Conflict happens everywhere, from Congress to congregations, from boardrooms to bedrooms. The dysfunction of Congress is just a highly public instance of a typical conflict scenario.
I recently compiled some basics of church conflict. See if you agree with me that this playbook applies broadly.
Church conflicts — which will happen to all clergy and congregations eventually — generally focus on the clergy, just as conflict in any enterprise tends to focus on the top leader. That’s because the underlying issue usually is power — who calls the shots, who can initiate change, who can hold others accountable.
Secondary issues like specific actions, perceived performance and trust get the spotlight, but are surrogates for the power issue. People who want power don’t relish being perceived as wanting power. They prefer being seen as the aggrieved, better performers, more trustworthy, more faithful to ultimate purposes.
Church conflicts usually spring from a small group of antagonists, perhaps even a single person, who start with a conclusion, largely intuitive and emotional, and then search for reasons. Those reasons tend to be moving targets that defy better information. Deal with one reason, and two more take its place.
Antagonists, meanwhile, intimidate others into compliance, or at least silence, by making it clear they will stop at nothing to win.
Ending a church conflict usually takes one of three courses. Two lead nowhere: the pastor leaves, or maybe caves and is rendered ineffective, while fundamental issues remain unresolved; or the antagonists give up, still harboring resentment, or leave, hoping to try again later.
The third, and only positive course, is for the board to exercise discernment, to act on behalf of the entire congregation, to undertake a series of negotiated steps to address allocation of power, to correct what can reasonably be corrected, and to declare future outcomes more important than rehashing past grievances.
An early casualty of a church conflict, however, is that very mechanism for resolving conflict. Both senior pastor and board come under pressure to take sides against each other. Doing so prevents them from seeing larger issues and collaborating on resolution. Eventually, there is “no grown-up in the room,” just anxious and angry combatants who are intent on winning.
There is nothing inherently unhealthy in conflict. Like failure, it is a sign of life and can lead to further vitality. Ideas need testing; emerging cohorts need a place at the table; values need clarifying. Conflict provides a lively place to deal with change, failures, institutional mistakes and personal shortcomings.
In an unhealthy system, however, there is no search for perspective, no deep thinking, no forgiveness, no concern for the whole. Just scorecards: Did I get my needs met? Did I make you pay for wounding me? Did I win or lose?
The breakdown isn’t the fact of conflict. The breakdown is the absence, or loss, of the “wise ones,” the mature CEO and board who can work together to resolve high-level conflicts threatening the institution and to allow safe processes for lower-level conflicts that the institution requires for a healthy future.
When there is “no grown-up in the room,” then the immature and impassioned, the extreme and self-serving have the field to themselves.
That, I think, is where many congregations are. And it is clearly where Washington is. When the “wise ones” are MIA and extremes face no restraint, the system cannot function. It can only destroy.
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