All congregations have conflict. So, the question really isn’t “is there conflict?” – we know it is there. The real question is “how do you manage the conflict you have?” Or put another way, is this congregation a place where people can say “I was wrong and I am sorry” and receive an open and loving response in return. High levels of conflict that remain unmanaged or unhealed in congregations can be painful for everyone. They often result in a loss of missional focus, a loss of membership, burnt-out leadership, a loss of the sense of family, and a deterioration in our spiritual life together as a congregation.
The questions that bring conflict to light in the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) ask whether folks are feeling there is a disturbing amount of conflict, if they move through conflict by mutual effort, if there is a healthy tolerance of differing beliefs and opinions, and if there is frequently a small group of people that oppose how the majority wants to move forward. Sometimes these questions in the CAT will reveal that a congregation has become extremely conflicted. When we review the data with these congregations there are often tears, as well as the frustration of feeling so stuck in the conflict, and many times, deep sighs and a statement that “it is nice to just finally admit that there is conflict out loud.” We always say to these congregations this is your story today but it doesn’t have to be your story tomorrow with the warning that the road ahead will take commitment and intentional steps.
In 2015, a congregation in New England took the CAT while in a pastoral transition. When it was compared to other 1,500 churches in our database, their dashboard indicated that there were in the 11% in conflict, meaning that 89% of the other congregations in our database were managing their conflict better. This high level of unmanaged conflict had bleed into everything – leaving them with low hospitality scores (8%, or 92% of the other churches were more hospitable), low morale (24%), and affecting all of the other performance areas where we want them to be doing well.
After working through the review of their data with the support of their Synod, this congregation had to decide what to do. Prayerfully, they chose to own the data, recognizing that it was time to deal with their conflict and started their new story.
This congregation realized that during this time of pastoral transition they would need help to clearly address and respond to the conflict. They couldn’t rush forward to call a new pastor without serious self-reflection and initial steps. They instead hired a skilled Intentional Interim who led a series of cottage meetings, openly discussed concerns, and directly addressed what had become “the two sides” engaging conversation and reconciliation.
The congregational leadership then prepared an honest profile to call a new pastor. They were better able to articulate both the skills needed in their next pastor and the challenges they still faced as a congregation. The congregation was transparent about the tremendous steps they’d taken with the strong leadership of their interim, acknowledging that there was still work to be done in moving forward.
When they found their new permanent pastoral leadership, that person came with the experience they needed – because the congregation knew exactly what they truly needed and were honest with their pastoral candidates. Their new pastor brought experience, strong mediation and communication skills, and a great deal of enthusiasm and energy for ministry. Together, they continue to face some challenges but the match is strong and the foundation for moving forward was strongly set with their Intentional Interim.
This same congregation ran the CAT again and we sent them their new reports two weeks ago. This is their new dashboard – their morale is in the 79%, conflict levels are at the 55%, and look at the hostility score moving up:
This is a congregation that has made enormous strides in the last two years. If you asked this congregation, their middle judicatory team, or their pastors, I am sure they would say it has been a lot of work. But their ability to say “this is our story today but it wouldn’t and it can’t be our story tomorrow” has allowed God to move them closer towards true healing.
I would like to extend my gratitude to both the congregation and the New England Synod for allowing us to share in this work. When we see the data tell this kind of story we jump out of our chairs at Holy Cow! Consulting because this is why we do what we do – not so that congregations can have a lot of numbers and statistics, but instead, so that congregations can see where they truly are now so they can become and move to who they are called to be.
-Emily Swanson, President of Holy Cow! Consulting