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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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Get any group of people together, no matter their moral platitudes, and there is bound to be conflict.  Sometimes this conflict can lead to a heightened crisis that threatens the health of the organization with loss of membership, customers and leadership.  If left unmanaged, the conflict-turned-crisis can have lasting, damaging effects: poor self-image, leadership demoralization, a scarred community image, organizational paralysis, and covered up interpersonal wounds.

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa on Badger Mountain

One would hope that a church community would be better suited and equipped for managing conflict and dealing with crisis.  However, my experience has been that this is not true.  My work experience in other organizations has been a mixed bag.  After all, were all are human no matter where we work.

At the same time, some organizations I have worked in have had a proactive conflict management plan with proactive leaders.  Where these leaders have followed the conflict management plan, the conflict was dealt with quickly and decisively with little disruption to the organization.  Sometimes the issue was resolved without loss of employees and sometimes it was not.  However, everyone knew the steps carried out as well as the outcome and why it was arrived at in that way.

I have yet to find a church organization that deals with conflict so constructively.  And I have to ask why?  (I am not asserting that one does not exist, I am simply stating that my limited experience has yet to discover one through my encounters or of those friends that have shared their stories of church conflicts and crises with me.)  The answer to that question is complicated.

Unfortunately, our public news channels carry too many stories of the failure on the part of church organizations to deal with conflict and crises.  This should cause all church leaders, at whatever level, to sit up and take notice that if they do not practice proactive judgment concerning conflict and crisis in their faith community, then the larger surrounding community will for them.  This will come out as clearly as exposure in the news media outlets or as subtly as the community staying away – and warning all their friends and relatives to stay away.

So, why do church organizations fail at constructively and proactively handling conflict or crisis?  The answer varies…

  1. Church leaders and their followers tend to spiritualize the conflict.  Thus, it is just a matter of all parties concerned praying about it, reading Bible verses about peace keeping, not speaking evil and guarding their tongues.  While these are good spiritual disciplines, they do not actually deal with the problem at hand.  It is to treat spiritual disciplines as some kind of magic that will make the problem suddenly go away.  And if it doesn’t go away?  Then the problem is with our spirituality and not that we simply didn’t wisely handle to problem.
  2. Church leaders and their followers tend to bury the conflict.  The attitude is that Christians should not offend others.  Broadly taken, this inhibits any confrontation that needs to happen in a healthy organization.  Thus, hurt feelings and offenses get covered up in hopes that it will, after awhile, just go away and be forgotten.  Sometimes conflict is buried because everyone assumes that it is the pastor’s job or that the way the pastoral leadership is dealing with the conflict (even if it is to avoid dealing with it at all) is the best and only way.  This is connected to the idea that Christians should never offend.  It also means they do not question leadership actions (or inactions).  The unspoken cultural value in these church organizations is that a good Christian doesn’t question the process or its outcomes but trusts that, whatever the result, the church leadership did the right thing (or at least meant to do the right thing).
  3. Church leaders and their followers tend to misuse The Matthew 18 Principle.  The Matthew 18 Principle is taken from The Gospel According to Matthew 18:15 – 19.  The idea is that interpersonal conflict should be dealt with on a personal level and only escalated to the leadership level or the larger community level after that has failed.  This is a great model for interpersonal conflict and should be used more often.  However, it only deals with an interpersonal conflict.  What happens when that conflict, as often happens, involves a larger group of the faith community?  What should the steps be when the conflict involves a high profile leader?  What is the strategy when the conflict is witnessed or known by many individuals?  This is where The Matthew 18 Principle does not entirely help us.  It is limited in scope and application.
  4. Church leaders and their followers tend to attack and silence the messengers.  Often, in order to deal with the array of opinions, personal judgments, and purveyors of partial truths, church leadership will attempt to shut up or shout down such background noise.  This is often done under the guise of “trusting leadership to handle it” and “personal privacy issues” for those involved in the conflict.  Both of these are worthy considerations for all concerned.  However, they miss the larger need of communicating to all parties who have a vested interest in the process and the outcome.  By attempting to attack or silence those who want to give a message to one or both of the parties or to the leadership managing the conflict, the problem is only compounded not alleviated.
Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA, Flowers

