Green Burial 101
Practicing Pluralism
Crisis Planning in Congregations, UUA Districts & Regions

A simple, useful tool kit for dealing positively with the conflict that is part of the life of even the healthiest of congregations and also will give guidelines for when to call in outside assistance.

Leaders: the late Rev. Georgette Wonders (right), who was minister at Bradford Community Church UU, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Rev. Ian Evison, Congregational Life Consultant Lead for MidAmerica Region.

Practicing Pluralism Resources (PDF)

Frequent Church Stressors and Issues

  • Loss of a longtime clergy member
  • Mismanagement of financial resource
  • Clergy or other church leaders sexually acting out
  • New building program (actual or proposed)
  • Forced resignation of clergy or staff
  • Steady or sudden loss of membership
  • Important changes in the lives of congregation’s leaders (divorce, job change, health issues etc.)
  • Intense staff conflict
  • Major facilities loss or destruction
  • Chronic, nagging complaints
  • Sudden death of a child or children
  • Economic depression in the larger community
  • Rifts between clergy and congregation
  • Perennial shortages of money
  • Conflicting goals (growth, changes, liturgy, programs etc

Sources of Church Conflict

  1. People disagree about values and beliefs
  2. The congregation’s organizational leadership structure is unclear (roles, decision making etc.)
  3. The pastor’s role and responsibilities are unclear and a source of disagreement in the congregation
  4. The congregation’s organizational structure no longer fits its size
  5. The clergy and organizational leadership styles and goals don’t match
  6. The clergy makes hurried changes without the congregation’s support
  7. Communication lines are inadequate and mechanisms for voices concerns and ideas are unclear
  8. The Congregation has a culture of dealing with conflict in unproductive ways
  9. Disaffected church members want control over the congregation’s power and resources

Adapted from Conflict Management in Congregations by Speed Leas by Dan Wiseman

Communicating During Conflict

  1. Create the Space: Find a time and place when you and the other parties are ready and in a state of mind to discuss the issues. Be realistic about how much time is needed. Think about whether a third party is needed (see levels of conflict). Be sure you have all the information you need. The space needs to be comfortable and neutral
  2. Be Open: Seek first to understand. Be open to other views or ways of seeking the situation. Be non-reactive if possible. Try to find common interest to start negotiating.
  3. Be an Active Listener: Try paraphrasing or summarizing what you have heard the other person say. Use a talking stick. Be clear and precise what you respond.
  4. Be specific: Do not try to say too much or use inflammatory language. Think about what you want. Use I statements.. (I feel, I am concerned about, this is how I can impact by— etc.)
  5. Separate inventing from deciding: Generate multiple options before voting on what actions may be taken. Discuss how decisions are going to be made and by whom. Use techniques like the ask Why 5 time to get at root causes.
  6. Speak for yourself: Let others have their say. Respect the rights of those not present.
  7. Use a Parking Lot Process: Set aside issues not appropriate to the meeting or for which you do not have enough information or the right people to deal with. Record items on another sheet of paper and keep going.
  8. Focus on Interests not Positions: Try to elicit the real concerns not the solutions or answers. Use language like “help me understand the reasoning on that” “Or how does this issue impact you”?
  9. Clarify your intentions: Ask “what are your needs and intentions?” Or “what is your purpose? Or “What would you like out of this process?” Frame the discussion and the assumptions you have made coming into the session. Check for understanding of your assumptions.
  10. Generate proposals: Such as “What I suggest is”….? “We could do”..? “My preference is to” …
  11. Agree on what you can: Focus on areas of common agreement or even agreement on the process being used. Say “I can agree with you on that”…” Or “it seems as if we both agree on”….?


