The Schism of a Congregation
Some years ago, I was asked to preach in a lovely congregation that had endured a terrible schism. Some key leaders had wanted the congregation to leave the denominational church body. A vote was held and defeated.
But, as soon as it was constitutionally allowed, another vote was held. Again, the push to leave was defeated. Not happy with the outcome, those who wanted to leave the denominational church body picked up and left to start another church.
I had followed the events from afar, and by the time I was there to preach, the pastor had left for another position, the interim was done, and a new pastor would be arriving shortly. After worshiping with them and addressing what they had gone through in the sermon, the comment I heard over coffee was that no one had talked about it before.
Over the course of months, not one person stood up and addressed what was going on. A church was ripped apart and the conflict had never actually been formally discussed. Though we can’t know for sure, a different approach to the conflict may have yielded a different result.
Most people don’t like conflict, but the thing is, ignoring hardly ever makes it go away and actually often makes it worse. Here are some tips for facing it faithfully, healthfully, and head-on in your congregation:
- Read through Paul’s letters and notice that we didn’t invent church conflict. So much of Paul’s writing was in response to struggles in the early church. Follow his lead: name it, pray about it, and address it.
- Meet with people one-on-one or in small groups. Often, I find, the issue is not the only issue. People deal with conflict through the lens of their own, unique life experience, and usually people are more willing to say what they really feel when they are one-on-one.
- Listen, listen, listen. People are often really good at talking and not so good at listening. Set an example and be sure to hear everything around you.
- Ensure that everyone has a voice. Nothing angers people more than feeling like no one is listening to what they have to say.
- Be open and public about your expectations for your congregation. Conflict and disagreement are a natural part of life, but strive to change the norm on how it is approached. Ask and expect parishioners and staff to speak truthfully, to be respectful even when in disagreement, and to not retreat from the worshiping body as you work to resolve the conflict. Remind them that our public face is part of our mutual call to share the gospel with others.
- Know your strengths as a leader – and your weaknesses. Sometimes it is helpful and necessary to bring in a third party to guide a congregation through conflict. Don’t feel ashamed if you decide you need to do this; be proud that you are taking an active approach to solving the problem.
- Resist side-taking or encouraging others to take a side. This includes not asking people to join your personal side, especially if the conflict is centered around you. It might feel good in the short term, but is likely to cause more division in the long run. Talk with people, not about them.
- Seek a mentor to bounce things off of to help you navigate rocky waters without bottoming out. Keep in mind that you are human too and have your own set of lenses that you see your current situation through. You must also have good self-care before you can take care of anyone else, let alone the issue of an entire congregation.
- Learn about conflict management. Ideally, church leaders have some training in conflict management before they need it, but if you don’t have the budget or time for an educational experience, start with lots of reading, including books on family systems theory, conflict resolution, and healthy leadership. For a great place to start, check out this eBook, Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation by Augsburg Fortress, or other resources you can find here.
Some conflict is inevitable! Letting it blow up your congregation does not have to be. Do your best to help your congregation emerge from conflict stronger on the other side by strategically approaching the issue and working toward the best solution for the community. The more we practice positive approaches to issues, the better we will become as a society at resolving conflict, no matter how difficult it may seem at first.
For more advice on approaching conflict see "How to approach conflict in your small group ", "Navigating tough topics in your small group", and "Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation".