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Posts Tagged ‘Lead Pastors’

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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It is not just a slip of the tongue that can catch a preacher in an embarrassing moment. Sometimes the slip of the shoe will too.  There is nothing like a brand new pair of leather soled dress shoes and carpeted sanctuary floors to better illustrate this point.

I wish that I could tell you that this is a brief story about a friend of mine. But, alas, it is not.  I must own up to my own humiliating debacles.  And this is one of them.

I had just taken a youth and associate pastoral position at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington. So, right out of college, my wife and I moved to Bremerton to make a new home and start an adventure in ministry.  Of course, like any wet-behind-the-ears rookie of any occupation, I was intent on proving my worth to not only the senior pastor, Jim Hill, but also the whole congregation.

As those in any level of church leadership know, Sunday mornings are a frantic and frenetic time. I have grown certain over the years that pre-service preparation is when the devil and his minions show up for church.  Thus, we would probably do better going around praying and exorcising demons from every room and off of every person coming through the doors than getting ready for our religious rites.  But, of course, we are always too busy to do just that.  So, we scurry around like blind church mice trying to find cheese.

On this particular Sunday, I was prepared and ready to go minutes before the start of the morning worship. There were a few little details I needed to take care of with some individuals in the back of the church.  So, I made my way to them to talk.  Meanwhile, the sanctuary continued to fill up.  It was going to be a full church that particular morning, which is always gratifying to all those who have prepared so hard.

The senior pastor led worship from the piano. It was my duty to welcome everyone and give the invocation; the opening prayer for those of you not from the Pentecostal “High Church” tradition.  I must have taken a little longer than I thought with the individuals I was talking to for before I knew it the cue to begin started.  This meant I was out of place in the back of the church and not in the front of the church where I belonged.

Hurrying quickly, I decided to take a short cut up the platform by jumping on to the stage from the side where there were no steps but quick access right to the pulpit. Now, I was more athletic than I am now and quite able to jump high.  In college I could dunk a basketball with two hands.  Thus, leaping the two-and-a-half feet up onto the stage posed no problem in my mind.  Except…

That week, in anticipation for my new position on a pastoral staff, I had gone out with my wife to the mall to purchase a new pair of dress shoes. I had purchased on sale a very nice pair of Florsheim dress shoes.  They had 100% leather uppers and soles.  They were very comfortable.  It was those shoes that I was wearing when I decided to take my leap-of-faith from stage-right.

As I recall, my take-off was impeccable. I had the length and the height just right.  What I had not calculated was the reaction of my new leather soled shoes to the carpeted edge of the platform.  I may as well have been wearing polished Formica soled shoes.

My shoe slipped off of the stage. My body continued in its forward projection.  Shin came crashing into the edge of the stage.  The rest of my body came crashing to the floor.  Unfortunately, the platform was also tastefully decorated with potted plants.  Real ones.  These helped to break my fall.  My fall helped to scatter the pots, the plants, and the soil across the platform.

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It is amazing how quite a crowded room gets when something like this happens to someone. For a brief moment, all time stood still.  It was as if everyone was waiting to see if my body would lie in a still heap or give signs of life by continuing to move.  After s brief registry of just what happened, several people moved to see if I was alright and help me up.  Of course, wanting to quickly recover I had tried to bounce up from my prostrate condition only to kick around the remains the flowers and potting soil.

The senior pastor look at me bewildered. I looked at him befuddled.  Already ushers were helping to pick up the dismounted potted plants.  Some church ladies were gingerly scraping potting soil into little piles and scooping it into a few pots.  I hardly new how to begin.

How do you recover from such a publicly humiliating beginning? For some people that morning, it was there first introduction to the “new pastor”.  I can only imagine what they must have been thinking.  For those who had a direct hand in my hiring, including the senior pastor, I imagine that someone wanted to get up and apologize to everyone else for my being there.

Somehow, my composure and the congregation’s composure were restored and we continued on that morning. I do not remember any thing else of that day.  The singular event, however, is pretty much burned into the synapses of my brain.  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time scuffing up the soles of my dress shoes on the sidewalk after that morning.  My shin would heal, my pride would mend and most people would forget it ever happened.  But not me.  I still shudder when I remember that episode.

I think everyone has a similar story of public humiliation to share. It is part of human experience.  It is a tool to keep us humble.  I imagine that there are days that God as an audience to our behaviors call his angels to his side and says, “Hey, everyone!  There a newbie trying something out.  Let’s see what happens.”  Isn’t it good to know that one of the ways we can bring pleasure to God is by providing comedic relief?  I think one of the largest books in the library in heaven has got to be entitle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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