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6 Ways to Keep Congregational Conflicts Constructive

Question: We are watching congregations all around us be torn apart by conflicts. How can we prevent this from happening to our church and stay out of conflict?

It sounds like you are concerned that if your church has a conflict, it necessarily will be torn apart. Not all conflicts need be so destructive: there are many examples of churches that have struggled through conflicts to emerge as resilient, flourishing faith communities, although the news media rarely reports on these in contrast to the over-attention given to churches in conflict.

Conflict can have a crucial, constructive role. Consider, for instance, a congregation discussing how to best use its mission budget. That discussion, while potentially heated, can lead to greater clarity about mission priorities and better stewardship of mission dollars. In researching congregations’ practices with children, I witness many examples of disputes over the appropriate ways to deal with the challenges and opportunities of children’s participation in worship. Folks often have strong feelings about such things, especially if they are the parents of the children in question! In my research, I note the way such conversations, though difficult, often lead to clearer, more theologically coherent practices with children in congregations. Without sharing the differing perspectives, these opportunities for more faithful practices and better understanding might be lost.

Historical examples also show the constructive possibilities of conflict, such as the fights the churches experienced during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. In my congregation today, people still talk about the fights they had over the minister’s decision to participate in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Churches struggling over their perspectives and actions eventually led many denominations and congregations to repudiate racist divisions and policies, and work toward racial justice, in churches and society.

These are examples of how conflict, when dealt with constructively, can be part of positive movement and transformation necessary for a church’s ongoing journey of faith.

The question about church conflict needs to be reframed slightly, shifting from one that implies that all conflict can and should be prevented or avoided by churches, to asking instead about how to “fight like Christians,” as Hugh Halverstadt (1) once put it, when we do experience conflict in congregations.

Why People Avoid Conflict

If conflict is so helpful, why do many people work so hard to avoid it? The experience of church conflict often is difficult or painful, even when a particular conflict is constructive for the church. Why? Conflict is a struggle over differences. So conflict is inevitable when people come together around things that really matter, as usually is the case in faith communities.

In destructive conflict, tensions and anxiety attach themselves to the encounter between differences, and begin to influence the behavior of individuals and of the congregation as a system.

If congregations and their leaders do not equip members with skills to address differences constructively, then there is a greater likelihood that conflict will become harmful.

And if leaders also fail to provide processes that can act as a constructive “holding environment” for the congregation while people sort through these tensive differences, then the anxieties and tensions attached to expressions of difference may begin to take on a life of their own. In one congregation fighting over changes in music and worship styles, the leaders of the congregational care team arranged for Stephen Ministers (trained lay pastoral care-givers) to meet privately with anyone who wanted to talk about their experiences and feelings following worship, for six consecutive Sundays. In addition, a “graffiti page” in the worship bulletin invited people to write, scribble or draw their thoughts and feelings about that day’s worship. These pages could be placed in a collection box after worship, and the church council read through them as a means of keeping abreast of the congregation’s concerns and hopes. Together these two processes created a space that allowed persons to freely express their feelings, creating a kind of “holding environment” for the strong emotions attached to worship and music. At the same time, the education team arranged for a seminary music professor to offer three adult education classes about church music, offering resources to help people to think about sacred music across time, with its continuities and changes. After the series, another forum invited participants to engage in a respectful dialogue about their different perspectives on worship and music. Last, at the structural level, the clergy led the church council in a discussion of the systems-dynamics of conflict, out of which this governing group made proactive decisions about not allowing the conflict to split the council into factions. They also publicized the process by which they intended to implement certain changes, beginning with the least controversial elements of the conflict. Taken together, all of these processes formed a “holding environment” for the tensions and anxieties that promoted a constructive engagement of differences.

Additionally, no one experiences conflict as a blank slate: as individuals, we each bring our own particular conflict narratives–stories of previous experiences with conflict in family, school, work, and church–into the congregation’s conflict.

For many people, church conflicts trigger unhealed painful conflict experiences from other life contexts, in ways that can make fights in the church emotionally volatile beyond the actual substance and issues of that church’s particular conflict.

On top of that, congregations as such have their own conflict histories that can set the stage for anxiety and tension to invite people to show their worst selves to one another in a fight. To add even more complexity to this picture, any congregation engaged in conflict today does so within a wider ecology of the church-in-struggle that encompasses denominational, regional-national, and now with the Internet, digital- and global- space. U.S. congregations in conflict over sexuality issues, for example, fight within a national ecology of changing legislative norms on gay marriage and shifting denominational policies, both of which play a role in shaping these church fights.

