With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Two questions with similar concerns came to “Pressure Points” over the last two months. Those questions and my answers follow.
Q: There are few polite ways to tell you what is going on in our church. We just fight over everything. People are dissatisfied. But instead of buttoning their lips or working it out between them, they see justification for whatever they want to say. It is all over. Few people like our pastor. But there are disagreements every time we make a decision that really does not involve him, so it is not just him. Members are leaving. They are tired of the fighting. Any thoughts or advice?
Q: As a congregational leader — I am ashamed to say, although it is the truth — I have difficulty trusting some of my fellow leaders. They seem to have it in for some of us in church leadership, including the pastor. So when I go to meetings, I have my guard up. Most certainly, we are not working together. I cannot work with people that I do not trust. I think I will resign. What do you think?
A: My heart goes out to both writers. Any organization with this amount of distress and discord will in slower or faster ways lose its energy and capacity for health. It is even more painful when the organization involved is a congregation.
As you who posed these questions clearly know from your experience, trust is the foundation of our being together in community. While only Christ is totally trustworthy, we as His baptized followers pray that the Holy Spirit will work in us, for us to be faithful and trustworthy.
I have found two secular books helpful in understanding the trust question from the standpoint of human reason. Neither book is written from a Christian standpoint and both address this matter only in a general way as it pertains to organizations.
One is Peter Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Lencioni writes in that book, “In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another” (Page 195).
Just substitute “congregation” for “team.” The absence of trust makes teamwork all but impossible.
The other is Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust.
In that book, Covey suggests that there are “taxes” on an organization where there is a problem at the trust level. Among them are “labeling of others as enemies or allies,” “guarded communication,” “constant worrying and suspicion,” “mistakes remembered and used as weapons” and “evidence gathering of other party’s weaknesses and mistakes” — all found on Page 22. These are taxes because they drain the energy of the organization, including the congregation. This is what you appear to be experiencing.
It may be helpful for you and your colleagues to read these books for the general organizational insights they provide. Once it is clear that relative absence of trust is indeed a major problem that impedes the work of the congregation and sucks up its energy, then you can move to a remedy. The remedy begins though, not with trying to change others, but rather with oneself.
I urge you prayerfully to reconsider any plans to resign either your membership or your position of leadership in the congregation. Instead, please read and consider Ephesians 4 (especially verses 1-4, 15-16 and 29-32). Pray that God’s Holy Spirit will work in you and your congregation through Word and Sacrament to seek “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3) and to speak “the truth in love” (v. 15). Let His Spirit lead you into a respectful humility, gentleness and patience that bears with others (vv. 2-3). Ask anyone you may have offended to forgive you and be quick to forgive others. Encourage other baptized people to come together with you, under your pastor’s leadership, in a setting where you will “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (v. 32).
While chronic conflict is certainly frustrating, it is not hopeless.
We all come to the foot of Christ’s Cross with our own vulnerability and sinfulness. There we find forgiveness, love and acceptance, because it is Christ in Whom we finally trust.
The Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is associate dean of Ministerial Formation and director of M.Div./Alternate Route programs at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted April 25, 2012