Thursday, May 28, 2015

Some of the worst things leaders can do when there is controversy or conflict in the church

One of the most difficult jobs of a church leadership board in the local church is to deal with differences of opinion within the congregation especially when the issues are major, sides are being taken by parishioners and there may even be the possibility of a church split (whether that means many people leaving or the church literally splitting). 

Boards often respond to such situations just as a person does when attacked - with a defensive posture. Often it includes a circling of the wagons where there is a great deal of secrecy, the labeling of people who may disagree with their position as dissidents, an attempt to shut down discussion of the issues and even intimidation through threats of "church discipline." In other words, just as each of us operates in difficult circumstances with either good or bad EQ, there is a corporate board EQ that responds either in healthy or unhealthy ways to church related issues. 

Ironically, while boards can point the finger at what they may justifiably (or not) label behaviors of congregants as sinful or divisive, they can be equally guilty of the same behaviors. Of course they can use the "authority" card, even when their behaviors are not healthy!

I have several suggestions for boards who find themselves in this position.

One. Do not shut down legitimate discussion. Whenever we try to muzzle people we are operating out of fear rather than from a position of health. Whenever there cannot be a free discussion of differences - while staying connected with one another we are operating from fear. Healthy leaders both invite candid dialogue and work toward win/win solutions rather than a win/lose solution. They are non-defensive, open, listen carefully and work toward solutions that preserve the unity of the church. When boards circle the wagons free dialogue is over.

Two: Do not marginalize people who disagree with you. This is a common behavior when one feels under attack. Rarely is this about whether those who disagree with us are sinful or righteous, but rather that we disagree on process or solutions. Often division comes when one side or another takes a position that disenfranchises the other rather than looking for ways to address the concerns of both sides. 

Three: Don't do it alone. When issues become magnified and positions become stakes in the ground you often need an outside facilitator who can help moderate a discussion. A skilled outside facilitator does not have an agenda and therefore can speak to both sides and help them come together. Resisting an outside voice is usually an indicator that we want our way rather than a win/win solution. 

Four: Realize that the more you spin the issues and try to manage people who disagree with you the more dysfunctional the debate will become. People don't like to be manipulated and many boards who go on the defensive do just that with spiritual language, board "authority" and actions that put people in a corner. The more a board tries to "manage" the debate rather than allowing it to occur the more dysfunctional the debate will become. Ironically it is in trying to shut down discussion that the issues become even more problematic. When people don't feel heard, they will try all the harder to be heard. 

Five: Remember that you can split the church (the bride) simply by making it clear that "if you don't agree you should leave." Many will not fight a board and pastor but feel forced out nonetheless. When people start redirecting their giving, for instance, it is usually done because they feel no other way to send a message to leaders about the direction of the church. Leaders who don't pay attention to such signs are either in denial or foolish. I am always amazed by leaders (including pastors) who are willing to see large numbers of people leave who don't agree with them. They may get their way but there will be no end to the conflict as those who leave continue to have relationships back at the church they left. 

Six: You cannot move forward by marginalizing a segment of the church. Leaders need to honor the past as they build for the future. Being willing to sacrifice the past for the future is neither Biblical nor unifying. Yet it happens all too often. Ephesians 4:3ff is a good place to start in terms of how we see the folks in our congregations: 

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."

Boards and other leaders who feel on the defensive need to live out the theology of unity. It takes wisdom and humility but it is possible.


Posted from Rockford, IL

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