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Keeping Church Conflict Within Healthy Limits

When a congregation on the east coast had to decide whether to sell its former parsonage, a beloved old building that needed lots of work, the process began painfully. An emotional congregational meeting ensued when members were asked to vote, without being given the skills to negotiate strong differences.

Over the next year three leaders from within the congregation worked on educating members about the larger financial context of the issue and engaged them in deep conversations about the church’s mission. When it was suggested by some that the leaders might favor one side over the other, a consultant from a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) district office was called in. The consultant built on the earlier work and helped the congregation develop agreements for managing difficult conversations, changing the tone from adversarial advocacy to respectful inquiry. The consultant also trained leaders in how to prepare for a congregational meeting, including making sure everyone had a chance to speak and that people spoke only for themselves. In the end the congregation decided to sell the building and even those who didn’t agree with that outcome acknowledged the process was fair.

What’s a congregation to do when conflict threatens? “The best thing is to seek help before it gets to that point,” says Rev. Terasa Cooley, district executive for the UUA’s Massachusetts Bay District. “If there’s even the slightest hint that something is going on that the congregation might not be able to resolve by itself, call your district executive. And do it early.”

Cooley can tell you what not to do. “Don’t wait until after you’ve done a survey or held a big congregational meeting. I can’t tell you how many times I get a call, ‘We did a survey about our ministry and now we need to talk with you about what to do with the information.’ At that point it’s three-quarters too late for me to help. I find surveys to be the most unhelpful instrument to assess ministry.” The problem, she says, is that they allow anonymous negative comments and can polarize a congregation.

Direct communication is important. Don’t leave anonymous notes or letters for a minister or board president, says Cooley. And don’t expect a committee on ministry to solve a problem you might have with a minister. Speak with the minister about it.

Rev. Susan Manker-Seale, minister at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation of NW Tucson, has worked with congregations in crisis. It’s not uncommon, she said, for congregants to focus misplaced anxiety on the minister or board president rather than dealing with the real issues. It’s important to redirect that anxiety, she says, and to treat all parties with respect.

“Be aware that any change in congregational life can bring conflict,” she adds. “There is a loss involved in any change. People don’t always know what to do with their feelings when change occurs.”

District staff cannot consult with a congregation unless they are invited,  generally by the minister or board chair. “If we get a call from a member, we are obligated to ask them if they’ve talked with the minister,” says Cooley. “If they haven’t I tell them I’ll need to tell the minister we had this conversation.” The exception is situations involving ministerial misconduct.

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About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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