In Times of Trouble, Call Conflict Resolution Team

Try as we might, conflict is a part of life in many of our congregations. A group may not like the direction the church is going. Someone feels left out. There is too much spirituality on Sunday morning. Or not enough. The minister or religious educator is going down the wrong path.

Sometimes we try to pretend everything's fine. But conflict seldom goes away by itself. And it often gets worse.

That is why the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) many years ago formed a team to address conflict. First called the Conflict Training, Assessment, and Consultation Team (CONTACT) and now the Healthy Congregations team, it is composed of ten lay leaders and church professionals. Its members visit congregations experiencing conflict and help them find ways to resolve it.

The team visits six to seven congregations a year, says Rev. Bruce Davis, minister at Evergreen Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship, Marysville, WA, and co-leader of the team. Davis tells the story of a three hundred member congregation the team visited. "It was having intense conflict with the minister. Many thought it was time for the minister to move on, but there was a strong contingent that felt the minister was not being given a fair shake." The team did an assessment, got a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the minister, and talked to about half the members of the congregation.

The minister ultimately decided to leave, and the Healthy Congregations team helped coordinate that separation and then talked with the congregation about some of the issues that led to this ministry being shortened. "We offered a variety of recommendations including board leadership work," says Davis. "Now the congregation is working in much healthier ways. The leadership is delighted with the process, and the congregation is in a much healthier place."

Janine Larsen, district executive of the Pacific Northwest District (PNWD), was vice president of the Woodinville UU Church, Woodinville, WA, when it developed a conflict several years ago. It was struggling to raise money to buy land and build its first building while it was sharing space in another congregation's building and holding services on Sunday afternoons. Attendance had dropped and some blamed the minister.

The district team helped the congregation see that more was going on than simple dissatisfaction with the minister. "Almost always when a congregation comes to us it's under stress from several issues," Larsen says. "Often it's because of growth issues, when a congregation is moving up or down in size."

"When the team came in," Larsen says, "we didn't know how deep the issue was or what all was involved. The team held neighborhood meetings with us and interviewed leaders. We had opportunities to listen to each other. The folks who thought it was time for the minister to go learned from others that they thought the minister was doing a fine job."

As a result of the team visit, the church developed an internal conflict resolution policy, strengthened the role of the Committee on Ministry, and the leadership learned ways of leading a community under stress.

The minister still left, but because of the team visit, the congregation was able to have a good parting with him, celebrating what they had accomplished together. Now the congregation, which has a new building, is beginning to grow again. Sunday attendance has gone from thirty to one hundred, and work has begun on the second phase of a capital campaign.

PNWD congregations are learning that it pays to call the Healthy Congregations team early, says Larsen. At district events the team does workshops for leaders on what healthy congregations look like, and how to recognize conflict. The cost of having the team come in can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand. Fees can be waived in some circumstances.

In her 1999 book, Churchworks: A Well-Body Book for Congregations, available through the UUA Bookstore, Rev. Anne Heller, former district executive for the PNWD, highlights five levels of conflict, taken from work by Alban Institute consultant Speed Leas. Davis describes them as follows:

  1. The Problem: This level is simple problem-solving. I win. You win.
  2. The Disagreement: We struggle, but still want both sides to win. We need someone to listen to us and help us move forward. Davis says a mid-sized congregation recently asked the team to help it sort out a Level 2 conflict it was having with its religious education program. The religious education group felt less supported by the congregation than in previous years. In a single three-hour meeting the consultants listened as forty people spoke. It turned out that the congregation had gained many older members who were less focused on religious education. The consultation helped the congregation become aware of the religious education issue. Says Davis, "Our consultants did a great job of listening, and the individuals involved did a great job of speaking their truth. Those involved in religious education expressed their concerns, and others recommitted themselves to a dynamic religious education program. What was most thrilling about this consultation was the solid recommitment of everyone to the needs of the children and the realization that membership growth itself stresses even the healthiest congregations."
  3. The Contest: One side intends to win and have the other side lose. Mudslinging begins, and information is distorted. "We do a lot of Level 3 work," says Davis.
  4. The Crusade: One side wants to win and banish the losers. Groups don't talk to each other. They sit apart in the Sunday service. Some members may quit. There may be a move to fire the minister. Says Davis, "The most common work we do as a team is a Level 3 conflict moving to a Level 4. The outcome of a Level 4 often is a split or separation in the congregation. Often the minister or religious educator resigns or a faction of the congregation leaves. And often a separation does have to happen. Then our job is to facilitate a process much like a mediator might facilitate a divorce."
  5. The War of the Worlds: I win; I try to damage your reputation. "There's no way for our Healthy Congregations team to help in a Level 5 situation," says Davis. "That's when lawyers get involved."

For a Level 1 or 2 conflict the team may be able to do its work in one or two visits. A high Level 3 or 4 requires a full assessment, which involves one or two weekend visits, then returning to make recommendations. Davis says most congregations will implement most of the recommendations. "They may not like what we suggest, but it's painful to stay where they are."

The first step for congregations experiencing conflict that seems unresolvable from within is to contact their district executive, Davis says. All districts have procedures for resolving conflicts.

A woman who was president of a mid-sized PNWD congregation when it called in the team in response to a conflict says, "Even though it took courage to examine ourselves, the process set us off on a much healthier course as a community. We have challenges ahead, but we're facing them more realistically. It meant a lot to have help and guidance during that time."

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.

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