In this sixth week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about conflict and legal matters for congregations. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “When Conflict Comes Calling,” and “Life under Law” (pgs. 241-290) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.
You might have noticed that we have reached week six of a six week reflection series for my independent study on Church Administration. There will be one more post coming up on a couple interviews with church professionals about the role of administration in their work and service. But this is the last post specifically on Church Administration by Bacher and Copper-White. I feel like I have more to write about on this topic than this class can contain. Likewise, I can see, from the citations and footnotes and tone of writing of these authors, that these folks have more to say too!
Both of these last chapters had great practical content that I could see referencing back to in my first call. Once again, I recommend this book to clergy and others who are invested in church leadership. Especially in the chapter, “When Conflict Comes Calling,” I found myself feeling affirmed by their suggestions from my lived experience, and curious as to how I might implement and/or translate these helpful tid-bits to my future congregation, council, or leadership team.
I think it’s key to remember, for an “eagle eye” view framework, that conflict is not sinful. For instance, the prophets, for good or bad, were called by God to speak out against the behaviors of their people that distanced them from God, or further harmed their people. This doesn’t mean that conflict in a community is sinful, but that a life of faithfulness can bring an entire people to connection with God, and part of that growth involves conflict.
As an individual leader, I think it was a good reminder that conflict might feel uncomfortable, but it just might be a sign that you and/or your relationship with another is growing. Bacher and Cooper-White mention that many of Paul’s letters contain admonition and instruction on how to live in a community with individuals who do not agree all the time. At the root of his letters is a desire for these communities to grow in a closer relationship with God as the body of Christ. He doesn’t “sweep [conflict] under the rug,” but calls them to engage together for the sake of growth and God’s mission among them.
One of the helpful practices in this chapter is conducting a conflict “diagnostic assessment,” which includes questions like this:
Who are the parties [in] the conflict?
Which individuals and groups are involved?
What are their formal and informal roles within the community’s organizational system?
Also a key question I believe is What do they say they want? In my CPE unit last summer I found it helpful to do a spiritual assessment with people on my unit. It helped guide my next steps and approach, while keeping their best interest and well-being at the center (whatever that meant to that individual/family). I think this conflict diagnostic assessment would function in the same way with a congregation in the midst of conflict. Check out the rest of the questions on page 255.
As a facilitator or moderator during a time of conflict, I think it’s helpful to read page 258, which explains the impact of having “ground rules.” These are things that are as simple as providing refreshments, placing chairs in a circle, not a rectangle, and to create a “rules of engagement” list that contains things like “We will attempt to focus on and discuss or debate issues, avoiding personal attacks and disparaging comments about the attitudes and perspectives of others.” Of course, this implies that the leader has facilitation skills, but I think these “staging” practices are key to administering conflict well.
It might sound a little strange, but I think the authors are right, that the very act of collectively creating rules of engagement is an act that brings a group of people together. However small, completing a task together can give a little boost of hope to an otherwise tension-filled situation.
I think the care with which these authors outlined practices and rationale for administering conflict is very helpful. I wish though they would have expanded the section on understanding your own style of conflict. Just as instances of congregational conflict are different, I would bet that each person internally engages and processes that conflict differently. But these two chapters were extremely helpful in my growing understanding of how to administer conflict and legal questions in a congregation, and I hope you read them too!
Assuming that you have worshiped at or served a congregation in moments of conflict, what wisdom would you pass onto your colleagues about conflict? In what way was conflict dealt with poorly? Was there a particular process or practice that your community used to move through conflict in a positive way?