Conflict resolution in congregations
Conflict is as natural as breathing, but it is difficult for congregations to deal with.
The way that many congregations do deal with it is to deny it until it has grown to such a magnitude that it can’t be denied.
As pastors many of us have a propensity to be liked, and it is often the case that many of us deal with conflict by simply avoiding it.
I was one of those pastors, and over the years I’ve come to a place where I’m comfortable dealing with it; in fact, I’ve attended a number of workshops on conflict resolution.
When I was part of a synodical staff, I walked into a number of congregations that were in disagreement over some issue. I often found that it was best to talk with as many people as possible about their perception of the problem.
What were the contributing factors? Who were the players? And what -- in their minds -- were the real issues?
I always thought it important to listen, first of all; second, never to demonize the person that you may be in conflict with; and third, to remind all parties of the centrality of the cross.
When we live together -- whether as a family, a family of faith or as a community -- in order for us to live well we must be willing to acknowledge how each person’s action may have contributed to a misunderstanding or even an escalation of a problem. Confession, humility and forgiveness become essential practices that we all need to learn.
Those practices I found to be critical in helping to turn around a certain congregation that had been torn asunder over a particular disagreement.
It was a disagreement that forced a pastor to resign, that resulted in good people leaving, and that caused deep divisions within families and between friends.
My first Sunday as the interim pastor in that congregation, I walked into the fellowship hour and could literally feel the chilly air in the room.
I remember an individual coming up to me and saying in all seriousness, "Pastor, what you need to do is preach a good hell-fire and brimstone sermon.”
My words back to him were, "You already know what hell has been like in these last months. What you need to hear now is a message of God’s grace, God’s love and forgiveness of everyone in this place.”
For the next several months I set out to preach that message, to declare God’s forgiveness, to create spaces where we could hear one another and eventually see one another again as precious people of God.
It was an amazing thing to walk into the fellowship hall four months later and to experience not being able to hear because people were laughing and talking and enjoying being in one another’s presence.
That same man who was quick to give me advice on how I should preach walked up to me on that Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and an incredulous smile and this time different words: "Pastor, I never would have believed that what I see now would have ever happened in my lifetime.”
Conflict is hard, but the best thing is to go through it, to learn how to confront it honestly and in love. It is often not easy. Sometimes it can be unpleasant and painful, but I trust that at the end of the day God’s grace is there in abundance.
Ken Wheeler is pastor of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.