Over 90% of us, psychologists claim, are fairly serious, go-out-of-our-way conflict avoiders! We’re path-of-least-resistance people. I’m guessing that if surveys were done only in the South, the conflict avoiders would be north of 95%. Not that we wouldn’t “bless her heart” in private criticism. And again, if we’re talking church congregational populations in the South, I’d put my money on over 98%. Some will criticize the preacher or the music program, others will passively aggressively undermine ministry or people, and some conspire (forgive my cynicism, but I’ve seen too much—for instance, an entire Sunday School class) to just stop giving, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of getting rid of a staff person or program by creating a budget crisis without ever having to have the slightest confrontation or direct communication, much less direct conflict. All this doesn’t take into account the chief weapon of cowardly conflict avoiders; namely anonymous communications.
Here’s the thing, though. Conflict is unavoidable. Any pastor or marriage counselor will speak to a couple about when, not if, a couple will have conflict. The way we address conflict—or don’t—in any relationship, including in a congregational family, often makes the difference between reconciliation and completely broken relationships.
No, I don’t think I’m having a particularly bad day or thinking about any particular recent or past conflict as I write this. But if our Old Testament and New Testament scriptures are all about relationship with God and with each other, they are also clear in giving us instructions for dealing with conflict in healthy and life-giving ways when it comes. I think of Moses judging among the people in Exodus as the people stream in to his court of law until he is overwhelmed and worn out, and Jethro, his father-in-law, insisting that Moses raise up helpers to mediate conflicts. In Matthew 18 (part of all of our congregational constitutions), Jesus gives us a step-by-step process of approaching conflict directly. Go directly to the offender, then take a friend as a witness, then take it to the whole church for resolution or management.
I say resolution or management because not every conflict is solvable. Some are. The ones that aren’t can often be managed on a spectrum. Addiction, for instance, from which our best hope is to be “in recovery” (managed) and not “cured” (solved). Strict or lenient with our children? Well, that depends on the particular child and on the situation.
With the addition to our bishop’s staff of Pastor Danielle DeNise as our Director for Evangelical Mission, Pastor Sara Ilderton as a bishop’s assistant, and Deacon Tammy Jones West’s having taken on more responsibility as a bishop’s assistant as well, our staff has taken the opportunity to re-think our synodical strategy for helping intervene in and manage congregational conflict.
Sara and I will always handle sexual misconducts together. Financial conflicts will be handled by Michael DeNise, the synod’s director of finance and administration and me. Bishop’s assistant, Pastor Phil Tonnesen will be our go-to general conflict person in eastern NC, Sara will be central NC, and Tammy will be western NC. I will be aware of and, on a case-by-case basis, involved in all of those areas. We all together last month went through conflict training so that we could present a unified approach to conflict management in the synod.
Generally, if a report of conflict is from someone other than the congregation council president or a rostered minister, we will suggest that the issue needs to be first addressed to the rostered minister there and/or the council president. We will not come and visit with a congregation council in a secret meeting. A rostered minister will need to be informed that the synod staff’s intervention has been requested. If a complaint is anonymous, we may worry about it but we cannot act on it.
We wish and pray for minimal conflict in your congregation, but when it comes, your synod staff is here to help.
Bishop Tim Smith