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Posts Tagged ‘Church Unity’

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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Rethinking Christian Unity and Diversity

In recent decades, it has become a constant cry of people inside the church and outside of it that the Church should show the world more unity. For hundreds of years before, segregation of belief and practice was celebrated with quite a bit of triumphalism.  Sadly, it also resulted in mean and demeaning attacks between Christian sects.  Now there is a desire to remove all barriers and eliminate most, if not all, diversity between the various streams of the Christian faith.

I used to be a part of that band wagon:We should all be together, under one roof, worshiping God.”  Recently, however, I have been seriously reconsidering that idea all together.  It is not the idea of the unity of the Church or the unity of all believers that I am opposed to in principal.  The idea is a grand one.  But how that is expressed and presented to the world  is something that I believe few have really thought through carefully.  I know that, up until recently, I had not considered all its ramifications.

This may rattle some people’s preconceived notions, but I have come to the conclusion that the idea of Christians from all different streams of practice and doctrinal emphases gathering under one roof is not a biblical one. Likewise, the idea that all our differences in faith and practices should be eliminated for the sole concern of uniting together in one place is not, I have also come to believe, a part of God’s plan for His world or His Kingdom.  The idea that unity is good and diversity is bad is a fallacy that too many well-meaning Christians have bought in to without really considering its implications.  I know that I was a part of that crowd.

The journey of rethinking the idea of diversity within the Christian faith and the desire for unity really began as I began to experience church practices and beliefs in different cultures; opportunity to experience a Korean Presbyterian worship service, church services for Vietnamese, and the church expressed through the African-American or Latino-American cultures as well as my travels overseas to such places as Albania and India.  The complexity that cultural expressions bring to the Christian experience and worship of God began to chip away at my idea of what it means to have the “unity of the faith” that the Apostle Paul talks about in the New Testament.

A number of years ago, the American church was denounced for its lack of unity in the faith becauseThe 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America!”  This is true.  However, what are the alternatives?  What would be the real cost to eliminate all diverse expressions of the Christian faith for the benefit of being in one place at one time?  I have come to think that it would be a colorless, culture-less and neutered Christian faith.

This idea became a more solid shape in my mind during a particular session of a missions course I took recently called, “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.”  Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, spoke to our group about culture and mission.  She also had an article in the Perspectives Reader called, “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?  The Gospel, Globalization and Ethnicity,” which was adapted from her article in the book One World or Many?  The Impact of Globalisation and Mission (2003).

In her article, Dr. Adeney uses the Makah Indian culture as an example of cultural diversity and expression. She pointed to one particular Makah elder named Isabell Ides who passed away at the age of 101.  She was the Makah expert on basket weaving and also a Sunday school teacher in her local church.

Both of these facts captured my interest. First, my parents were living in Neah Bay, Washington, among the Makah Indians when I was born in 1961.  Second, my mother tells me that Isabell Ides attended the little Assembly of God church my father was pastoring and used to hold me during church.  The questions that Dr. Adeney pointedly asks her readers are, “Did Isabell’s basketry matter to God, as well as her Sunday school teaching?  How important was her ethnic heritage in the Kingdom’s big picture?

Dr. Adeney warns that ethnicity and culture can, in themselves, become idols. At the same time, Scripture affirms that diversity in culture is a part of God’s creative plan and purpose for humanity.  She observes that all cultures contain sin and must be judged.  However, pride in one’s ethnicity is not automatically sin.  Ethnicity and cultural diversity was created out of humanity’s God-instilled need for community.  The danger is to think that one’s cultural ways and ethnicity is the only way that God works and communicates in the world.

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If cultural/ethnic diversity are rooted in the doctrine of creation, then perhaps it would behoove all Christians to not deny it but embrace it. By honoring one another’s cultural distinctiveness we honor God’s kaleidoscope creativity in and through humankind.  Each group of people, reflecting their God-given creativity, has developed their own culture.  They can offer complimentary views of what is beautiful and true as well as what is ugly and evil.  So, what does this mean for the local church?

As Dr. Miriam Adeney points out:

“Some people flourish in multicultural churches.  Others treasure their own tradition.  For them, culture remains important in worship.  They pray in their heart language, with meaningful gestures, ululations, and prostrations.  Their culture will affect the way they do evangelism, discipling, teaching, administration, counseling, finances, youth work, leader training, discipline, curriculum development, relief, development, and advocacy.  Their theologians complement other cultures’ understanding of the Bible.”

Perhaps the answer lies in what has long been embraced in the church:In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love” (Augustine, 354-430 AD).  Separate congregations, then, is not a bad thing.  To give place to our diversity in faith in practice and belief, we can honor each other’s differences.  The killer for church life is not our differences!  It is a lack of love.  This is true in a local church or across the board among all the various expression of the church universal.

God does not desire his Church – the Bride of Christ – to be dressed in beige. She is to be dressed in a coat of many colors, a mosaic, a kaleidoscope full of a whole spectrum of cultures.  If that can happen in one place at the same time, that would be good.  It is not required.  What is required and non-negotiable is the demand for love.  After all, it will be this spectrum of cultures with all their ethnic churches will enrich this world and color God’s Kingdom.  This, I believe, when we achieve it, will be a true foretaste of heaven:

I looked, and there in front of me was a huge crowd of people.  They stood in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb.  There was so many that no one could count them.  They came from every nation, tribe, people and language.  They were wearing white robes.  In their hands they were holding palm branches.  They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, Salvation also belongs to the Lamb’.” (Rev. 7:9, 10)

This is the same vision that God gave to Peter at Cornelius’ house when he was about to go present the news of Jesus the Messiah to non-Jews. This was the vision that drove the apostle Paul to travel the Roman empire to present the gospel to all the various sub-culture groups without demanding that they become either Jewish or like any of the other expressions of the faith being created among each people group.  The Galatian church was as different from the church in Illyricum as it was between the church in Corinth and the congregation meeting in Jerusalem.  Diversity in the Kingdom could be culturally expressed while unity in the faith kept vibrant and alive.

So, perhaps instead of bemoaning the various expressions of the Lord’s Body at work and at worship in the world, maybe we should celebrate them. The strongest expression of our unity in the faith may be our love for one another despite our difference.  Our allowance for brothers and sisters in the faith to worship in freedom as they see fit while not demeaning them or seeking to upstage them may be what the world needs to witness most; not us gathered in a circle wistfully singing, “We are one in the Spirit.  We are one in the Lord.”  When the Christian faith truly treasures ethnic and cultural expressions, without worshiping them as an idol, perhaps then the rest of the world will sit up and take notice.  God’s love is large enough to embrace everyone.  Let’s work on that first.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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