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Transforming Church Conflict (Part 4)

By June 20, 2013 No Comments

In recent weeks, I’ve suggested that church leaders who are committed to the principles of compassionate communication, who are trained in its basic skills, and who are willing to take the emotional risks involved in compassionate leadership, will be able to navigate the terrain presented by a crisis or an impasse at a church-wide level. Those, in other words, who dare to speak honestly, listen with empathy, and practice self-empathy will have the necessary tools to work effectively in crisis.

Even under the best of circumstances, complex situations arise that have the potential to spike the anxiety of the whole system. Conflicts that had once been relatively contained with a problem-solving approach suddenly rage out of control. Or a new pastor begins her ministry in a promising church, only to uncover the well-kept secret that the previous pastor left under a cloud of controversy. In the midst of her shock and dismay, how can she grow to understand the ordeal the congregation has suffered, as well as fathom its ongoing impact on their life together? 

Sometimes catastrophe strikes and the whole church is traumatized: a beloved pastor and his wife are murdered by a teen in the youth group; a pastor in a small town sets fire to the church building, writes a note of confession, and commits suicide; a federal building is bombed in a downtown metropolis and clergy from the surrounding area are summoned to minister to the grief-stricken. When the entire community is shocked by sudden calamity, feelings of anger, grief, perplexity, and disorientation typically arise. Only honestly acknowledging and working through these feelings will enable the community to forge a path forward. Under such circumstances, the church needs compassionate leaders who can truly lead, offering vision, encouragement, and finely-honed practical skills as the congregation moves together toward healing.

 “Congregations ultimately change when leaders change. . . . The key is that congregational leaders need to model the behaviors desired in the broader system. As leaders change their behaviors, the culture of the congregation will begin to shift.”[i] Compassionate communication practiced by even a few key leaders might be seen as the smidgen of yeast that leavens the whole loaf. With the support and guidance of compassionate leaders, the church is able to tap into deeper wells of strength and resilience when conflict is not simply managed but rather is transformed.

Practicing the skill set of honest expression, for example, would mean that “the elephant in the sanctuary” cannot remain there for long without some kind of explicit acknowledgment. Leaders who speak honestly will ask open-ended questions about those places where pain, anger, or discontent have arisen from pervasive unmet need. When those thoughts and feelings are heard with understanding, the anxiety of the system as a whole will decrease and bonds of trust will be forged. Because taboo subjects bring up visceral anxiety, it takes not only clarity of purpose but also the courage to persist in asking questions that will open up communication. This is the case in any authentic dialogue, of course, but now the scope of the conflict is wider and the task more complex. How might the whole church engage in a conversation that will allow for multiple points of view? In such a forum, multiple needs would doubtless be expressed. Finding creative strategies to meet those needs would be challenging. Trust and openness, as always, would provide the nutrients that enable the creativity of the group to flourish. Though the task is more complex than in a dyad or small group, the core principles are the same. Leaders committed to compassionate communication will move purposively but gently toward those issues that are generating anger, anxiety, or shame, refusing to let them be hushed up or buried unhealed.

In the case of widespread conflict, the leaders’ chief aim is to restore a sense of belonging in the community by facilitating connection among all its members. The anxiety, isolation, and alienation that typically grow from relentless conflict are often its most destructive fruit. When persons shrink back in fear, they begin a negative spiral that only reinforces a sense of isolation. Anything that helps restore trust and connection, not only among individual members, but especially with the church as a whole, will contribute to the overall health of the community. Consider these suggestions:

  • Share information about the crisis as accurately and transparently as possible on a regular basis;
  • Remember that everyone’s needs matter, including children, teens, and the homebound;
  • Remember to attend to your own needs for self-care, making time for rest, renewal, support, inspiration, prayer;
  • Balance care for self with care for others;
  • Take time to process feelings as they arise, remembering to connect your feelings with underlying needs and then to find strategies to address them;
  • Find strategies for collaboration and support from those outside the system; ask for help from other clergy, therapists, skilled chaplains or caregivers, church officials, denominational organizations;
  • Plan any prayer services or gatherings for worship with a leadership team, remembering that worship provides pastoral care for the entire community; 
  • Consider inviting a denominational official or clergy colleague to preach for several weeks after a crisis to give the regular pastoral staff time to work through their own shock and disorientation;
  • Develop a highly-respected planning team that will together envision a healing strategy for bringing all those affected by the crisis into constructive dialogue.

** excerpted from Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action (Westminster John Knox, 2013)

         [i] David Brubaker, Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Conflict in Congregations (Alban Institute, 2009), 97.


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