Review: How to Lead in Church Conflict

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For K. Brynolf “Bernie” Lyon and Dan P. Moseley, neither conflict nor leadership is quite so simple as many popular books would have us believe. For them, the most important answers to leading through conflict lie not in convenient steps to success, but in the ability to wrestle with the complexities of ungrieved loss within a community. Such is the premise of their new book, How to Lead in Church Conflict: Healing an Ungrieved Loss.

Lyon, a practicing therapist, and seminary professor, and Moseley, an experienced pastor, see conflict as the product of interference and incompatibility. When people within a group realize that their goals cannot be mutually realized, they experience loss—past, present, and anticipated. The strong emotions involved in this grieving process can severely inhibit the community’s function and the leader’s work within it.

In order to lead through conflict, then, a pastor or lay leader needs more than a set of techniques. She needs a perspective from which to understand conflict and loss, a way to help the congregation find its way to more hopeful outcomes. Doing this means learning how to create spaces in which conflict can be held up before a healing God.

Lyon and Moseley’s definition of leadership is quite different than that of popular leadership gurus. They see leadership not as an individual quality, but as a corporate process of cocreation, an interplay between leaders and followers within a group. By this definition, leaders are those who perform a specific function on behalf of the group, one which depends on the dynamic interchange among members. 

In other words, a leader cannot simply take over and lead. Rather, he must recognize within himself and within the congregation the variables that play into the conflict, including who is involved and what capacity the group has for tolerating incompatibility and interference. He must understand how change, conflict, and loss within a church can threaten what is a rare place of stability in a fluid Western society. A leader needs to be able to create space in which grief can be expressed without fear of the group falling apart.

To illustrate their points, the authors relay three vignettes involving common areas of conflict: a pastor adjusting to a difficult family change, a growing church with differing ideas about a building project, and a community split by differing political and theological views. The stories, which serve as case studies for the remaining chapters, demonstrate a deep understanding of conflict not just in an academic sense, but in real-world setting faced by leaders everyday.

One of the authors’ most interesting suggestions is that preaching and liturgy offers a vital opportunity for pastoral leaders to help congregations grieve loss. Worship settings do not solve conflict, but they create an important space in which to grieve loss and open to God’s new work. Done well, worship helps shape the conversation of the community along more helpful and theological lines than are possible while discussing conflict directly in meeting rooms or personal gatherings. 

Perhaps as expected, How to Lead a Church in Conflict is not a quick, simple read. Although well-written, its key premises are at times complex and always intertwined. Still, the authors’ perspective on both conflict and leadership gives clergy and lay leaders a much-needed viewpoint from which to discern their place in guiding their congregations through difficult times.

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