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Posts Tagged ‘Courageous Leadership’

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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Until All Are Free, None Are Free!

Years ago, a movie came out about the famous Scotsman, William Wallace. It has become one of my favorite movies to watch.  The movie, “Braveheart,” is also a great story that reflects the work of power structures at work all over the world even today.  I am not recommending watching the movie because of the violent images.  Nevertheless, the story is a powerful one even if the history has been shaped to fit a Hollywood movie.

The ruthless king of England, Edward Longshanks, ruled with an iron grip, including the Scottish lands.  The Scots were unable to throw off King Edward’s rule because they themselves were warring with each other.  Plus, they were divided over the heir to the Scottish throne.  Robert Bruce was a prince of the Scots and an heir to the throne, but he was cowered by King Edward and refused to confront him.  As a result, other Scot clans wanted to put forward their own prince and heir to the throne to lead them.

The politics, land ownership, and multiple heirs to the throne make for a complicated situation that paralyzed the Scottish rulers so that they remained under the cruel and wicked rule to Edward Longshank’s court.  They were prisoners in their own lands while at the same time, lived in relative comfort and security apart from the common people who suffered more greatly under the oppression of unjust rulers.

William Wallace, a national hero in Scottish lore, was a commoner who stood up to the English rulers.  He challenged them by rallying his countrymen around a bigger picture of what true freedom could offer them.  He reminded them that at any time their enemy could return.  He painted for them the possibility of complete victory over the enemy.  He also challenged the princes of Scotland that their positions, lands, and possessions were not just for their own personal comfort and enjoyment but also for others’ freedom.

The tension between Robert Bruce and William Wallace arose when Prince Bruce wants to do everything to protect the rights and positions of the Scottish nobles.  He was careful to make the ‘politically correct’ moves and not take too great of risks.  On the other hand, William Wallace, who has no position and no power, raised his voice for the ‘common’ people and their bondage.  He challenged the nobles to not just consider their own relative freedom, but the slavery that their fellow Scots bore.  He cried out for a courageous leader, even believing that William Bruce could be that leader if he so dared.

Both men face risks differently and face different risks.  One had everything to lose, the other nothing.  One saw only what there was to lose, the other what there was possibly to gain.  One saw the pain and price to bring about the change; the other saw the pain and price to bring about a new future.  William Wallace challenged Robert Bruce by defining what “noble” really means.  He called him to make the ultimate sacrifice for others and to personally lead the charge.

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This is a story that reflects the struggle of the most power structures at work in the world today.  It also portrays what goes on in many churches and denominations.  Those that have been around awhile are at times too comfortable with their present position and possession.  They have come to think that it all exists for their own personal comfort and safety.  Those who have gained positions of influence and experience are locked into doing what does not require much risk.  As such, they have lost sight of the threat of the enemy.

What the church needs today are courageous servants and leaders who are willing to take risks for the good of others who are suffering under bondage and slavery to the enemy of their souls.  It needs a bigger picture of freedom, not just for personal comfort and safety, but for those still under the rule of a cruel taskmaster.  This will mean using position of power and possessions enjoyed in the world to gain freedom for others.

Does your life reflect a Robert Bruce or a William Wallace?  Does your heart cry out for your brothers and sisters still in bondage to our common spiritual enemy?  Is your rallying cry, “Until all people are free, none of are free?”  What risks are you willing to take to bring someone out of slavery to poverty, addiction, and unjust social structures?  What cost are you willing to pay to help someone grow in their freedom in Christ?  Let the cry of God’s people be heard for all those in bondage to sin and Satan: “Freedom!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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