Conflict and Communities

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!

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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.

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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?

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The Cost

I had a curious interaction yesterday. It was Sunday, I was at church (this happens often). The church my husband, Timothy, is working at is going through some growing pains, thinking about who they are and who God is calling them to be as the community changes around them. It’s hard, beautiful, inspiring work of a courageous community of faith. I’m so proud of them and to be one of them.

They’ve realized that they hang out in cliques, like most churches. Choir people over here, teenagers over here, knitters over there, 1937 local high school graduates over there. So to work on blending together, at the coaching of Timothy and other leaders, we paired up for one whole Sunday morning with someone of a different generation of than us.

An adult my parents’ age sat in worship with a chemistry-loving 11th grader. A high schooler had breakfast with a choir member my grandparents’ age. It was kind of neat. I got to hang out at breakfast, during worship, and in a think-tank conversation after worship with an 8th grader named Emily*. Emily is the most motivated 8th grader I’ve ever met. She looks into your eyes when you have a conversation with her. When I asked her what the most important part of worship is to her, she did not say “the music” or “if we had a contemporary band.”

She said the most important part of worship is the children’s sermon. She’s in 8th grade.

She’s bright and empathetic. Her lack of hearing requires her to wear two hearing aids and you have to wave in her line of vision to chat with her.

Before worship, we chatted for a bit, but not very long. Her mom helped us interpret each other. Emily darted off before worship to hang out with her friends. So as much as I want to be best friends with everybody, I had a hard time getting to know Emily. We didn’t know how to communicate and we live in different worlds.

She’s in 8th grade, adopted, super into sports, friends are her life, mostly-hearing impaired hearing. I’m 27, married, discovering my vocations post-grad school, changing definitions of home, career, purpose, can hear.

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But I tried. We didn’t communicate super well. I didn’t use my limited American Sign Language skills but I totally should have tried. But the point is we tried.

By the post-worship meeting, I figured out that we could communicate through writing – so I asked her:

“Why is the children’s sermon the most important thing in worship to you?”

She quietly mouthed back, kind of loud, but mostly quiet, “Because it helps kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important.”

I wrote back to her, “Ok, what other parts of worship would you change, so that kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important?”

She took out her bulletin from the morning and flipped through page by page. Her eyes scanned and I felt a fire within her moving through the guide, that, as someone who is hard of hearing, is essential for her worship experience.

She stopped at the readings, the Bible stories that are read before the sermon, and she started circling words like “Thus” and other “old English” words that are scattered throughout a NRSV translation. She said these words didn’t make sense to her.

I bring up my morning with Emily because without the pairing-up we did at church as an intergenerational experiment, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. We don’t look the same. She has hearing aids and we’re 10 years apart. But we tried anyway. I listened. I gave her a thumbs up after she lit the Advent candles during worship.

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Something has been heavy on my heart lately. The shootings and killings of black people in the US in the last couple weeks, without due trial, have made me so angry and sad. My Facebook feed has been a cacophony of justice-seeking pleas and Christmas shopping deals. How do we do live life like this? Reading through comments on blog posts where people pour their hearts out, calling for racial justice, make my stomach turn as I read the most black-phobic hateful speech.

Because I’m empathetic to a fault, I try and step into these people’s shoes. Why would they say such hateful things about black people? I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

But I know it’s cheap.

Saying hateful words is easy, it’s quick, it briefly releases energy, it’s at no cost to the writer/speaker.

You know what’s difficult and costs a lot? Being in relationship. Asking, “What’s your name?” Asking, “What’s at stake for you when you do/say these hurtful things? Asking, “What’s important to you?” Asking, “What’s your dream for this world?”

This is hard work because it requires listening, vulnerability, and humility. Costly, and difficult traits of the human experience, but traits that spur the most beautiful and strong movements of love around us. Love that our world is crying out to embody. Typing hateful racial slurs behind a keyboard is easy. Being humble and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, someone who believes differently, someone who belongs to a different ethnic and/or social community: that is hard work. But it’s work that we deep down know we are driven to do.

We long to connect with each other, and God call us to connect with each other in deep and meaningful relationships. One day, I’m hopeful that God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21: 3-5). This season that is described in the book of Revelation is coming, but honestly, I don’t think it’s coming soon enough.

In the church season of Advent, in December where we wait all month for Christmas and Jesus’ birth, we cry out “How long, O Lord?” How long until we see justice for the deaths of young black men across the country? How long until the judicial system changes so that racial injustice is a crime, not an expectation? How long until we stop cramming prisons with non-Caucasian individuals, so that the statistic of 1 in 3 prisoners are black, is an ancient artifact?

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Beautiful picture of the Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs) in Oahu, HI

I spoke with an 8th grader named Emily on Sunday. She’s adopted and has hearing aids, and has the cheerful energy of a teenager. It was hard to communicate, and talking/reading lips was not perfect, but I hope to call her my friend one day. It’s hard work, but I think we can do it, and I hope she keeps talking with me when I ask, “Why is this important to you?”

*Name changed but story’s true.