Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

This is the eighth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous two posts and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

Some of the reasons for declining participation are rooted in broader cultural trends. Some, however, are self-inflicted.  Some people have left because they were bored or frustrated. The worship and programming that were offered did not engage them at a level to inspire their commitment to the church or its gospel. The governance structures were cumbersome. People wanting to take bold new initiatives were discouraged from doing so. They were told that they might upset those who held the reins of power or supported the budget. The superficiality of the issues and projects with which the congregation was pre-occupied gave them no compelling reason to stay. They left because they were looking for something profoundly more challenging than maintaining a social club.

Particularly devastating to a congregation’s ability to keep or attract people are church fights. If you were to ask a group of mainline Christians, “What is the heart of the gospel?”, they will tell you “Love one another.” Ask them, “What do you value most about your church?”, a majority of them will say, “The friendships I have there.” Nevertheless, most congregations have not developed constructive ways of dealing with the conflicts that inevitably arise in human communities. As congregations get more anxious, they tend also to get more reactive. The results are often conflicts that turn very ugly. People stay away.

Recently, a group of people from different congregations were discussing ways in which they could get young people to participate in their churches. Some of them were singing new styles of music in their worship services. Others spoke about the different kinds of programmes they had tried in their efforts to attract the interest of younger generations. Finally, one woman said, “We can try all sorts of things, but the real issue we have to face is that our young people see how we treat one another and they don’t want any part of it.” The young people did not expect congregations to be perfect. However, they were not going to get involved in a community where they have seen conflict descend into viciousness.

From the beginning of the church, communities of faith have experienced conflict. Much of the New Testament was written to congregations in trouble because of profound disagreements. Those conflicts provide a congregation to move more deeply into God’s grace and the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Those are gifts that the world desperately needs as well. A church that understands itself to be participating in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation can be a ‘demonstration project’ for others of the new life and the new kind of community that the Holy Spirit makes possible. As the church seeks to be an instrument of God’s peace, it will need to begin with learning what that means in its own relationships. Whatever training is provided for lay leaders will need to include ways of dealing constructively and responding creatively to the anxiety and the resulting conflict.


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In The Missional Leader, Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk describe the crises that many churches are experiencing as “the reactive zone”. In the reactive zone, ‘battle lines form around issues other than those that are critical to the life of the system. People take dies and demonize each other over secondary issues, which further reduces the system’s ability to address the real crisis” (p. 52 -53).

Ten years ago, in Confessing The Faith, Douglas John Hall wrote about the metamorphosis that was happening in our churches.  He acknowledged that it causes some anxiety for laity and for tenured theological academics.  However, he pointed out that it is the clergy who ‘find themselves on the biting edge of this cold front’ (p. x).  It is the clergy who are the most vulnerable when the church enters into the reactive zone.

Have you have heard of a friend or a colleague in ordered ministry who has been badly wounded or damaged in a church fight? Do  you know more than one such person?  Do you know this person personally? What did you do when you heard about it?  Did you call?  send an email?  invite that person to go for a coffee? Did you speak out when you knew there had been some injustice?

How many of these people do you consider to have been eminently suited for ministry/church leadership but who have now left ordered ministry because of the anger, hurt, frustration, or despair?

If you are in ordered ministry, do you think it could not happen to you?

Roxburgh and Romanuk note that ‘a leader who wants to innovate missional change must learn to deal with change and transition (Missional Leader, p. 162).  This leader must be creative and take bold risks.  However, when they talked with a group of actual leaders in churches, the authors were struck by the low morale of the leaders–  their sense of discouragement and their lack of hope for their congregations.  They concluded, “Without addressing this malaise among leaders and congregations, there will be little innovation in missional life.” (p.16)

I have been on a quest to discover resources for ministers to survive and hold fast while their churches are in the reactive zone.  Increasing numbers of congregations are there.  Nothing in my seminary training prepared me for living in that zone.  That was thirty-three years ago.  As far as I know, it is still the case that very little is done to prepare people in ordered ministry to lead congregations that are in crisis or dying.

When ordered ministers respond to the treatment they receive either by leaving ordered ministry or by going on long-term disability, the initial response of the governance structures has sometimes been to say that what is needed to improve the discernment process for people wanting to go into ordered ministry.  The implication:  If better people were going into ministry the church wouldn’t have these issues to deal with.

Part of what makes ministry such a dangerous vocation is the conflict that comes with the territory.  It is not just that missional leaders must take bold risks that will sometimes get them into trouble.  It is also that there can be no change without conflict.  When that is added to the normal conflict that is an inevitable part of human relationships, congregational leaders find themselves in the eye of a storm.

