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Navigating conflicts in congregations

Moving forward in the spirit of agape love can help allay dissonance and build the Beloved Community, Lesley Anne Earles and Debra J. Mumford write.

The call to work in a congregational ministry is a blessing. It can also be challenging, particularly when we are presented with conflicts, which are inevitable as we seek to be in community together, within the life of the church. One of the biggest challenges is working through these conflicts. Though all, or at least most, members of the congregation confess Christ as their Savior, not all of us always engage one another in Christ-like ways.

When conflicts arise, a way to navigate these tensions is to look for guidance by the concepts and teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who taught us change is possible even during deep division.

King believed the goal of the people of God is to foster the “Beloved Community.” In the Beloved Community, relationships are guided by agape love in all things. Being guided by love includes the achievement of goals such as justice, both inside and outside of the community. King posited people who extend agape love to the community do not love others simply because they are likeable. They love because God is working from inside of them out into the community. They love others because God loves them.

In the Beloved Community, relationships are guided by agape love in all things.

King explained in his 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” “Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say it is the love of God operating in the human heart.” Agape love enables the people of God to love even the difficult person while disliking the way conflict affects the life of the community.  The Beloved Community is loved not because it is perfect and conflict-free, but rather because God loves us and we can extend God’s love to others who think, feel, believe and act differently from us. Indeed, it is our call to extend agape love upon the Beloved Community to work beyond the strain of discord toward peace.

It is our call to extend agape love upon the Beloved Community to work beyond the strain of discord toward peace.

Extending agape love within the context of congregational care can be challenging as differences within groups become increasingly conflictual. Conflict could unfold between parishioners, and blame could be directed toward the “other side.” Alternatively, the pastor who is attempting to navigate fraught situations could experience the “lightning-rod effect” of channeling the ire of many.

Assigning blame and entrenching into adversarial positions leads to reactive, counterproductive engagement. It is counterproductive because handling conflict, as an opportunity for discernment, can be a catalyst for spiritual growth and strengthening of community bonds such as articulating and living into a shared mission. When agape love becomes challenging and in discord with our feelings, we experience dissonance because the Beloved Community we are called to embody is out of sync with our internal experience of agitation, resignation, and even anger. When left unprocessed, these difficult emotions become ingredients for burnout and, potentially, despair.

Employing the “bell of mindfulness”

But we can allow these emotions to help us pause and slow down, one of our first and most important steps toward extending agape love. Our Buddhist friends would remind us to employ the “bell of mindfulness” — a ringing bell that prompts us to move from reactivity to response by slowing down or taking a pause. This pause creates space for us to recognize that we can invite the Holy Spirit into our hearts and the space where we are gathered. We can thereby recognize that we are on holy ground, not merely conflictual ground.

Slowing down to recognize our own response to conflict may feel counterintuitive, as strife often has a captivating, quickened pace. And yet, it is in the process of slowing down where we can begin to shift from reaction to response. Deceleration allows for recognition of our own internal processes and what the conflict may be touching in our vulnerabilities. We might find sadness, woundedness, fear and feelings of inadequacy underneath the emotions of agitation, resignation, and anger. The work to which we are called as leaders of God’s people requires us to place much at stake. We risk loneliness and vulnerability. We risk financial stability. We risk the stability of place; lives can be uprooted as families move to new locations.

Example:

A pastor stepped into the office on the first day of a new call to find an angry letter from parishioners.
This letter outlined congregational battle lines regarding theological differences, and the writers demanded to know which side would have “respect,” with the threat that the other half the congregation would leave. This issue became a defining dynamic of future conversations and decisions.*

Deepening conflict within the parish heightens the sense of the above stakes and can lead to questioning the veracity of God’s call upon our lives. The cycle of vulnerabilities and questions can be overwhelming for new and seasoned pastors alike. It is imperative to engage in our own care through practicing Sabbath and prayer, celebrating times of joy, recreation, finding strong collegial support, collaborating with elders when appropriate and beginning spiritual direction and/or therapy.

Tending to our own needs is difficult during the challenges of ministry. But when ministry is most challenging is when we need these practices the most.

