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Congregational Conflict: Listening to the Conflict

Conflict is a natural part of human interaction — there will be differences in opinion and perception in every day life. However, examining how your congregation deals with conflict can provide needed insights into the life of the congregation. Some congregations suppress conflict, whereas others embrace it and see it as a sign of vitality and engagement. To engage in conflict, there must be (at least) two parties who think each is right — indifference is not a part of conflict.

At the basic level, conflict suggest that the established ways to make decisions have failed. When conflicts are still minor, they can help a congregation set goals or reaffirm membership commitment, re-establishing a baseline for the life of the group. But when conflicts grow, they can immobilize the ability for the group to be cohesive.

Examining conflict using a process frame, we would start examining what happened in terms of the formal procedures — how things are done based on the rulebook. Formal procedures often allow space for a minority voice, while still placing power with the legitimate authority. By following the formal procedures — often a book of order or congregation’s constitution — conflict can be lessened by regarding the rules as binding. However, many conflicts arise over informal processes involving power relations or personal interactions. Forcing these informal processes into a formal procedure may exacerbate the problem.

Conflict can have a number of causes. Paying attention to the potential causes is important in working through it. For example, there may be structural causes for it — what was the formal procedure and was it followed? Is it usually followed and wasn’t in this case? Or do people not know the formal procedure and an informal procedure has popped up in its place? Relationally, who is involved and what is their relationship outside this situation? Does it involve two people who are often in conflict? Politically, who has the power and what potential benefits can come from each side of the conflict?

Silence can be a particular issue surrounding areas of conflict. Rather than exacerbate the conflict, people may choose to stay silent. Individuals may be afraid of sharing difficult information and then of becoming a focus of negative attention, or may be interested in sharing information only with trusted allies. But sharing information and providing people with all of the facts of the situation is an important way to work through conflict.

Listening to the Conflict

“Listening” to the silence is a good way to try to work through issues of conflict by sharing information openly. First, the person or people gathering information need to be seen as impartial by all the parties of the conflict. These people should gently probe for a full description of what happened, recognizing when stories conflict and then probe for more information. Everyone involved needs to understand that these comments are not confidential, but instead are shared broadly to improve all parties’ access to information. Finally, the best way to collect information is in small group focus groups or individual interviews. Questionnaires are best used with objective measures. Conflict may be too emotional to assess in that way. Public meetings or hearings may be too conflictual and nonproductive for these types of information-sharing meetings. Small, private meetings, perhaps in individual’s homes, would be the most effective way to gather information. These groups are preferably full of people who would normally interact or be comfortable talking in front of each other.

So what information do you gather? It’s often useful to ask about age and the length of time in attendance at the congregation, to be able to examine whether the conflicts are arising across generational lines. You might also want to get a general understanding of what the respondents like about the church, in order to recognize the reasons people continue to attend even through the conflict. Then you might ask about what they know about conflicts within the congregation. You should ask about any changes the respondent would make to the congregation, as well as any internal problems the congregation should look at changing. By bringing together this information, the leaders of these discussions may be able to better understand the perspectives of the different sides of the conflict and speak openly about it with more nuanced information.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org