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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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People and Places

Recently, my parents celebrated fifty years of marriage. We gathered at the church where they attended before getting married and where my dad spent many of his growing up years.  In turn, it became our family church when I was a child.  Even after we moved away from Seattle, when we returned it was always to the same church family.

The church was originally called White Center Assembly of God, but in later years changed its name to Westwood Christian Assembly. It has seen a few pastors come and go – most of them stayed for a number of years with the present pastor approaching 20 years.  The surrounding community has changed with a largely Asian immigrant population.  Once familiar store fronts are now part of what appears to be a “little Asia” in West Seattle, Washington.

The church building has gone through upgrades and improvements, but the sanctuary looks much the same as it did when my wife, Kelly, and I got married in it in 1983. Thankfully, the color scheme is a lot better than it was back then.  The old brick building that was the original sanctuary and then Christian Education wing when the new sanctuary was built is long gone.  A newer Christian Education wing takes its place.  The old fellowship hall and fireside room looks much the same as it did in the 1980’s.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It is amazing how places can evoke such memories. I remember on more than one occasion I and my brothers got in trouble for playing tag on the edges of the elevated outdoor flower area and iron railing.  The old nursery is gone to make for a larger entry, but I can clearly remember its place and even smell.  I was the church janitor for a period of time and got to know the building quite well.

The sanctuary brought back to mind many experiences: my grandfather, Walter Almberg, ushering; my grandmother, Evelyn Almberg, playing piano or organ; the place where our family sat; later, the place where the teens all sat together; the place where I played trumpet with the rest of the thinly numbered “orchestra;” and the aisle and altar where we came down and stood during our wedding ceremony.  There are more deeply rooted spiritual memories, too.  I can point to the place at the altar where first dedicated my life the Jesus Christ in the 5th grade during a children’s crusade with Gene and Esther Fiddler.  Then, there was the place on the other side of the altar where I rededicated my life to the Lord as a rebellious teenager.  There is place where I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.  Behind the platform is the baptismal tank where I was baptized as a 6th grader.

Even more amazing is how much seeing people one has not seen in many, many years evokes its own set of memories. While elderly people filed in to congratulate my parents and talk to them, I also had the joy of revisiting many people who were once Sunday School teachers, Royal Ranger leaders, Vacation Bible School and Children’s Church leaders, as well as ushers and deacons in the church; even babysitters.  Some came alone as their spouses had passed away in recent years.  Some of us recognized each others, while some of us had to be prompted as to the connections by my mother or father.  We were all filled with joy and surprise to see one another again.

I am sure that not a few of them were surprised that us kids turned out half-way decent. We certainly gave more than one of them a test of their patience when we were children.  Afterward, my dad came up to me and asked, “So, what did you think?”  I could only respond, “It’s amazing what fifty years will do to people!”  And it is true.  We all grow older, that is for certain.

What is not for certain is knowing with certainty the outcome of all the time and energy we pour into people and places. I hope that I can stand as a human monument to all the people who poured their time, money, talents, and energies into providing a good building with a spiritual nurturing environment that helped me become who I am today.  More importantly, I hope that I can be a reminder to them that their efforts as regular people seeking to follow and serve Jesus in and through the body of Christ were worth every moment.  At least, for me, those people and that place means a lot.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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On Mission

Every organization battles keeping its mission – raison d’etre = reason for being – the central focus of its business.  It is what drives corporate behavior and, in the end, makes it profitable.  We have seen the result of some American companies who have lost sight of their original corporate mission.

They got sidetracked into other endeavors and pursuits. Pretty soon, what they once were known for in the market place got lost to a competitor.  Not only did they lose market share, but they lost profitability.  You could name any of the U.S. automakers, banks, insurance companies, or even smaller ventures in the past 5 years or so and see the economic results from such missional blindness.

I do not believe it is any different for the Church.  It is an ongoing and constant battle to remind everyone the raison d’etre.  Why does the Church exist?  What is the Church here to accomplish?