A few years ago, my spiritual mentor was talking with another retired minister about yet another situation in which a minister was being ‘bushwhacked’ by his congregation.  Said the retired minister, “In over 30 years, I’ve never seen it this bad.”

There are many reasons why it’s ‘this bad’. Among them is the paradigm shift that is happening in our culture and in our churches.  Many of the structures with which we currently function were created to deal with different realities.  We try to function in the gap that is created by this, but often issues don’t get resolved.  Then, the issues escalate into problems.  Then, the problems escalate into crises and things get ugly.

On top of that, many people generally are anxious, confused, and distressed by the effects of the world shifting under their feet.  Some people are emotionally immature and some have toxic ways of relating with others.  They bring those characteristics with them into the church which has somehow conveyed the message that ‘being loved’ means they will not be confronted.  Then, for some reason, when the church itself is under stress, these people can gain a disproportionate amount power and influence, wreaking havoc.  And, for some reason, good people who should and could speak up, remain silent or walk away.

This is a part of the church’s life that is often unacknowledged in helpful ways.  Life in the reactive zone is full of deep valleys that are full of pain, hurt, frustration and even despair.  A lot of collateral damage happens there.

When we do not speak about those realities, we give them even greater power than they already have to shape our churches in destructive ways and to wound and even destroy those who are in ordered ministry.  “Unspoken feelings and anxieties act like a powerful, dominating control mechanism.  They are like the unpredictable chaos out of which anything can emerge not as relationality but as dominance and control.”  (The Missional Leader, p. 88)

We are on our way to something new.  I haven’t yet seen the promised land.  I haven’t even  seen the Jordan River.  But I have seen one or two of the birds that circle overhead when water is near.  We can call it a paradigm shift, rapid discontinuous change, the transformation of the church, a time of exile or wilderness wandering.  Whatever name we give to it, “the passage will almost certainly be stormy, disruptive, disorienting” (The Missional Leader, p. xiv)

If we witness to the newness that God is bringing to birth among us, there will be opposition.  We live in a world that ‘yields most painfully to change’, as Robert Kennedy once said in a speech in Capetown, South Africa.  The clergy may find themselves silenced, exiled and threatened by the keepers of the status quo.  Some of those leaders will be acting merely to preserve their own power.  Some will be acting out of jealousy when they see new life and do not know how to be a part of it.  Some will simply be scattering their own emotional baggage – a different kind of missionary activity, if you will.

When you read the literature on the missional church, some of it gives only a slight nod in the direction of the opposition and conflict that clergy encounter.  Some will offer one or two strategies to deal with it.  However, they often tend to suggest that such conflict can be easily resolved simply by learning appropriate conflict management techniques or by the leader maintaining a non-anxious presence.  A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation gives the example of a congregation that had decided to begin a new contemporary worship service.  This decision also meant that the traditional worship service would move from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.  When a member of the congregation complained about this to Carol, the congregational president, Carol explained, in a non-anxious way, that this was a way to reach youth and visitors.  The complainant listened to Carol then said, “I never thought of it that way.  I guess that’s important, isn’t it?  I can come early.”  (p. 71)

It may be that easy.  It may not be.  Those who resist change can be determined and persistent.  They can exercise their power in abusive ways.  It is  the minister who often gets caught in the cross-fire.  In such situations, the clergy lose hope and energy.  Sometimes they also lose their jobs.  Some even lose their vocations.

On one level, most ministers are not surprised.  When we signed on to follow Jesus, we knew that a cross came with the package.  We who have died and risen with Christ in baptism know that it is going to cost us something.  There will be scars.  That doesn’t make it easy.  It does not mean that we are equipped to deal with the challenges.  It does mean that, if we are going to stay in this terrible, glorious vocation and even lead some of God’s people through the wilderness, we shall need to find resources to hold on, to endure in the face of resistance, conflict, opposition and sometimes, abuse.

Mostly what I have found so far has been helpful advice – tools and techniques– for dealing with conflict and managing change.  These have largely been adopted from the business and social services worlds.

  • Maintain a non-anxious presence.
  • Establish healthy communication styles.  Don’t allow rumour, gossip, third-party comments, anonymous input
  • Face conflict head-on
  • Insist on truth-telling.  No secrets.  End the ‘confidential’ meetings
  • Work on your own emotional maturity and become a person of integrity and courage – a leader worthy of the trust of people

Much of it is good advice.

We had better learn all we can about systems theory, conflict management, organizational skills and abusive behaviours and how to stop them. We had better work on our own emotional baggage and character formation.

