Conflict is normal. When two or more are gathered, there will be disagreements especially in times of great change. Church people disagree about all kinds of things: whether or not to add another Sunday service; where to cut the budget if the pledge drive runs short; whether to put their energy into serving their own membership or serving the larger community, and so on.
Church leaders can't make conflict go away. They can learn -- and help others learn -- how to manage disagreements so that conflict is less likely to escalate and more likely to bear fruit in new understanding and new clarity. When conflict escalates, anxiety rises. As anxiety grows higher, it becomes more and more difficult to manage the conflict, so it's better to manage disagreements before they become more complex.
Here are some tips for making serious disagreements less frequent and more productive.
- Communicate clearly. Get information out to people in a timely way. Listen carefully to concerns. Anticipate and answer questions. Use multiple ways to communicate with those who need to know.
- Clarify expectations. Let people know what you expect of them. Create job descriptions for volunteer positions and for staff. Set goals and check in on progress being made toward the goals.
- Set clear boundaries. Be sure that people know what they're responsible for, and who they can go to for support and resources.
- Ask all committees and staff to be accountable to the Mission and Vision of the congregation. If those aren't commonly understood, or if they need to be created or revised, start there.
- Ask committees to create covenants about how they will work together. Begin by creating a Board Covenant, to model it for the committees.
- Create a Covenant of Right Relations by involving members in conversations about the kind of community we want to have here and what promises we will make to each other to have that kind of community.
To manage conflict well, consider creating a formal Conflict Management process. Outline a process for handling low level disagreements [i.e., a disagreement between two people], as well as what to do if an argument escalates. Examples of these processes, as well as examples of Covenants of Right Relations, are available from the MidAmerica Field Staff.
When conflict arises, tell people to stop emailing and instead, pick up the phone or have a face-to-face conversation. Email is a great medium for easy decisions, but when disagreements over values or priorities begin, we need to resort to older forms of communication. Conversations via email are easy to misinterpret, and damage to relationships can result. Face-to-face conversations are essential to remaining in relationship, even when we disagree.
Help is available. Get advice and coaching from the MidAmerica Field Staff. Call on us when the disagreement is small, rather than waiting until the conflict is large. We can provide a listening ear, advice, coaching, and resources.