These are important questions and will define the activities of any church fellowship. Most importantly, it will not be defined by what its creeds say.  Neither will it be identified by any “mission statement” or “vision statement”.  These are all good tools and necessary.  Instead, the behavior of its followers will dictate what it really believes, values, and holds to be its mission.

There is the often told story of the life saving stations along the Easter seaboard of the U.S. They were originally built and organized to save people and sailors involved in shipwrecks off the coast.  During the lull in activities, however, they became popular meeting places for social activities.

Pretty soon, the focus on saving lives in emergency situations gave way to the social activities. So much so, that no one bothered any longer to be on the look out for shipwrecks.  When one did occur, members were put out by how the emergency upset their routine and messed up their finely decorated life saving station.  Pretty soon, other life saving stations had to be built to replace those who no longer functioned in that capacity but were there only for decoration and celebration.

This can be a parable about the Church too.  It is a challenge to keep the focus upon the saving of lives in emergencies.  It is a terrible disruption to our comfort and convenience.  It costs money, time, and energy to man an effective life saving station.  Is it worth the effort?  Those who are saved think so!

The same could be said of the Church in spiritual terms. Yet, how many of our churches end up existing to serve only the benefit, comfort, and convenience of its members?  How many have lost sight of its real raison d’tre?

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001

Deep Lake and Mount Adams, Indian Heaven Wilderness, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination.  When it was formed as a Pentecostal Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, its stated reason for forming and existing was “to be the greatest evangelistic movement the world has ever seen.”  Those gathered at that early meeting believed that the Pentecostal blessing being poured out upon its generation was to serve only one purpose: to proclaim the Gospel to every nation.

As an organization, its devotion was originally given only to world missions and evangelization. It was first and foremost a missionary sending agency.  And, so was launched one of the greatest missionary endeavors of the 20th century.  Nearly a hundred years later, that same denomination now finds itself struggling to recapture its original vision and mission or raison d’etre.

There are many Assembly of God churches that do not give anything toward world missions.  Friends of mine who answered a call to world missions and entered the Assemblies of God World Missions agency find it hard pressed to raise the funds they need for their budgets within 18 months so they can get to their field of service.  They are finding that many Assembly of God churches do not even have missionaries to their churches any more.  One friend of mine was informed by a former district official now pastoring that they do not have missionaries come to their church!  The denomination also now finds itself riding a wave of retiring missionaries with no new recruits in the wings.

The ministries of every local Assembly of God church, along with its District, used to be centered around fulfilling its mission to evangelize the world.

  • Women’s Ministry was called the “Women’s Missionary Council” and was an agency to engage women in the local church to sponsor and support missionaries.
  • Men’s Ministry had what was called “Minute Man” and M.A.P.S. (Mobilization And Placement Services) that placed resources and skilled laborers where they were needed all across the world.
  • The Youth Ministries were called “Christ’s Ambassadors” because they were considered to be the calling and sending place for young people into ministry and in particular to the missionary fields of service.
  • Children’s Ministries focused upon helping to raise funds for child evangelism and Sunday School for missionaries through its “Boys and Girls Missions Crusade.”  Every child had a “Buddy Barrel” that represented the barrels that missionaries would put their belongings into to be shipped overseas.

It is not that the names are or were important.  What was important was the raison d’etre – the centralized and focused mission of the whole church and denomination.  It used to be that hardly a month would go by without having a visiting missionary in a local Assembly of God church.  Now, months can go by.  And, if a missionary gets into a church service, they are given a “Missions Window” to highlight what they do.  This is hardly enough time to set a vision for world missions let alone give a call to people to answer the call to missions should the Lord want to work that way in their lives.

It is no wonder that the Assemblies of God is struggling to build its ranks of young people called to missions. There is hardly ever opportunity for them to hear a missionary, listens to God’s heart for his mission to every people group, and answer the call to missions.  Or, should I say, there is hardly a time for God to speak, show and reveal what he is doing and is wanting to do in his world to them?