Purple Button Flowers on Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA

Conflict and crisis is always unsettling.  It is like experiencing an earthquake.  When the whole earth is moving, you just want it to stop and feel solid, un-shaking ground under your feet again.  After the earthquake, everyone is talking about it.  It becomes a shared experience and also a process to assure each other that everything will be alright.  Conflict and crisis in an organization shakes the whole structure.  People are going to talk about their experience.  They need to talk about their fears, insecurities and reassure each other that they will survive the process and the outcome.

Unfortunately, few churches have a conflict/crisis management strategy that also includes a conflict/crisis management communication strategy.  If they do, it most often boils down to this:  “Don’t talk about it.  Trust your leadership.”  This almost always fails except in cult-like or personality driven faith communities.  Since conflict and crisis are a part of the human experience, wise leadership should use the “calm before the storm” to thoughtfully plan a conflict and crisis management strategy.

An often overlooked key to conflict and crisis management is communication.  Sometimes only dealing with the parties involved is not sufficient.  This is especially true when dealing with high-profile situations or prominent people in a church organization.  Often times, it is managed behind the scenes.  The next thing the congregation and other church employees know is that certain people are no long around.  Without explanation, they are left to create their own stories of the events and outcomes.

Part of a good strategy is managing the story that is being told, especially by the employees and core leaders of the organization.  This does not mean twisting the story’s events to make an organization and its leadership look good.  It means having an open, honest and truthful explanation of events.  The more transparent the communication – even with the admission of stumbles and failures on the part of leadership – the better.  Not everyone may like the outcomes, but they at least know the process was open and honest.  Most leadership, employees and customers can live with this process.

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Another part of a healthy strategy is wisely deciding the scope of communication needed.  This involves answering the questions, “Who needs to know?” and “Who does this affect?”  Some one likened it to having a group of people standing around when someone spills a bucket of paint.  Who got paint on them?  They are the ones that need to be addressed and included in the communication even if they are not involved in the process.  Ignore them and they will tell the story from their point of view and experience.  Include them in the group experience and it becomes larger than just a their own personal story.  Now it involves a group experience that involves clean up and recovery from the accident or tragedy.

Conflict mediation is not new.  It has been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth.  Today, there are formal conflict or dispute resolution and mediation services in local communities.  Non-profit dispute resolution centers exist around the country and effectively help organizations and individuals work through conflict.  They can prevent costly court and lawyer fees and bring satisfaction to all parties involved.  Many large organizations establish their own dispute resolution teams.  This may be a model that could serve well most churches.
Using a third-party dispute resolution source or developing a team within the organization is for each organization to determine.  For churches, this may mean using a trusted faith-based group outside the organization such as trained denominational leadership.  I’ve worked cross-denominationally to help another church and its pastor navigate conflict and crisis.  The key is having a plan and engaging that at the earliest possible moment.  This is  when leadership is most needed.  Proactive leadership will…
  • Know the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Work the plan,
  • Communicate how the plan is working to those who need to know, and
  • Identify the stages and outcomes of working the plan, and then, finally,
  • Evaluate how the plan worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it work better next time.
Every leader realizes that he or she may not be able to take everyone through the crisis and keep them in the organization.  For whatever reason, individuals will decide for themselves if they trust leadership and how it is working for everyone’s interest.  However, the goal of church leadership especially should be to help as many people navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and crisis and bring as many people as possible through the storm.  The church more than any other organization should be able to navigate these storms.  This will take a commitment to living out biblical principles of forgiveness and reconciliation along with proactive leaders who have a publicly recognized, transparent plan that is managed and communicated carefully during these times.  It may not prevent the storms from coming, but it will certainly help the church fellowship survive them.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (September, 2011)

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