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In congregational conflicts, when we try to win, everyone may lose

Its no surprise that, once in awhile, I get a call from a church in conflict.  Most of these are of four different kinds: 1) the folks in the church don’t have enough information to come to some sort of final decision; 2)

mike denton

Mike Denton
Pacific NW
Conference Minister

the church is avoiding a decision that they know will upset a good number of people one way or another; 3) there is a disagreement about the style, vision or reason for their life together, or 4) there is disagreement about leadership styles and practices. 

The vast majority of time, people come into these conversations with the full expectation they’ll figure out some compromised decision, a different understanding of the situation or even something new. The work isn’t easy but its good work. Its congregationalism at its best.  These are healthy conflicts to have and every church, even if they don’t call me, should have this kind of conversation once in awhile.

However, there’s one element that, if added it, will ruin the conversation every time and, unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more common.  If a group or individual involved in the conflict insists on winning instead of negotiating, the conversation is almost over before it begins and will cause long-term damage to the congregation. 

Congregationalism, as it applies to decision making, means that the local congregation discerns how to serve Christ in their context and makes decisions that are best in service of that mission as well as the health of the congregation that is called to carry out that mission.  When people insist on what will best serve themselves, that’s not congregationalism but a negative form of individualism.

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That’s not to suggest that, as individuals, we shouldn’t share within the congregation what we like, what we prefer or what we find helpful.  It doesn’t mean we don’t say when our feelings are hurt or don’t express our opinions when a decision is made or suggested that we disagree with.  To hear and share these things in the community called a congregation is part of our commitment to each other. 

This gives the congregation an opportunity to respond to and serve each other.  It gives us an opportunity to seek out a better way.

We have to go into these conversations, however, with the clear understanding that the response or the decision is not ours alone, in the end.  Its the congregation’s.  We may disagree with it.  We may want to work to change the congregation’s opinion. 

However, the means by which we disagree or work to change the congregation’s opinion should have limits.  Congregational activism is great but that’s different from declaring war on those you disagree with.  The first is defined by the opportunity to build relationships.  The second is defined by the way it destroys them.

We have churches that have gone through these wars.  In some cases, these wars are a far off memory that is still full of pain and is still effecting how the congregation makes its decisions today.  In others, these wars are current or recent and the congregations themselves are barely holding on. 

There are also too many congregations whose doors closed long ago and whose names we no longer remember.

We all lose when we try to only to win.  At these moments, we are only at our worst.

Its not just us, of course. 

Forgive what might seem like a tangent here but this style of being in relationship is not just destroying churches but it’s also destroying families, communities and our country as a whole. 

It might be suggested we’re post-denominational, post-racial or post-this or post-that.  To some degree, that’s true; but only to a degree.  The reality is that although we might be post any of these larger categorizations, we’re becoming increasingly entrenched in smaller and smaller categories and groups. 

Those things that used to be secondary ways of categorizing who we might be are becoming primary and the market and political forces that benefit have us plugged in to all these categories so that they can manipulate us better. They need us to defend them to the death.

If we want to find our way to a better way that doesn’t idealize the past or accept this as our future, we have to, well, calm down a bit and step away from our insistence on winning. 

We have to do things differently.  I really don’t know all the answers here, but in the church we need to start with our faith.

I think it might go something like this:

We stop.  We pray.  We listen.  We pray.  We ask for forgiveness.  We pray.  We offer forgiveness.  We pray.  We make a plan to move forward.  We pray.  We live in to grace.  We pray.  We love.  We pray.  We promise that if we find ourselves heading down the wrong path again, we’ll repeat this cycle until we get it right, and then we pray once more...

Again, we all lose when we try only to win.


Copyright February-March 2015 © Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


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