This is only my experience in one denomination.  I am sure that the story could be repeated over and over again across denominations and churches.  I have heard the same stories among leaders of once dynamic mission agency churches – Salvation Army, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist.  A spiritual lethargy and blindness almost seems to have invaded the Church.

Thankfully, there are some bright spots and active church bodies within the Assemblies of God and across the whole Body of Christ. Today, more cross-cultural missionaries are sent from non-Western churches than the U.S. and Europe churches combined.  The emerging and growing churches in the rest of the world are now missionary sending churches!  Upon the rising tide of missionary activity in the rest of the world, what part will the American and European churches play?

It will probably take another spiritual renewal and revival to bring the whole Western church back to being on mission for the Kingdom of God.  Rediscovering its raison d’etre will unite and activate its members toward something larger than social gatherings for like-minded individuals.  It will cause it to look toward the troubled seas of humanity again and to stand at the ready to seek and save those who are lost in the dark and turbulent waves of our time.  Truly, the hour is not too late.  The work is not yet done.  There is time to get back on mission.  Let’s  pray that we regain our sight to see the world as God sees it.  It’s not too late to get back on mission.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Just saying the words, “New Year,” breathes hope into the heart and soul that the next 365 days will be different than the last.  We hope that there will be new opportunities of course.  But it is much more than that really.

What we want is not just more “new” of the same kinds of things.  Deep down, I believe, what most of us want is “new” different kinds of things.  We want new beginnings – fresh “start overs”.  We want different results from for our efforts and hard work in the professional and personal realms.  Some may want a new job (personally, that is on my short list since I have been gainfully unemployed now for over a year except for a few weeks in construction and a short writing assignment).  Some may want a new lifestyle or way of living.

hooked on phonics

When we say “Happy New Year”, then, we may not really know what we are wishing upon the persons we greet.  New more of the same kind?  Or, totally new of a different kind than they one they knew and experienced?  I have a sneaky suspicion that most people really want a new of a different kind.  I may be wrong and would readily admit it.  Perhaps this is born out of my own experience and constant dissatisfaction with the status quo.  I’ve never been happy with the stagnant, same ‘ol – same ‘ol.  I like to see progress and movement forward in my life.

However, I do not think that I am unique in this manner.  I think many people want their lives to be different.  I offer up as my evidence the perennial “New Year’s Resolutions”.  Most lists that I have examined, besides my own, consist of how things are going to be different in the New Year.  It may include lifestyle changes – lose weight, stop smoking, attend all my AA meetings, go to the gym more often, keep the kitchen clean, start and maintain a savings account among other things.  It may include spiritual changes – pray regularly, read the Bible everyday, start tithing, give monthly to missions, lead a small group, journal every week among a host of other things.

We want our future to be different. That means that we must become different, right?  Yeah, most of the time.  However, I do not think that any New Year’s Resolution will create a new me or new you.  What we really need is not more different but more of the same but right things in our lives.  All the ingredients for a Happy New Year are already in the cupboards of our life.  We just need to focus upon those ingredients and have more of them added into the daily mix.  In other words, we might not need a different recipe but just use what we have differently.

Want a New Year? Then add more of what is already available to you.  You already have God in your life?  Then add more of him in it by increasing his presence through prayer, praise, worship, and fellowship with like-minded believers.  You already have church fellowship and friends in your life?  Then add more fellowship and friends in your life be intentionally involving yourself in a serving or leadership role.  Already have family in your life?  Then add more through personal presence with them and heart-to-heart communication.  Already have a good job?  Then add to the joy of your work by doing it well and learning to be indispensable to others.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

As 2009 closes and 2010 opens to us, the one thing you can determine for this next year is how much “happy” and “new” you will have in it.  Sure, there will be trials and disappointment.  There may even be a major set back or two.  But remember, all the things you need for this New Year to be brand new and joyous may already be in your possession.  So, with that, I wish you a “Happy New Year”!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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