Tending to our own needs is difficult during the challenges of ministry. But when ministry is most challenging is when we need these practices the most.

Self-awareness precedes outward understanding

Taking this step to grapple with our own sensibilities around the conflict makes a new awareness possible. This act of self-awareness can, in turn, enable us to consider the sensitivities of our parishioners. If we reflect evenhandedly on the engagement of those in conflict, we can begin to understand their involvement as information about how others may similarly experience a parishioner, both inside and outside the church. We may, too, begin to bear in mind how those we might label as “difficult” experience deep emotions that we do not readily see. And they could have life experiences that have informed them in different ways. It may be that what we consider to be their most challenging characteristics are activated by their efforts to cope with these emotions and experiences, albeit perhaps in ways that are unhelpful for working toward resolutions. As larger congregational energies organize around these key persons, this insight and perspective-taking can be invaluable in responding with compassionate pastoral care informed by agape love.

Example:

At a church with a vibrant working kitchen, a member dedicated time and talent to organizing meals, cooking, serving, and cleaning — tirelessly facilitating all food-related hospitality. Unfortunately, this service to the congregation was complicated because this member also controlled all aspects of the kitchen, even who could enter the kitchen. Part of this command included hiding items, such as napkins, so no one else could use them or function easily in the kitchen. Other parishioners became increasingly agitated as they were sent away from the kitchen or as they searched for hidden necessities. The pastor and the pastor’s spouse worked to befriend the “chief cook and bottle washer.” What they discovered as they broadened their friendship was kindness ensconced in grief — and a desperate hope to remain vital to the life of the church in the latter years of life. Through this relationship, the couple were able to soften the roles in the kitchen while never undermining the importance of the parishioner’s place. Extra stacks of napkins helped!

The development of empathy and considering others’ perspectives is especially germane during stressors such as organizational change, which can press upon the social structure of the church. Though it may seem counterintuitive, ostensibly positive change such as growth is not immune from becoming a stressor and resulting, potentially, in increased conflict. And decline is a particular stressor as the existentialist question of survival hangs over decisions about the day-to-day life of the church and the uncertain future.

Example:

In one declining church, a newer member agreed to be clerk of session – no one else wanted the job – and set about making plans for leadership and the renewal of the church building. To the new clerk’s surprise, long-term members disrupted a session meeting, with one yelling about the presence of children from community groups who were using the church for meetings and activities. These long-term members were heartbroken by the physical deterioration of the church, but they also could not tolerate positive steps being taken by someone viewed as an outsider or the tension represented by use of community groups in “their” space. Ultimately, the church building was put up for sale, and the clerk resigned. 

Structural stressors, such as decline, are easily overlooked as prompting conflict because these may be processes underlying the content of overt issues being discussed.

Consistent communal prayer

We can communicate care consistently through communal prayer, which sets the tone for all conversations and re-calls our attention to our common purpose: following the Way of Jesus (even when we disagree.)

Throughout the pandemic, a presbyter offered consistent and extended Prayers of the People and increased communication from the office of the presbytery. This reached folks engaged in heavy questions of virus mitigation in a purple presbytery where the larger context was charged with disagreement. The presbyter was thus a model to all the pastors in the presbytery as they engaged their own congregations with prayer and transparency. We can invite all voices to the table and work toward hearing not only those viewed as the key players but everyone who has a stake in the life of the church. This resonates with the value of justice in the Beloved Community because we have a duty to value everyone’s voice.

We can invite all voices to the table and work toward hearing not only those viewed as the key players but everyone who has a stake in the life of the church.

The supports found in our work with colleagues, elders and a spiritual director or therapist can all contribute to opportunities to discuss difficulties and create action plans that are specific to our  situations. These plans – whether in response to the situational features of a conflict or the larger needs of the church – these are best imagined as an outgrowth of a reflective process moving toward congruence with agape love. We are invited, through this process of discernment, into growth of self, relationship with others and connection to the Divine. This offers recognition of the spark of the Divine because we, pastors and parishioners, were made in the image of God. When we approach conflicted congregations with the spirit of agape love, we can treat all of God’s people like the siblings in Christ they are created to be. Then, and only then, can we hope to become the Beloved Community.

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