Q: I know that old hurts die hard, including some that continue to plague our congregation. Example: A family with many extended members felt hurt and not properly cared for by a previous pastor. They complained, but the pastor was supported by members of a rival family, also quite large and influential in the parish. This was many years ago. The pastor is now gone. Also gone are the original family members who complained about the pastor as well as those who defended him. Yet, members of each family still fight with each other, making what should be easy decisions about important things in our church very hard to make. I was a younger member of the church when the big conflict happened. Now I am the congregational chairman. We have important things to work on, and yet we seem unable to get passed this old conflict. If a proposal–even one that makes good sense–is connected to one of the extended families, people from the other family oppose it, and vice versa. Both sides invent reasons for opposing what the other side would do. This hurts us all. Our current pastor gets caught up in this because if he wants to try something out and is supported by one or more members of one of the families, he is opposed by the other. We need to move forward but are stuck. What can the Synod do? Will you offer us some suggestions? Help!
A: Perhaps if we gathered all the members of both extended families, exiled them to a desert island, and told them that they could come back off the island only after they settled their differences in such a way as not to freeze the ministry movement of your church, things would improve. Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps even a caustic, suggestion, born out of the frustration of what you have experienced. But it does speak to the merit of placing conflicted folks in contained situations to work things out. Thus, here is my basic suggestion:
Call together several key members of both families. In your invitation tell them you believe their conflict is getting in the way of the overall ministry of the parish, that this ongoing conflict cannot in any way be God-pleasing, and that you’d like to begin discussions concerning the sources of the conflict. You, as the congregational chairman, along with the pastor and perhaps one other respected senior person in the congregation (or a person who understands family and organizational dynamics), would participate with the families. This coming together would begin with prayer and get directly at your concerns. Lay out your concerns (briefly), and seek the help of both families in working on what they need to do to free up this conflict. Insist on the ground rule that everyone speaks respectfully and keeps his or her eyes on the cross of Christ. Do not expect to work everything out in one meeting. Rather, work toward implementing a process that keeps people meeting and moving in the right direction.
Many ways of dealing with conflict are unhealthy, such as when people act out a particular issue of the conflict–often a personal one–rather than addressing the essential, core issues. The closer you get to the people involved, the clearer it becomes that the real issues involved are only the platform on which the personal issues are played out. Thus, these more personal issues must be addressed if the overall conflict is to be dealt with and if some form of reconciliation, or at least a truce in the active conflict, is to take place.
The idea here is to make it known to the parties of the ongoing conflict that (1) their conflict is detrimental to the life of the church, (2) their conflict is rooted as much in personal issues as in the more substantive issues of the conflict, and (3) you and others in leadership are determined to set a tone to work at these issues directly and in an ongoing way.
I will continue my response in my next column. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from our readers as well.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted March 31, 2005