Now that you’ve looked at some ways a congregation can move through conflict and come out healthier on the other side, let me let you in on a basic insight about conflict that has given us hope in every situation we’ve encountered. It “change.” As strange as it may seem, we think change can be a good thing for congregations, and it helps us to see conflict in more constructive way.
Here’s the baseline of our experience with congregations in conflict. … (say what’s on the slide) . The conflict usually also involves some unpleasant interactions and pain and hurt and sometimes betrayal among members and leaders of congregations. But looking beyond the immediate difficulty of the conflict, we find it’s helpful to see what’s prompted this time of upset. The conflict did not just crop up out of nowhere. It is a kind of turbulence that always invoves some sort of change.
So how does change work and how in the world can it be hopeful? When I started working with the Justinsburg church, here’s what I found. They had endured four pastorates that had started hopefully and ended badly. Twenty years ago they had moved from their old site on Main Street, out to the bypass on a beautiful 10 acre lot. They have had three building projects, the latest of which was the addition of the beautiful “family life center” (also known as a gym). In those 20 years membership has gone up and down with the ups and downs of pastoral relationships. When I asked them about what was happening in the community around them, they told me the county was growing and changing, which is another kind of change, but one which suggests the congregation could be growing, too, but they’re not. Instead they’ve been busy playing victims of their pastors and of that mean old Presbytery. All of these changes had made for a very troubled and anxious congregation, as you might imagine. Now enter the new pastor who decided to embrace change and try to help them get back on track. The troubles were real, and the pastoral difficulties were not good, but looking at all the changes that had happened in twenty years, it’s not too surprising that they had experienced conflict. So how does change actually work in congregational conflict?
From studies in biology and physics and sociology we know three things about organisms which includes the organism known as a congregation. First is that every organism and organizes itself, creating its own unique way of being in the world. The way it organizes itself helps it keep in balance with all the shifts and changes around it. Congregations have structures that help keep them in balance—the formal structures of the session, the staff, the groups such as the choir, the Sunday school, the Presbyterian Women, and the informal structures that provide support and leadership, such as the matriarchs and patriarchs. Each sub-unit organizes itself through roles and rules and rituals, like who belongs, who does what when, and how they spend their time together. The best balance or steady state in a congregation comes when these structures are open, transparent, shared widely, and when they’re flexible, able to shift and adapt to new situations. For example, do we always have to have 24 people on the session or is it possible to shift that number to better represent a smaller congregational membership or a different understanding of the roles of the session?
The second things we know about change is that in order to be alive and to survive an organism or an organization can’t be so steady and balanced that there are no places where things are a little bit unstable. In this “map” of a congregation, notice the red and wavy lines. At the Justinsburg church that represents the “flap” that occurred when the property committee changed the locks on the entire building and only gave out keys to those who actually had a role or function that required them to get into the church when no one else was around. Needless to say, those who did not get keys were upset and they tried to cause a little trouble. This is a sign not of doom, but that the church is alive and well. Here are some other events or changes that create their smaller or larger centers of instability. Mention each of the bullets above with a very brief commentary on each.
We learn the third fact about change from the study of cell biology. Cells, tiny organisms that are the basis of life, are constantly subject to changes when the environment around them changes. But the biologists have discovered that when the transformation is taking place, some essential part of the cell’s “identity” is surrounded by a protective “shield” and the new cell continues to be the same basic kind of cell but in a new version. I think congregations fear change because they are afraid they’ll lose their identity, they’ll lose their history and their stories. But here’s the good news—”We’re still us!” Out of the creative instability of the new pastor’s leadership with them, the Justinsburg church went through a gathering of strengths and ideas and arrived at a new sense of their identity and their mission and purpose. But it was not completely new. It was the same basic familiar identity of the congregation, but a newer, more flexible, more focused version or translation of itself.
So we would like to suggest to you that there is a hopeful wisdom in every congregational conflict. Instead of seeing conflict as a negative or destructive phenomenon (although of course it can be if it’s not utilized in hopeful ways), we think it plays a postive role in the life of a congregation. In fact, a situation of conflict points to the changes God desires for that church and brings out the need of the congregation to look to its own good health. Our task, “should we choose to accept it” is to find that wisdom and utilize it. One of the ways we recommend in our approach to conflict utilization is by carefully looking at the changes in and around the congregation.
So we invite you to get back in your groups and talk about changes you see. Name at least one change that you see happening in your church.
Hope and change
When we see conflict we always see: <ul><li>Change is happening or has happened, leading to turbulence to the congregation. </li></ul><ul><li>OR </li></ul><ul><li>Change needs to happen and the conflict is a symptom of the resistance or denial of the need to change. </li></ul>
Conflict and Change at Justinsburg <ul><li>Four unhappy pastorates </li></ul><ul><li>A new location, and three building projects </li></ul><ul><li>Yo-yo membership </li></ul><ul><li>A growing county </li></ul><ul><li>Playing victim: Blaming pastors, blaming the Presbytery, </li></ul><ul><li>Designated pastor open to change. </li></ul>The family life center …
How Change Happens # 1 <ul><li>Structures as balancing forces </li></ul><ul><li>Roles, Rules and Rituals </li></ul><ul><li>Open </li></ul><ul><li>Flexible </li></ul>Organization and Steady State
How Change Happens # 2 Instability and a Bit of Chaos <ul><li>Change in family of spiritual leader or key lay leaders </li></ul><ul><li>Change in parish’s constituency </li></ul><ul><li>Change in Staff </li></ul><ul><li>Change in Denomination </li></ul><ul><li>Redecoration, change in worship </li></ul>An organism that does not have pockets of instability will not survive.
How change happens # 3: We can be changed but we’re still us. <ul><li>Biology and Identity </li></ul><ul><li>In cell transformation something of the identity of the cell is protected. </li></ul><ul><li>Justinsburg—it was new but it was familiar. </li></ul>
The Inner Wisdom of Conflict <ul><li>Conflict plays a positive role in the congregation. </li></ul><ul><li>It points to the changes God desires and the health the congregation seeks </li></ul><ul><li>Our task is to find that wisdom and utilize it. </li></ul>
Your Church and Change? <ul><li>Group Discussion: </li></ul><ul><li>N ame at least one change happening in your church. </li></ul>
Change and Transformation <ul><li>There is a good deal of difference between loss , change and transformation . A loss is a step backward; a change is an opportunity; transformation is a step forward. The common denominator of these three realities is the fact that one must give up something. It is possible for both loss and change to lead to transformation , but it is not possible for transformation to occur unless something is lost and something is changed . </li></ul><ul><li>Anthony Podavano </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul>