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Conflict Management in Unitarian Universalist Congregations

Hello, I’m The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, Program and Strategy Officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

I frequently get calls from congregations struggling with conflict. Conflicts can be scary when they threaten to rupture or divide our precious community connections and relationships with one another, and we often seek help to resolve these issues.

Yet I’ve learned that conflicts actually present great opportunities for building community by examining together what we value the most, and clarifying our purpose and mission as a community.

Conflicts arise naturally simply because of the basic fact that we are different from one another! As Unitarian Universalists, we honor and celebrate difference, but often struggle with how to negotiate these differences when it comes to making decisions or taking positions. Congregational growth, perspectives on ministry, staffing decisions, budgetary issues—all provoke sometimes wildly varying viewpoints among us. It would be strange if we didn’t have conflicts about these very important concerns.

In my work with conflict I have found a number of things to be helpful:

  • Manage your own anxiety. As scary as conflicts may be to us, if our fears or anxiety overtakes us, we will not be effective in helping a congregation manage conflict. Its not that you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel your emotions, but it is important to find a way to manage them so that there is maximum ability for everyone to feel some openness in expressing their concerns without overwrought feelings shutting things down. Breathe. 
  • Try to find the learning opportunity in a conflict. What is it that all of us need to learn about what is important to us as a community? Asking the broad and deep questions in an open and deliberate way can get you “unstuck” from haggling over a particular issue.
  • Understand that a particular issue is always a part of a larger emotional system operating in a community. Rarely is a conflict only about a particular issue or person, as much as it may seem like that at the time. Find some help in uncovering the deeper concerns at play without scapegoating a particular person or engaging in the fantasy that you can “solve the problem.”
  • Build safety into your communal interactions. Create congregational or group covenants in which you can name behaviors that might get in the way of healthy exchanges and deep dialogue. Using techniques such as “listening circles,” appreciative inquiry, and story-telling exercises can actually build community in the midst of conflict.
  • Above all, ask for help! Call your District Services office and utilize outside facilitators whenever possible so that you can gain the largest possible perspective on what’s happening. We are happy to help.

Terasa Cooley
conflictmgmt @ uua.org

Understanding Conflict

  • The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, John Paul Lederach, Good Books, 1969.
    Lederach is the architect of the “Conflict Transformation” movement which has helped bring healing in intractable international conflicts, as well as providing a framework for understanding conflict as more than something needing “mediation” or “resolution” but instead as an opportunity for learning.
  • Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations, David Brubaker, Alban Institute, 2009.

Understanding Systems and Leadership in the Midst of Conflict

  • A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman, Seabury Books, 2007.
    The posthumously published lectures of the preeminent theorist of systems in congregations, this book offers great perspective on taking a larger systemic view of what leaders need to know in times of change.
  • Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders, Gil Rendle, Alban Institute, 1997.
    Gil Rendle provides wisdom and perspective for leaders to understand the cycles of change and how to navigate in the midst of conflict.
  • Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke, Alban Institute, 2006.
    Peter Steinke is a leading congregational consultant who helps congregations understand the systemic roots of the conflicts they experience.
  • The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linski; Harvard Business School Press, 2009.
    Understanding leadership as something which requires learning, adaptation and perspective, this book provides strategies for navigating complex situations and problems.

Tools and Strategies

  • Polarity Management, Barry Johnson, HRD Press, 1996.
    A tool for understanding the ways in which we can navigate between seemingly intractable polar positions.
  • The Art and Architecture of Powerful Questions (PDF, 7 pages), Eric Vogt.
    A process for framing your important questions in a way that opens up rather than shuts down conversation.
  • The Power of a Positive No, William Ury, Bantam, 2007.
    Co-author of Getting to Yes, in this newer book Ury outlines ways in which we can say “no” in a positive way which leads everyone to a deeper understanding of purpose and value.
  • The Little Book of Circle Processes, Kay Pranis, Good Books, 1969.
    An excellent, brief outline of how to conduct listening circle open processes in which all perspectives can be effectively heard.
  • Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, Mark Lau Branson, Alban Institute, 2004.
    Branson utilizes the methods of appreciative inquiry in moving a congregation toward a vision of the future, rather than getting stuck in the past.

For more information contact conglife @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

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