It is understandable therefore that some people fear church conflict and strive to avoid any expression of differences or disagreements that might lead to a fight. In the current ecology of North American religious life, this fear of conflict runs strong as various congregations and denominations engage in “fight and flight” behaviors. Fight and flight happens when churches engage in destructive fights that leave persons and groups hurting, only to then declare themselves unable to remain at the table together in the aftermath of the fight, creating schism. Looking at this fight and flight pattern, it seems only natural that people and churches want to avoid ecclesial conflict. It is important to recognize, however, that fight-and-flight is not the only means churches have at their disposal for addressing important differences. Congregations instead may embrace conflict’s constructive elements and apprentice their members in practices for dealing with differences that model important alternatives to clobbering each other before running away.

Constructive Approaches to Conflict

What might such a constructive approach to conflict look like? In the lead-up to a conflict, churches can make proactive decisions by asking the question, “Which things matter enough to be worth fighting over?” And, since it is the case that congregations will experience conflict from time to time over the things that matter to them, it can be helpful to think ahead about how congregations can fight well and avoid the destructive elements of conflict. Here are some practices that I’ve seen at work in my research with congregations in conflict.

Congregations keep conflict constructive when they:

  • Teach practices of open communication around differences, and practices of dispute resolution, as practices of faith. When congregations are equipped with the knowledge and skills of dealing with their differences as an ordinary part of the way they live out their faith (akin to learning practices of prayer or hospitality), learning such practices in times of relative calm and peace, then they can more readily draw upon such capacities when needed in times of conflict. Many congregations do this through adult education, special workshops and retreats, or in training events with their lay leadership in preparation for participation in controversial events. Make education for conflict transformation a regular and ongoing part of leadership training.
  • Pay attention to the practices that help maintain connections apart from the controversy. In conflict, identities often become narrow: people may begin to think of their identities completely in terms of whether they agree or disagree with the denomination’s divestment policies involving companies that do business with Israel, for instance. Leaders can become so focused on the conflict that they forget to attend to the practices that knit people together across differences. Eating together–both holy (sacramental) and ordinary eating–is a key example of such a practice of demonstrated resilience to change and stress in congregational life.  Similarly, engaging in a wide range of other faith practices both apart from and in relation to the particular conflict, including prayer, scripture study, and focus upon and engagement in mission, help to keep the conflict in perspective.
  • Take on controversial issues in conversational spaces like religious education and pastoral care. Some see the sermon as the main place to address conflictual issues, but it may be more helpful to engage controversial issues in other contexts within the life of the church before situating them within the authority of the preaching event.
  • Be prepared to put boundaries around behavior that cannot and should not be tolerated– personal attacks, name calling, etc.–by working with others to set explicit expectations with the community about what is and is not appropriate in a fight. Some churches have resources to help with this. See, for example, the PCUSA’s  “Seeking to Be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement”
  • When possible, anticipate conflicts, not for the purpose of avoiding and/or shutting them down, but in order to strategically plan ways of creating a context in which people can engage their differences in a healthy, constructive manner. The literature on church conflict can be helpful in lifting up such moments in the life of a congregation prone to spark conflict. Some of these might include: shifting mission emphases; changes in worship style, music, setting, or time; transitions in pastoral leadership; financial stress; shifts in theological positions or in controversial church policies (e.g., authorization to hold weddings for LGBTQ couples in the sanctuary, when such action was previously prohibited by denominational or congregational polity); dysfunction or tensions among church staff, or between key lay leaders and church staff; sexual misconduct. Importantly, though, some congregational studies suggest that it is unhelpful to assume that such events automatically issue in congregational conflict because many congregations move through these times without becoming embroiled in fighting.
  • Hold listening sessions in smaller groups that allow people from various perspectives in a controversy to experience themselves as being heard and acknowledged. Small group conversations also allow people to hear alternative perspectives on the conflict in what may be a less threatening context than a formal meeting or an all-congregational forum.

These are but a few practices for keeping congregational conflict constructive. What others have you experienced?

 

(1) Halverstadt, Hugh F. (1991). Managing church conflict (1st ed.). Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press.

This research on churches in conflict was supported by a Louisville Institute Religious Institutions grant. For perspectives from this study on how two particular populations within churches experience conflict in congregations, see Joyce Ann Mercer, “Women, Congregations, and Conflict: Why Church Conflict is So Difficult for (Some) Women,” in Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Vol. 129, No. 2, Spring 2014: 23-27; and  “Calling Amid Conflict: What Happens to the Vocations of Youth When Congregations Fight?” Chapter 7, pp. 165-190 in Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World, Dori G. Baker, Ed. (Herndon, VA: Alban), 2010.

Joyce Mercer
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Joyce Mercer is the Arthur Lee Kinsolving Professor in Pastoral Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and a member of the Congregational Studies Team.