Church Skills: Being Conflict Savvy

We’ve all seen it happen. A church meeting is almost over when someone says, “There is one thing I’ve been wanting to say…” The person then goes on to name something that has been lurking around the edges of the discussion or in the back of people’s minds.  Rarely, the topic is a complete surprise. Soon the temperature in the room begins to rise and it’s clear people have a lot to say. A conversation that was quiet and reserved–even boring–suddenly shifts and people are speaking with force and passion.

Most often the topic being raised is one that wasn’t on the agenda.  Sometimes it’s a dissenting opinion about a decision that has already been made.  Maybe it’s a report that an old issue seems to be reemerging and “some people” are dissatisfied. Maybe it’s anger at something that was or wasn’t said in a sermon. Whatever the presenting issue, its emergence interrupts the culture of calm agreement that seemed to exist before it was suddenly raised.

It doesn’t take long for you to notice the shift in energy and intensity. It may make you uncomfortable or you may feel relief. You may think “Why are we talking about that again?” or “Why don’t they get it?” or “It was all going so well. What happened?” You may hear yourself say, “I’ve been feeling this way a long time, but I didn’t want to cause trouble…” If you’re running the meeting, you may find yourself feeling more and more overwhelmed. The discussion may feel like it’s getting out of control. You may even discover you are running the meeting with a style that surprises you. Perhaps you notice you are getting more and more passive or suddenly relying on Robert’s Rules of Order when you usually abhor heavy-handed parliamentary procedure. At the very least, you notice that you are getting uncomfortable.

Congratulations. You’ve noticed something important. You’ve recognized (in yourself as well as the surrounding discussion) the presence of what is often called “low-level conflict” and its ubiquitous companion, anxiety. You really do deserve congratulations. Noticing that anxiety is present is a very important first step. Once you notice, you can evaluate the situation and decided what to do. Here are some suggestions:

First, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that everyone in the room cares deeply about the congregation. More than once, I’ve kept myself from moving to a very unhelpful place of judgement by repeating to myself, “They really love this church too.” Remembering this helps me begin to look for the deeper values that people I disagree with are trying to promote or protect. Sometimes it’s hard, but even when I don’t completely understand, I can at least see in a person’s passion that they truly, deeply care and can honor that.

Second, remember that it’s always better for disagreement and dissatisfaction to be spoken. Conflict that goes underground does nothing but grow.  Feelings that remain unspoken escalate, often until they come out with a force that surprises and sometimes does harm. Try to appreciate the courage it took to bring an issue into the open. If you can do it sincerely, thank the person who took the risk to be honest.

That’s it for now. In my next post, I’ll begin to talk about some of the elements that can be helpful and healthy responses when conflicts arise.

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3 thoughts on “Church Skills: Being Conflict Savvy

  1. Great post — looking forward to the next. I like that you wrote, “Noticing that anxiety is present is a very important first step.” As someone naturally conflict-averse, I’ve developed an appreciation for breathing through the “pain” and allowing the process to happen. (Yes, that’s deliberately an allusion to childbirth — I think it teaches a lot about process!)

    And I think people become believers … once they’ve experienced the anxiety, then seen the arc as a conflict is dealt with, head-on, but respectfully — they say, hey, you really can do this, and it work!

  2. It’s the church equivalent of the classic detective scene from the movies. Detective finishes grilling a suspect. The suspect is free to go. Whew. Just as he hits the door, the detective says, “Uh, before you go just one more thing….BAM”

  3. “Try to appreciate the courage it took to bring an issue into the open. If you can do it sincerely, thank the person who took the risk to be honest.”

    I must say that it was a refreshing change from what I usually hear from U*Us when I share my concerns about the UUA’s unjust, “less than equitable” and far from compassionate (mis)handling of clergy misconduct complaints, and various other U*U injustices and abuses, when UUA Trustee-at-Large, and member of the UUA’s ‘Excellence In Ministry Working Group’, Rev. Jeanne Pupke openly thanked me for coming to observe the April 2010 Board of Trustees and share my concerns about “less than excellent” U*U ministers and “less than perfect” MFC policies and procedures. On the whole I was reasonably well received by the UUA Board of Trustees even though a good number of them didn’t *really* want to hear what I had to say. OTOH I expect most if not all of them didn’t want me standing out in front of 25 Beacon Street with “less than flattering” picket sign slogans either.

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