And we need to be on a very intentional journey of spiritual formation, opening ourselves to the transforming work of God.  Get a spiritual mentor.  Find a team of peers who will keep you honest and accountable but who will also provide a place to vent and will support you through the tough parts.  Develop deep and robust practices and disciplines of praying, indwelling scripture and keeping Sabbath.

One of the most helpful things that my spiritual mentor said to me was that I needed to recover a sacrament that Jesus had given to his disciples.  It is one that we have neglected but it was commanded by our Lord when he sent the disciples out into the villages and town to proclaim the arrival of the Realm of God.  If they were not welcomed, they were ‘wipe the dust of the town off their feet’.  And they were to say as they were leaving, “Nevertheless, know this:  the Realm of God has come near to you.”  Then, Jesus said, “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town,” (Luke 10: 12) which can be a very comforting assurance when the hurt is new and fresh.

That said, if we are going to find the resources to endure the struggle, we need something beyond all that.  Douglas Hall contends that the only resource strong enough to help us endure is theology.  We shall need to live into this theologically.  And that ‘living into it theologically’ shall need to be at some depth, not just shallow proof-texting (p. x).  We shall need to find what Newbigin described as ‘some kind of faith that [will] fortify us… against apathy and despair” (Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, p. 2)

It is this deep theological reflection that I have found missing in much of the literature about the missional church.  It may be simply that I haven’t been reading the right books. However, I took great comfort from one of the ‘Haynerisms’ that Steve Hayner used to say:  “It is more important to ask the right questions than to have the right answers.”

So, I want to ask three questions about living theologically in the reactive zone:

The categories that commonly occur in the missional church conversation provide good places to start.

1)  Missional churches are Incarnational.  What does it mean that the Jesus whom we follow is a crucified Lord?  Sometimes our crucified Saviour is hard to recognize in the heady promises that pepper the missional church conversation:  that if we just ‘sneeze’ into the right conditions, the gospel will travel like an unstoppable virus into all the world (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways); that a non-anxious presence will turn around a floundering church in short order to the great acclaim of all the leadership in the church; that if you just put the proper structures and processes in place, your congregation will thrive.

Many authors writing for the church that is emerging are bravely venturing into new territory and trying to find the way as best they can. They will not always get it right, but at least they are trying to find a new way. For that, those of us who are following behind, can be grateful.  However, where they seem to be driven by a need for success (whether that is defined as big churches or as many little church sites), we lose sight of Jesus who left his disciples with the closing words, “the world will hate you for it” (Walter Brueggemann, Peace, p.157)

Most of the churches I know are not models of success and competence.  They struggle and stumble and fall.  Many of them are broken and will not easily be fixed.  Does the Incarnation also have something to say to such congregations? Can we only be ‘missional’ when we look successful?  Is there not a word of grace in our brokenness and in our failure?  What does it look like to believe that, even when we do not succeed, when we are the broken Body of Christ, God is at work?  What if our mission in a world addicted to competence and control is to demonstrate what God’s kingdom means when we are not capable and successful?  What if that is the way the world will experience what grace really means?

2)  The mission of God is the reconciliation of the world.  The work of the church is to witness to the shalom that is God’s purpose for and work in the world.  As the Body of Christ, we are a foretaste of the end (telos) God intends for all people.  Meanwhile we live in an age that is becoming more and more prone to choosing violence as its way to respond to conflict.  The way we navigate conflict within our churches becomes part of our witness to such a world. The way we navigate the crises can be the way we incarnate the peace that Jesus comes to bring. What does this mean for the way we deal with conflict in our midst? In many of our churches, even the existence of conflict is denied and hidden.  It goes underground and festers.  We shy away from telling each other the truth because we are afraid of confrontation. What does shalom look like when there are deeply held and/or irreconcilable differences?  We had thought that caring was enough: that, if we all just cared enough, things would all work out.  Things don’t all work out.  Out of our ‘caring’ for one another, we end up telling lies to one another, not wanting to confront each other with the truth, fearing that the truth will hurt and so we shall not be ‘caring’.  I once asked Stanley Hauerwas how we go about living in a Sermon on the Mount kind of community.  He said in his usual pastoral way, “Don’t lie. It’s the lies we tell each other in the name of love that are killing us. Peace requires confrontation. We have to love each other enough to tell the truth to one another. Don’t lie.”

3)  Hospitality to strangers is an elementary practice for missional churches.  That presents challenges for us when we consider the strangers outside our walls.  What does ‘hospitality to strangers’ require of us when the stranger is the person sitting next to us in worship?  when the stranger is the person who opposes everything we propose at the Board level?  when the stranger is actively at work to undermine us?

