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Dealing With Conflict in Congregations

Conflict is a natural part of the changing identity and ministries of a congregation, and in many instances it can be managed appropriately. When the conflict becomes unnatural, however, additional interventions become necessary.

The key to working with conflicts in congregations is to recognize that people do not resist change itself. Rather, they resist the losses created by change. One way of dealing with conflict is to help people discover what they have lost as a result of the perceived change.
No matter what loss is named, people usually are more afraid of the unknown than they are of losing a particular thing. Often, one can design a ritual or a ceremony to call attention to the fact that something is gone. You are probably aware of such ceremonies, but may never have thought of them as fulfilling these purposes. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Funerals, retirement parties, bon voyage parties, even birthday parties all fulfill a purpose of saying goodbye to something or someone in our lives. Less elaborate ceremonies or services can be created for less elaborate losses. Church leaders need to become experts in how to say goodbye.   
There are many other ways of dealing with conflict. In fact, there is an entire field of literature on managing conflicts. Much of the literature begins by helping people realize that conflict is a natural part of living in community with one another. As the community evolves, people within that community will experience differences of opinion about its identity or mission, as well as differences over how the community should carry out its purposes.   
The most important tool for managing conflict is listening. Good leaders help people within congregations listen to one another. In the midst of listening, people often realize that their actual differences are not as great as originally perceived. Listening to narratives of corporate history also helps members of organizations to hear where they have been and learn how to build upon their histories. 
Good congregational leadership involves conflict resolution as well as conflict management. The main role of conflict management is to help people understand that conflict is natural. When conflict, however, rises above a manageable level, it becomes necessary to seek to resolve the conflict. When the conflict has become church-wide, when the focus is upon people rather than issues, when the goal is to win rather than solve the problem, resolution is called for. 
The most important tool for resolving conflict is mediation. Through a process of mediation, the two conflicted sides are able to return to identification of the issues and, through mutual negotiation, seek to resolve their differences. 
When mediation fails, some congregations choose to enlist the help of an arbitrator rather than a mediator. The main difference between mediation and arbitration is that in mediation, responsibility for reaching an agreement still resides with the conflicted parties. In arbitration, this responsibility is turned over to an outside person. Under arbitration, the conflicted parties are usually asked to abide by the solution crafted by the arbitrator. 
In rare instances, some congregations have discovered a particular individual within the congregation who would rather argue or fight than resolve any differences. In this case, the goal of the congregation shifts from resolution toward diffusion in order to keep one individual from destroying an entire congregation.   
Various terms used to describe such people include “antagonists,” “troublesome people” and even “clergy killers.” Once again, various resources are available to help congregations deal with such people. Strategies for diffusion usually involve detailed reporting of a person’s inappropriate behavior and possibly limiting a person’s congregational involvement to worship only.  
Conflict is a natural part of the changing identity and ministries of a congregation, and in many instances it can be managed appropriately. When the conflict becomes unnatural, however, additional interventions become necessary. 
Jeff Woods is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Ohio.
Buy Woods’ books from Amazon!
Better Than Success: 8 Principles of Faithful Leadership
We’ve Never Done It Like This Before: 10 Creative Approaches to the Same Old Church Tasks 
User Friendly Evaluation: Improving the Work of Pastors, Programs and Laity