Monday, September 16, 2013

Ten Tips on Addressing Conflict Within the Church

Ten tips on addressing conflict within the church

I once was the rector of a parish that was made up of several different congregations that had declined or closed over the years. The rector who presided over one of the main assimilations, whose tenure was 12 years, and who immediately preceeded my predecessor, and then me by 5 years, had a deadly policy: "There will be no conflict here." He achieved this by mandating, for example, that there would be no solos in the choir (purportedly to quell competition and hard feelings). In similar fashion, he decreed that the baptismal font from the incoming congregation would be retained and used whenever a family member from that congregation was baptized (to avoid their sense of loss). I found out about this particular tradition by accident and out of ignorance, with much consternation. The same was done with the funeral palls. Another expression of this "no conflict" policy was that this rector also saw that a proportionate number of lay minstry was spread out among the component congregations as a percentage distribution, regardless of whether the calling, talent or excellence was present from each to warrant it. A sense of "what's fair" reigned over and prevented healthy grieving; excellence in ministry through recognizing and raising up gifts and talents gave way to a vanilla veneer of mediocrity. My immediate predecessor, who experienced 5 miserable years of conflict management and I, also of 5 succeding, challenging years, reaped the disastrous results of that "no conflict" policy. This unhappy situation also "ate up" my successor, until finally the congregation was temporarily moved to mission status, placed under a larger, healthier congregation, re-established and re-named. It is now a much healthier place with a bright future and a vibrant ministry, with many from those conflicted component congregations still present. It wasn't the was that their inevitable conflict was delayed and allowed to strengthen underground until it became unmanageable. 

Please take heed to the following article. It could save you decades of intensive institutional therapy, not to mention personal heartache and stress. As the author says, conflict is inevitable. The key is how you deal with it.
Chris Huff +

From "Daily Episcopalian" on "Episcopal Cafe"


Ten tips on addressing conflict within the church

by Eric Bonetti
Conflict. Even the word itself makes us cringe a little. It has a hard, biting edge. In the back of our minds, the word conjures up unsettling images -- of dentists' drills, of that last really bad cold, of falling out of a tree as a child.
Fortunately, when we understand conflict, we learn to take a deep breath, to relax a little, to move past the immediate issues, and to view conflict as perhaps even a stepping stone to positive change. We may never come to enjoy conflict, but with perspective we learn to put it in its proper place.
So, next time you feel like you're about to be run over by a truck named conflict, here are ten tips to help you understand and work through conflict:
1. Conflict is inevitable -- Much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, conflict is as old as humanity. It happens among the closest friends, even among Jesus and the disciples. And like death and taxes, it comes to us all. So don't panic when you see conflict coming--it's just part of life.2. Churches may be particularly susceptible to conflict -- Avoiding conflict is easy when we get to pick and choose those around us. But in an environment that embraces diversity, there will, by definition, be a wider array of perspectives and viewpoints. As a result, there will be a greater likelihood of conflict.
3. Conflict doesn't make you bad -- Conflict, in and of itself, has no moral implications. Just because there's conflict afoot doesn't mean you're a bad person. Similarly, the presence of conflict doesn't reflect badly on your parish, your vestry, your priest, or your bishop.
4. Conflict can be healthy -- Growth requires change, and change engenders conflict. Handled appropriately, conflict can be a sign of positive change and growth. So next time you feel tension in the air, consider the possibility that something good is in the works.
5. Suppressing conflict is unhealthy -- Suppressing or ignoring conflict inevitably spells trouble. The underlying issue doesn't go away. Instead, like a locust, it goes underground, only to emerge later in spectacularly noisy fashion.
6. It's all about how we handle conflict -- Moral meaning attaches not to conflict itself, but to how we handle conflict. Remembering that we all are made in the image of God, assuming good intent, and avoiding "scorched earth" responses can go a long way towards de-escalating even the most difficult situation.
7. Choose engagement over fight or flight -- The old axiom about fight or flight as a response to threats misses the third option: Engagement. When conflict rears its ugly head, take a deep breath, relax, and "lean into" the issue. Promote engagement through use of "I" statements versus "you" statements, and by avoiding sweeping generalities. For example, "I feel like you are often late to meetings," is better then "You are late to every single meeting!" Test for understanding by reflecting back the other person's comments, "So you are saying it would be easier for you if the meeting were a half hour later?"
8. Get outside help when needed -- Sometimes, a neutral third party can be invaluable in breaking through layers of anger and misperception. If you're just not connecting with the other person, consider asking your priest, a professional mediator, or other trusted person for help.
9. Know that some situations require an immediate response -- Situations involving bullying or workplace violence, whether verbal or physical, require an immediate response to avoid potential damage to people or liability. Similarly, potential violations of fair employment laws, the canons, or issues involving sexual misconduct warrant a special response. When in doubt, act immediately to protect the vulnerable.
10. Persistent, high-level conflict is a warning sign -- Church, like work and home, should be something to which you look forward. If you find yourself dreading that next vestry or altar guild meeting, or you routinely dash out after services to avoid coffee hour, consider the possibility that a larger, more serious issue is afoot, and take steps to address it before it becomes even more toxic.

In short, while no one enjoys conflict, there's much that you can do to manage conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to move towards successful outcomes.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.
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