Healing Church Conflict

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Most of our intense conflicts are the result of either the loss or perceived loss of something that is central to our self-identity or sense of well-being. For individuals or groups to continue to live and thrive beyond a loss resulting from change, we believe that they must grieve the loss. As individuals, the fabric of our lives is woven out of memories and experiences, including those associated with work and love. When people have labored and sacrificed a lifetime for jobs that has sustained them and given them a sense of purpose, it is a radical loss when their days are no longer woven with the thread of that purpose. At the loss of a job a person must learn to live again in the absence of that significant purpose-producing activity.

Groups also weave a sense of identity and well-being with the threads of their interactions and activities. The rituals of a church become a way in which persons who are part of the church know themselves. People might say: “We are people who come together and sing those old Gospel songs. When we sing them we are connected to our parents and grandparents and to those who taught us about God. Singing those songs helps us feel grounded in our faith and connects us to God.” If a person comes into that church and starts singing different songs, the group’s sense of itself has been lost. For the church to live beyond that loss, it must learn to live without a significant part of who it knows itself to be.

Much of what we lose in the midst of change, while it produces conflict in us, can be processed relatively easily. The advice that is sometimes given to “get over it” or “just move on” can be easily understood. If we think about it, we can determine that the loss produced by change is not really that important or that what comes from the change is worth the cost. Most of the changes that occur in our lives as a result of changed circumstances are metabolized and absorbed into the new way of doing things. If a church changes from one caterer to another, there may not be much of a crisis. But for a church that moves from potluck dinners during which loving cooks have been offering their culinary gifts for decades and people have been tasting and sharing the spices and recipes for hundreds of meals, the change to a caterer might create more conflict.

The intensity of the conflict is often related to the significance of the well-being and identity of that which has been lost. Therefore leadership in conflict must tend, as Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues have noted, to the losses that are at stake and the ways people tend to defend themselves against those losses.

The intensity of conflict is related to the complexity of the resulting losses as seen through the four kinds of conflict: intrapsychic, intragroup, interpersonal, and intergroup.

Changes in our lives produce losses in one or more of these areas. For example, a mother may experience deep intrapsychic pain over the loss of her child who is going away to college. At the same time, she may be losing the way she relates within the church because she no longer has her child with her in the pew. She may also be losing a connection in the community because she is no longer involved with the PTA at the school. Because of her deep sense of loss and vulnerability, a conflict within the church might take on much more significance to her than it would have done a year earlier when she was not grieving her intrapsychic or intergroup losses.

One other feature of loss in Western culture seems to play an important role in the conflicts that erupt in churches. Persons often hope for a sense of belonging or the security of home that is impossible to achieve completely. Home is where the rituals and practices of life are engrained, creating a sense of safety and a place to rest. This deep sense of home is often central to the religious imagination.14 Achieving this sense of home is especially difficult within the current context of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid times.” In his book Liquid Modernity, Bauman suggests that the times we live in are more fluid than solid. He quotes Paul Valery, who says:

Interruptions, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of our life. They have even become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed . . . by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli . . . We can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit. . . . It is now the smaller, the lighter, the portable that signifies improvement and “progress.” Traveling light, rather than holding on tightly to things deemed attractive for their reliability and solidity--that is, for their heavy weight, substantiality and unyielding power of resistance--is now the asset of power.

He suggests that in the current social and cultural milieu, becoming too grounded in the present form of things inhibits one’s freedom to adapt to new and changing circumstances.

Congregations are places where people seek, in part, some stability, predictability, and pattern that can ground and center their lives. They long to connect with a God on whom they can count. The rituals and liturgies of the church can create a sense of home and give persons an identity as belonging not only to a contemporary community but also to a community with continuity with the past. Of course congregations are also places, theologically speaking, where discontinuity and rupture have historically been, and thus should be expected to be, present. They appropriately can be places where creativity and the breaking in of a new thing are welcomed and encouraged. Yet we have discovered in our work in congregations that because distress and fear are intensified, given the liquid character of our era, congregational conflict frequently emerges and is sustained as congregations fight over false dichotomies, for example, the seemingly conflicting vision of the congregation as a place of either a deep sense of home or a deep sense of transformation. Therefore, the fluid world of contemporary reality creates a critical subtext to the problem of loss in congregational conflict in our time.

Intense conflict in congregations is directly related to the coalition of energies that are enfolded by the ungrieved losses of the individuals and groups. A suggested change to the way the church is going to function or live will raise emotions related to other losses that lie within the individual’s unconscious memory and in the collective unconscious memory of a congregation. Because the conflict has restored the power of those ungrieved losses and they are at work within the effort of the community to make decisions about the future, we believe that a more focused effort in helping congregations grieve is necessary.

In learning to live again in the absence of something or someone significant (that is, to grieve well), it is critical that people (individuals or groups) are encouraged and helped to remember and reexperience the losses that they have and are experiencing. This is often an uncomfortable process because there may be tears and rage. People may feel threatened by their own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others, and that threat evokes discomfort in them. Pastoral sensitivity and patience are critical gifts of the Spirit during these times. The reflections and expressions that are heard reveal the power of the loss, and if they can be exposed and named and re-experienced in a space of grace and mercy, that energy might be released as positive power for the future rather than as a knotty fist of resistance to change. Leadership that helps create stability and solidity within the organization creates a context in which vulnerability might be expressed without fear of the organization becoming unglued.

Leading a community of faith into an unknown future will require the presence of people who can attend to the losses that people fear or will experience when they make changes. The conflict over whether to move from where we are to where we are going, what roads we take to get from here to there, what to leave behind and what to embrace—these and other conflicts will create resistances that will have to be addressed. By helping people grieve the losses that come, leaders will help the energy of embraced blessing to be released for the sake of a new future.

 

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This article is excerpted from the authors' new book, How to Lead in Church Conflict: Healing Ungrieved Loss.

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