The conflict pandemic

Church conflict is on the rise, but it can be managed.

By Bill Wilson

Whenever I address a group about the work our organization does, I mention that one of our frequent calls is to help a congregation, staff, judicatory or organization manage conflict.

Our conflict intervention calls are on the upswing. My colleague, Chris Gambill, goes so far as to say that congregational conflict is pandemic at this point in the 21st century.

I usually ask the group why they think conflict is surging. Most times, they get it right. The primary culprits, in no particular order, seem to be:

-- Loss of civility in our culture. Social scientists have documented the erosion of civility and social capital in a variety of settings. Our current political climate is a searing indictment of the failure of healthy public discourse. We find members of most congregations patterning their behavior in the church after the brutal tactics of our culture rather than the teachings of Christ.

--The Great Recession continues to create high anxiety and stress in the lives of congregation members. Fear about our economic future is the order of the day. Though our currency invites us to properly align our faith (“In God We Trust”), the prevailing mood of congregations is intense anxiety about money, and this is fertile ground for conflict.

-- The metrics of nearly every traditional congregation are grim. David Olson’s research shows that congregations that were birthed prior to 1980 and average less than 2,000 attendees a week are nearly all plateaued or declining. These numbers hold without regard for worship style, theology or location. Such declines, if not managed in a healthy way, become grounds for scapegoating of staff and leadership.

-- Clergy and congregational staff are frazzled, frustrated and on edge. The Great Recession has seen positions downsized or eliminated, salaries stagnate, benefits reduced and perks eliminated. At the same time, the pastoral-care load is growing, as congregants seek out care and guidance through their own crises and struggles. Being asked to do more while simultaneously taking a cut in pay or benefits often sets up clergy to be prone to reactive behavior when disagreements arise.

-- Most congregations are in some stage of discovery about the fact that we now live in a post-Christian culture. The privileged status that we enjoyed for decades is no more. Protestants are for the first time now a minority in the United States population, and their methods and practices are rapidly losing influence and impact after years of success. Things we took for granted no longer hold true, and our resulting anger about this monumental shift in our culture has us poised for reactive and confrontational behavior.

-- Lack of clarity in a congregation about mission and vision, transparent communication and a low level of authentic community. These three “C’s” are nearly always descriptive of congregations experiencing high levels of conflict.

-- The programmatic model of discipleship that we have practiced over the last 60 years has proven unable to build widespread, deeply spiritual disciples on a consistent basis. When we honestly assess the spiritual depth of our regular attenders, the results are sobering. When conflict emerges, rather than acting out of biblically informed ethical standards of behavior, congregants revert quickly to lowest common denominator behavior that is corrosive and highly destructive.

After congratulating most groups on their insightful analysis, I then ask them to imagine a way out of the morass of conflict that threatens the very survival of so many churches. Wise groups eventually go back to their problem list and use it to create a mirror image path forward that is filled with hope and possibility. They usually say something like this:

-- Teach Christian ethical behavior from birth to death on a weekly basis. Elected and paid leaders in the congregation covenant to hold one another accountable for practicing Christ-like behavior.

-- Offer real and substantial financial assistance and planning to congregants who are navigating the difficult economy.

-- See the crisis of congregational life as an opportunity to reinvent your church for the opportunities before you. You have never been more needed. Come to grips with the fact that, while the gospel is timeless, the methods of living and conveying that gospel are ever-changing. Embrace change as your friend, not your enemy.

-- Pay attention to and take care of your clergy and staff.

-- Adopt a missional, rather than a privileged mindset as a church. Cultivate a pervasive external focus to balance our natural internal focus.

-- If nothing else, be relentless about seeking and finding clarity for your purpose and direction. Start in Scripture, then claim your unique DNA, and then project your best stories forward and dream God-sized dreams.

-- Stop playing church and start following Jesus.

Practicing these habits is a prescription not only for lower levels of conflict, but for a healthy, vital and thriving congregation.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.