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Managing conflict constructively

Left to fester, conflict can lead church members to leave, finances to plummet, faith to be forever lost. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Most clergy know congregational conflict is unavoidable. What they may not know is that not all conflict is deadly; in fact, it can be a sign of life.

“Organizations where there’s no conflict at all are also not very energized,” said consultant Susan Nienaber. “You need a certain amount of stress for there to be good enthusiasm, quality discussions and higher morale.”

Managing conflict is key. Fortunately, pastors can learn a few strategies for deciphering when congregational conflict is getting out of hand.

Speed Leas, another consultant, has outlined five levels of conflict to help pastors determine the severity of the problem. But even before a pastor has to assess the conflict level there are practices that should be followed — or renegotiated — as a way to lower tensions.

First among them said consultant Lawrence Peers, is “listening in order to understand,” a process of willfully suspending judgment at least until fellow congregants have had a chance to have their say. Another useful practice is using “I” statements such “I feel,” to help people own their experiences. Finally, Peers suggests people avoid secondhand information and speak only about facts gathered firsthand.

Congregations may also find it useful to create an atmosphere where people can talk about the values that undergird their opinions. If a congregation is struggling over worship styles, for example, it might be a good idea to explore what people value about worship. Hearing other people explore deeply held convictions might soften antagonisms and allow them to construct solutions that honor common values.

A national survey found that 75 percent of congregations reported some level of conflict in the past five years. The Faith Communities Today survey of 14,301 congregations also found that at any given time, one-fifth of congregations are experiencing conflict.

The biggest source of conflict is when power is overly centralized and those with less power attempt to shift the power balance.  But there are many other sources of friction, including finances, leadership style, doctrinal disputes and, of course, the worship wars.

It often falls to clergy to gauge how much conflict a congregation can tolerate.

“If a pastor doesn’t move at the same pace that the congregation can tolerate then there are going to be problems,” said Nienaber.

Intuition and, occasionally, outside guidance can help. If people are distancing themselves from a problem, behaving emotionally or sending out excessive email missives in lieu of face-to-face contact, those may be signs that the stress levels are not well managed.

Consultants say it’s never too early to seek outside help. Many denominations offer conflict resolution services, and there are plenty of organizations with experts trained to resolve institutional crises and provide guidance on other issues such as strategic planning, governance and staff and supervision, etc.

If there’s one bit of advice experts agree on, it’s that preventative action is key.

Conflict is the No. 1 predictor of congregational decline. Left to fester, it can lead church members to leave, finances to plummet, faith to be forever lost.

“Congregations wait too long before calling,” said Nienaber. “Sometimes it’s pay me now, or pay me later. Congregations will be better stewards of their resources if they do it sooner.”

But clergy also ought to keep in mind that conflict in and of itself can be a sign of life.

“If members are engaged in conflict it means people still care deeply about the congregation and the directions of the congregation,” said Peers. “Thus conflict can also be a signal of hope.”

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