Bring It On
When conflict threatens to overwhelm ministry, it’s time to face it head-on.
By Doug Bixby | October 4, 2016
Conflict has been a part of our human relationships since the beginning of time. No one likes conflict and most of us try to avoid it.
Some people are surprised by the conflict they experience in churches. They seem to understand the place of conflict within their families, but they have higher expectations from their congregations. In his epistle to the church, James asks two questions about conflict: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from the cravings that are at war within you?”
The sad thing is that many congregations are consumed by conflict and overwhelmed by their interpersonal problems. Perpetually conflicted congregations feed on friction and see it as a way of life. The interaction in these churches is at the basement level of communication, hovering between conflict and compromise. They see conflict as unavoidable, and they spend a lot of time and energy trying to manage it. Church members in these environments keep their distance from each other. They tiptoe around on eggshells, especially with people in leadership. Their relationships come across as fragile and futile. They see compromise as the only way of resolving conflict, and church leaders tend to see few other alternatives in the midst of their decision-making.
One clear marker of a church stuck in the basement is a lack of communication between church leaders and staff. And not enough communication occurs among staff members or the church leaders themselves. The communication that does exist is riddled by a web of triangles, blame, and self-deception.
The goal of addressing such conflict is not simply to avoid discord, but to embrace communication practices that will keep us from amplifying it in our congregations. These practices are for churches that are tired of getting a new pastor every four years. They are for pastors who are afraid that conflict with a small group of people may lead to an early departure from their ministries. They are for church leaders who want to find ways to protect their pastors from disgruntled members, for leadership teams and boards who sense that their ministries are frozen in place or in a permanent state of decline. And they are for anyone who is tired of feeling frustrated within their church and who wants their church to become more centrally focused on Jesus and his way of doing things.
When pastors find themselves in perpetually conflicted congregations, it’s easy to become defensive.
Moving a church away from conflict and compromise toward cooperation and collaboration is the goal. This is a much happier place for congregations to be. But it takes a plan, time, patience, and persistence to get there.
Pastors and churches both need to aim for trust in their relationships. Church leaders need to trust their pastors, and pastors need to trust their church leaders in order for congregations to thrive. Church members also need to experience trust in their relationships with church leaders and pastors in order to feel enthusiastic about their congregation’s ministries. Trust is too often the least valued aspect of congregational life, yet it is the most important.
When a church calls a new pastor, the first three years are a particularly vulnerable and challenging time. Serious attention must be paid to the establishment of trust within the congregation. The first three years of any ministry are the “trust versus mistrust stage,” borrowing the phrase from the first of Erik H. Erikson’s stages of human development.
Several of my friends and colleagues have experienced conflict on such a high level in their first three years of ministry that it has led to the premature end of their ministries. These are sad and terribly difficult experiences for both clergy and churches.
Often our expectations of new clergy or new congregations are too high, and disappointments in the first three years can have a dramatic impact on the developing relationship. Developing trust is a delicate matter. The process can be especially difficult for a new pastor in a church where a relationship with a previous pastor ended prematurely, or for a pastor who experienced a premature ending in his or her previous location. These endings are emotional for everyone involved, and they can leave both clergy and congregations feeling empty and depleted.
I was reading a local newspaper and noticed that a Congregational church nearby had called a new senior pastor right out of seminary. The church had a bit of a reputation for conflict and being hard on pastors. Sarah was twenty-six years old—and I quickly realized that I knew Sarah’s mother, who was a Congregational minister in Connecticut. I contacted Sarah and took her out to lunch and we became quick friends.
During her first three years at the church, Sarah checked in with me periodically. We talked about the conflicts she was experiencing and also about her resolve to persistently make her way through the first three years. Soon she was in her fifth year of ministry, and I asked her how things were going. She explained that after the third year, she was able to claim her pastoral authority. At that point she could say and do things that she hadn’t felt comfortable doing in the first three years. She became more proactive than reactive in her ministry, and, she said, it was more fun. She was grateful to move beyond the tentativeness that existed in her relationships with people at the beginning.
Conflict is a natural part of all human relationships and organizations. Some conflict even contributes to the health and vitality of our churches. The problem is the extent to which conflict takes a dominant role if trust is not established between a pastor and his or her congregation. During her first few years in her church, people would say things to Sarah like, “I have never heard a bad thing about you.” It was hard for her to live under the perfect image people had of her. At one point, someone got upset with her and left the church, and she said that actually gave her space to breathe and be herself again.
Conflict is a natural part of all human relationships and organizations. Some conflict even contributes to the health and vitality of our churches.
A false energy can fill a congregation during the trust versus mistrust stage. Some clergy refer to this stage as the honeymoon phase. In this stage, pastors rely on the authority given to them in their position. If they make it past the three-year stage with trust, then they can rely more on the authority that they earn in the midst of their relationships.
Establishing trust requires a deep level of commitment from church members and pastors alike. Creativity and community also take time to develop. They emerge from a culture of high levels of communication where cooperation and collaboration are the norm. All pastors function better in a context of support and trust, where cooperation and collaboration are present. When the church works well together, relationships develop more deeply and completely. Creativity has a lot to do with what the church is striving to do, whereas the fellowship and community that emerges has to do with who the church is becoming and how they are getting there.
In his book Navigating the Transition Zone, Covenant pastor D. Darrell Griffin likens a new pastor arriving at an established church to a person who shows up in the middle of a movie. He writes, “Newly appointed pastors enter into individual and collective congregational stories in progress.” How the pastor listens to and comes to understand the larger story of the congregation is a big part of the relationship that is being formed.
Each chapter in a congregation’s story is significant, and the chapter a church is currently writing will have more significance if the pastor understands that he or she is writing it in collaboration with the congregation. In a brand-new church plant, pastors will help the congregation write the first chapter of a larger story. In an established church with a long history, many chapters have been written before a pastor arrives, and they will continue to be written after the current pastor leaves. No church is a blank slate.
In my first few years of ministry, conference superintendent George Elia encouraged me to stay in my churches long enough to “enjoy the fruits of my labor.” It was a great piece of advice. I ended up serving my first church for fifteen years, and I am now in my ninth year at the Covenant church in Attleboro, Massachusetts. The first three years in both churches were filled with many challenges, and I am grateful that I was able to make it through the trust versus mistrust stage with both congregations.
I have enjoyed the creativity and the community that I have experienced with both of these churches as we have written chapters together. No chapter is perfect and each of us experiences some conflict within our ministries. The key is talking to people, not about them when we experience congregational conflict. The more we embrace direct communication, the better we’ll be able to manage conflict in our churches and keep it at healthy levels.
Embracing direct communication and avoiding triangulation will change the way we approach conflict and communication. It will unlock the untapped potential that exists within our church. It will help us to stay out of God’s way and allow God to work in, on, and through us and our church. No pastor can do this on his or her own. Church members and church leaders need to be a part of the solutions. Improving our ability to communicate will inevitably save our churches a lot of time, energy, and heartache.
Churches will inevitably get more from their pastors if they support and encourage them during these years. No pastor is perfect, just as no church is perfect. When pastors find themselves in perpetually conflicted congregations and they experience more criticism than support, it’s easy to become defensive. And attempts to deny responsibility can lead ito a blame game among staff and church leaders. This kind of downward spiral never ends well. This is when we all know it is time to embrace a new way of functioning, where trust can be established and a new direction can be embraced.
Churches and pastors must embrace a mutual commitment to trust building, and a mutual escape plan to get out of the basement level of communication and move toward the higher evaluations. The good news is that in these higher elevations church members can be enthusiastic about their ministries again and pastors can be encouraged and feel supported in a way that allows them to be enthusiastic about their ministries as well. It is a win/win for clergy and congregations alike.
Five Common Mistakes When Facing Conflict in the Church
#1 We Try to Avoid it
There is a big difference between avoiding conflict and making peace. If we hope to make peace within our congregations, then pastors and church leaders need to confront issues directly and deal with conflict intentionally.
#2 We Get in the Middle
When we jump into the middle of a conflict between two other parties, we form an emotional triangle. Triangulation often turns manageable conflict into out-of-control battles.
#3 We Drag Others into it
When we talk about conflict situations with people not directly involved, then we drag those other people into the middle of our disagreements.
#4 We Amplify it
When we talk about people, instead of to them in the midst of conflict, then we amplify the tensions and difficulties. And we end up inviting other people to take sides before a direct conversation has even taken place.
#5 We Are Impatient
Conflict is a normal and natural part of human relationships and congregational life. Conflict resolution takes time and patience. When we rush through misunderstandings and friction, we fail to deal adequately with the issues at stake.
This article is based on Navigating the Nonsense: Church Conflict and Triangulation, by Doug Bixby, Cascade Books, Copyright ©2016. Used by permission.