I do not know the answers to many of the questions.  Indeed, I probably do not even know yet the right questions to be asking.  But I trust that giving voice to these issues and asking the questions that they raise will lead to the next step on the journey toward God’s future.  In that spirit, I finish with a quotation from Doug Hall in Confessing the Faith:

To be a Christian today, and more particularly to be in some office of Christian leadership, is in my opinion an infinitely more interesting, challenging, demanding, and also, of course, often unnerving, lonely, and frustrating sort of venture than anything drawn from the long past of ‘business-as-usual’ Christianity… the church is in a state of crisis.  ‘Crisis’ krisis, means judgment.  None of us escapes this judgment; there is pain in it, and much uncertainty.  But when we consider the ‘face’ of the Judge, we know that the pain is only the pain of truth, and that the uncertainty can be borne because it is only the other side of trust (faith).  (p. xi)

Wherever else God may send us, our ‘context’ — the context that determines all the rest — is the abiding, steadfast love and faithfulness of God.  This God meets us in Jesus Christ, claims us as God’s own, and sends us into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to be servants and witnesses of the good news of God’s Reign.

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This is the seventh in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.


The sixth difference is described this way:

The pastoral church seeks to avoid conflict at any cost.
The missional church knows that conflict is the price of progress.

It is not an easy time to be the Church.  Radical shifts in the culture stress congregational life in multiple ways. That stress often gets played out in anxiety about finances, declining attendance at worship, and lower levels of participation in the governance structures and in programmes. It sometimes get played out in disagreements with other members and with the clergy. As congregations experience the stress and anxiety that change brings, conflict is going to happen. 

When it does happen, congregations have different ways of dealing with it. Pastoral churches often respond to conflict from an overriding desire to maintain a ‘cult of harmony’ (Tom BandyFragile Hopep. 28). In such congregations, a lot of energy is spent in avoiding painful realities and difficult discussions. Nobody wants to cause a disturbance by speaking up. Serious disagreements get shut down as quickly as possible. They get driven underground where they fester and turn ugly. When they do erupt, somebody inevitably says, “We are Christians. We are supposed to love one another”, as if loving and disagreeing are incompatible. 

Missional churches need to find faithful and healthy ways to deal with conflict because “the boundary-breaking work of the Holy Spirit . . . creates conflict, consternation and confusion” (Alan RoxburghMissional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood, chapter 8). “The patterns of Christian life that shaped and gave meaning to Christian life in North America for much of the twentieth century . . . are breaking apart . . . opening up to us a radically different way of being God’s people” (chapter 9).

Bandy suggests that congregations address conflict in the church through ‘adult spiritual growth, leadership creativity, and lay empowerment’ (p. 24). Congregations need to learn what words like ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace’, ‘letting go’ look like in the realities of actual relationships. 
Kayla McClurg suggests that adult spiritual growth needs to focus on developing people with humility  and an open mind: “It takes humility to hear each other, let alone work with each other, while seeing things differently . . . We hold in our hearts our sense of what is right, and we also hold those who oppose us” (“The Gift of Disagreement“).

Obviously, facing conflict openly will lead a congregation to deal with its relationships in deep, often painful, but also redemptive ways. Perhaps the first step is to create an environment where we do not run from conflict but face it truthfully, ready to learn important lessons from it, and looking for signs that the Holy Spirit is at work.


[Kathleen Smith has written a helpful book, Stilling the Storm, about leading congregations through difficult times of conflict related to changes in worship.
Jean Vanier‘s books The Broken Body and From Brokenness to Community are also helpful reflections.]


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I have heard recently of three different situations in which clergy have been the target of cruel attacks by people in the congregation. It is not unusual for the attack to be anonymous: a cruel note degrading the minister’s character or competency left without a signature, or comments passed along by a third party that “a lot of people are saying . . . ” Often this way of treating another human being  is a long-standing pattern in the congregation.  Other members of the congregation know that this has been happening and even know who the perpetrators are.

Advice has been offered by other clergy who have been through similar experiences. (A great resource is the Clergy Support Network)

Some of the advice that is offered is psychological:

“Keep reminding yourself: ‘It’s not about you’. You are the target of somebody else’s emotional or psychological issues.” Kathy Smith, in Stilling the Storm provides a helpful image: think of yourself as being the person carrying the ball in a football game. People are attacking you, not because you are doing anything wrong or because they don’t like you. They are attacking you because you’re carrying the ball. Very often, the situation really is not ‘about you’. However, many of us still have to do our own emotional and psychological work in order to distance ourselves from the hurtful comments made by others. That’s hard work but essential for ministry.

