annual meeting in the first place.

The church exists to engage the world with the Kingdom of God by sharing His story and revealing His glory.  We cannot do that if we are focused only upon “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We will reach for what we measure.  If we measure success in terms of personal comfort and convenience, then that is what we will always reach for first.  However, if we measure in terms of personal and corporate engagement of the Kingdom of God with the world, then that is what we will always try to attain.  So, who wants to give the next annual report?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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