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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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Mount Rainier Photographs

Close Up of Mount Rainier On A Clear Day

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (August, 2011)

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Mount Rainier, Summer 2003

Mount Rainier, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2003)

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Mt Baker at Sunset, July 2010

Mt Baker at Sunset, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Mount Rainier Behind Safeco Field, Seattle, Washington, 2010

Mount Rainier Behind Safeco Field, Seattle, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Church Family Care

While leading a church, there were many times that I received a phone call from someone who needed help with rent, utilities, groceries, and fuel or travel costs.  As much as I wanted to help, our church’s benevolence budget was often way over drawn as it was and there were no monies available anywhere else.

I would ask, “Have you tried the various help organizations in our community?”  The answer was affirmative; however, they were not able to get the help they needed.  I felt helpless.  All I could do was offer a few suggestions, words of encouragement, and a prayer.

The communities I worked in were blessed to have so many help organizations to help those in need:  Salvation Army, Saint Vincent DePaul, Gospel Missions, Food and Clothing Banks, 12-Step Programs, Domestic Abuse and Violence Advocates, and many others.  Volunteers who have a big heart to help people in need staff these.  A paid staff of one or two is underpaid.  At the same time, their resources are also often limited and overtaxed too.

Like many churches in our area, our church always got its fair share of calls from people who needed help.  Sometimes, they were systematically, desperately going through the phone book calling churches.  Other times, they are calling blind, hoping for a kind voice and helping hand.

Sure, there are the ‘frequent fliers:’ people who abuse the system and live dependent upon the benevolence of others.  But many more people are sincerely in need.  They are often the work poor:  people who have jobs, but jobs that do not pay enough to cover basic living expenses.  Often the help they need is only temporary, until a job, a place to live, or other steady self-support is obtained.

In all of this, I see first hand the wonderful advantage of belonging to a church. The church family provides a wonderful safety net in times of distress and crisis.  It becomes like an extended family that rallies support and help.  Of course, people can have such a network of caring and supporting relationships outside of a church.  But no where have I seen it work so well time and time again as within a congregational setting.

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Within our own church, we have showered food upon families financially strapped; helped get cars fixed that were depended upon for work; chipped in together to help with medical bills; and volunteered to take care of children during a family crisis.  I have witnessed this take place for long-term care of a family or individual, not just for short-term ones.

This is not to just brag only upon the church families I have attended or led. I know for a fact that this is repeated many times over in most, if not all, of our churches.  In the community of faith, we take care of one another because we love one another.  Above and beyond a benevolent budget, we will spontaneously extend ourselves to help one another.

Aside from your own family, your church family is your best source of help – and in some cases may even be better than your own family. Develop those relationships with your own expressions of love and care for the others there.   Someday, it will come back to you.

If you have not made an effort to be a part of a church family, now is the time! There will come a time when you will need someone else’s shoulder for comfort, arm for strength, or heart for courage.  Then is not the time to depend upon your fingers to find help in the Yellow Pages.  Then is the time to have church friends and family to call.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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