Some of the advice is systemic:

“Don’t deal with this on your own. Let your Ministry & Personnel Committee handle it. Have the Board pass a motion that anonymous comments will not be given any notice. Bring it to your [insert the relevant committee name] deal with it.” The way the congregation conducts itself is not merely the responsibility of the ordered ministry personnel. It is the responsibility of the whole Body of Christ. When I have been in such a situation, I have sometimes been told, “You need to develop a thicker skin.” That may be true sometimes, but it is also true that the congregation needs to nurture and sustain a culture that says, “This is not how we treat one another. It is not appropriate to attack another human being. Here’s how you deal with issues that arise . . . ”

Some of the advice is sociological:

When congregations are dying, they begin to exhibit toxic behaviours. I have found Alan Roxburgh‘s The Missional Leader helpful in navigating the way through congregational crises and the behaviour that goes with them. In the midst of the confusion, conflict and anxiety that are typical in a time of crisis, “missional leaders need to be skilled in engaging conflict and helping people live in ambiguity long enough to ask new questions about who they are as God’s people. . . Missional leaders can model ways of engaging conflict to bring about change. They must be ready to create conflict that helps people think differently, name conflict, and facilitate its resolution. They will live with conflict and still sleep at night” (p. 134 -135).

I find it interesting, however, that the apostle Paul deals with conflict as a spiritual issue. In Galatians 5, he lists the ‘works of the flesh’ (flesh being the word he uses to describe a life lived under our own power, without radically depending upon God and without referring all of life to what God has done in Jesus Christ). Included in the list are: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions”. When people treat each other badly, it’s a sign that there’s something amiss with their spiritual life. An unhealthy congregation is a congregation with spiritual issues that need to be addressed. They have forgotten who they are in Christ and what is required to live a life ‘worthy of the calling to which they have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).

Typically, in his letters to the churches, Paul begins by talking about what God has done in Christ and about the ‘new age’ that is now present because of Christ’s death and resurrection. He immerses us in God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and our identity as baptized followers of Christ. Then, in the last half, he speaks to relationships within the church. The way we treat each other is rooted in our relationship with God: Have we entrusted ourselves to God? Are we open to Christ’s activity in our lives and in the world? Are we willing to submit ourselves to the guidance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

I wonder what difference it would make if we took that connection more seriously when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict and dissension in our congregations? Certainly, there are helpful things we can do and learn psychologically, sociologically, systemically. However, what if we also recognized that spiritual issues were at the heart of the problems?  What if we framed the issues between us in terms of our relationship with God? What if the congregational response to people behaving badly was to go back to basics: Who are we in Christ? What does it mean to live in radical trust in God?

People in the congregation who treat others cruelly, maliciously, manipulatively call the whole congregation to attend to their life with God. The whole church needs to attend more deeply to its spiritual growth and development, not just the person who is doing the attacking. The whole congregation needs to ask, “What is required of us in terms of spiritual growth, spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines so that we cultivate a culture in our church where that kind of behaviour is known to be unacceptable?”

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Our congregation will soon be in the midst of a discussion about the future of the building which houses the church. After extensive investigation, it is apparent that the building is not in danger of imminent collapse. However, like many urban congregations, a relatively small number of people bear the financial responsibility for a large building. It was built in a time when people were not conscious about the need for accessibility for people with handicaps. Now, however, many people in the congregation find all the stairs increasingly difficult to navigate. The sanctuary is beautiful but its heating and electrical systems need updating. Among the people., there are significantly different opinions about what is the best way forward.
I am reminded of a section in Roxburgh and Romanuk’s book, The Missional Leader, which speaks of such a time in congregational life. They advise that the temptation will be to shut down the tension by choosing one side or the other. The creative way forward will consist of both sides listening to each other and listening to God through prayer and engagement with the scriptures to discern what new life God has in mind for the congregation.
I am also reminded of the wise words spoken by a woman in another congregation that was facing a potentially divisive issue:
“We are going to be talking about things that are very important to us. In the midst of the discussion, some of us will say things that we ought not to say. Some of us will hurt others with our words. Some of us will be hurt by what others say. Let us do our utmost to treat each other with great dignity and respect. And, when we finish the discussion, let us remember that we leave here as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one Body.”
So often congregations try to avoid conflict. That, of course, is deadly for the well-being of the congregation and for the gospel. The attempt to keep things secret and hidden takes up a great deal of energy. It requires people to deny the truth. “Where there is no truth, there is no trust. Where there is no trust, the gospel cannot be heard.”
So, I am grateful for those voices in the church that help us find a way through the difficult times when we disagree with each other.

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