Validating, validating, validating Advocating for either party
Reframing Giving advice
Clarifying Legal advising
Use of nouns, not adjectives Acting as an attorney
Encouraging parties to talk Getting emotionally involved
Listening non-judgmentally Arguing with disputants
Not assuming Disagreeing with disputants
Setting the tone Taking sides
Building trust Blaming
Restating what you’ve heard Functioning as a therapist
Generating optimism with parties’ ability to resolve dispute Dictating solutions/settlements
Modeling communication skills Preaching
Identifying/clarifying interests, needs Judging/moralizing language
Assisting in negotiation Insulting/degrading language
Neutrality Shaking head to agree/disagree
Face-saving techniques Doodling on your paper
Validating, validating, validating Acting out, internal bias, imposing our values, opposing their values (invalidating their values)


Conflict takes different shape according to its level of intensity, and can escalate from creative everyday living into living hell, through a sequence of five stages:

  1. Every conflict is born as a problem to solve. Life offers us problems to solve every day. We don’t call them conflicts because they don’t scare us; they kindle creativity. Neo-cortex abuzz and in full charge, we revel in reasoning them through.
  2. But anxiety begins to rise when we worry if we’ll come out okay or wonder if maybe someone’s at fault here. The older mammalian brain awakens to potential danger, and the matter escalates into disagreement. Concern builds, and we seek safety, generalize the problem, and cease to share all we know.
  3. As open communication breaks down, the problem escalates further into a contest. We line up sides, and strive to win. This is familiar ground. Games are contests, often zestful and exciting. But once problems become contests, we succumb to either/or thinking, and our opponent becomes someone to beat.
  4. Turn up the fire a bit, and “beat” mutates into “beat up.” The reptilian brain kicks in, and players are in a battle for survival. It’s fight or flight now. Ideas mire into ideologies. We aim to prevail and to punish.
  5. The battle can escalate still further, until players perceive their opponents as evil, and dare not stop fighting. Now we’re at war, and saving the world justifies any means.

NOTE ABOVEthat communication between people grows increasingly indirect, filtered and distant. This shutting down of communication is the critical factor in the escalation of conflict. Without reversing this there is little hope of resolution.

Relating Unitarian Universalist principles to these levels —

It’s clear that our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is the operating premise at level 1.

Some doubt may arise at level 2, but our third principle serves well: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, in this case a spirit of mutuality and goodwill.

By level 3, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process (our 5th principle) is in play, with winners being determined by majority vote. By level 4, however, survival instincts are kicking in, and our principles do not prevail.

MKeip / 6-2003

Conflict Management Phases

A guide to tools and methods for each phase

By Dan Wiseman

1. Prevention

  • Love is the ultimate prevention tool - easy to say, hard to do!
  • Self Care-learning about yourself, becoming a vibrant person, managing stress
  • Root cause solutions to human dilemmas (Social, Economic, Justice Systems, Health Care, Education etc)
  • Bridge Building across cultures, preferences and races
  • Mindfulness
  • Using humor but not sarcasm

2. Clarification of Issues-what are we fighting about

  • Listening actively
  • Creating timely feedback systems
  • Articulating your needs, intentions and concerns
  • Gathering data jointly
  • Deciding if it is worth fighting about?
  • Exploring to see if any easy solutions exist?

3. Assessing Readiness for Change

  • What is our BATNA (best alternative to not negotiating with each other)
  • What are the stakes for each of us
  • Can we change-skills, rewards, control of our lives, system
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Availability of third party facilitators and resources
  • Creating physical space and time

4. Exploring Options for Win-Win Solutions

  • Creativity Tools (Debono, Roger Van Ouch etc.)
  • Group Dynamic
  • Criteria Screening
  • Defining success and decision making
  • Interest based negotiation
  • Designing experiments
  • Looking for quick wins to create momentum

5. Implementation and Evaluation

  • Action Planning and Clear Next Steps
  • Communication to stakeholders
  • Short term wins
  • Evaluation Criteria
  • Recognizing success and making corrections
  • Observing how it is working

Webinar originally presented April 2011

About the Author

  • Ian is a UU minister who has served in a variety of ministries, including parish ministry, theological education, a research project at the University of Chicago in Family and Religion...

For more information contact

Like, Share, Print, or Bookmark

Section Menu