Jill Hudson has taught church leaders about conflict for decades now. Here’s one Presbytery’s notes on her teaching. In a nut shell, there are five levels of conflict:
- Level One Conflict – There’s a problem to solve. (Which day will the pastor take as his/her Sabbath?) The issue is clear and specific and easily resolved.
- Level Two Conflict – There’s a disagreement. (The Music Minister and the Pastor disagree about the amount of featured music during worship.) The issue might birth a creeping distrust but it’s actually possible that “everybody can win.”
- Level Three Conflict – There’s a contest. (Some church members are angry about same sex marriage and others are happy about it, and the increasingly heated contest is about whom Jesus loves best.) The issue will result in someone “winning” and someone “losing.” Accusations and behaviors that bear no resemblance to Jesus ensue.
- Level Four Conflict – There’s a fight. (Mr. Been-Here-Forever wants to destroy the Pastor who – unlike former Pastors – doesn’t give Mr B-H-F complete freedom to do whatever he wants in church leadership.) It’s ugly. Ugly accusations. Ugly outbursts. It’s ugly enough to make a lot of people – including the pastor – leave.
- Level Five Conflict – There are irreconcilable differences/horror movie-worthy motifs. (A Parishioner spray-paints ‘Satan Lover’ on the Pastor’s garage door.) Things are out of control. Dogs and cats fighting in the streets. Everybody’s hair’s on fire.
Every pastor and every congregation – and every business, educational institution, government office, non-profit, family and neighborhood – has endured conflict. Jill Hudson specifically talks about congregational conflict and at a leadership gathering on Wednesday, she reminded me that “Pastors rarely survive a Level Three or higher Conflict.”
I once survived a High Three. In fact, I thrived after that conflict and stayed with the congregation I was serving for fifteen additional years.
I’ve been prayerfully analyzing how and why I survived and it occurs to me that – instead of The Perfect Storm – I experienced The Perfect Calm.
The Conflict: Beloved church member who was also on staff was let go for cause. Because we loved her and her family, we asked for the elders to keep the details confidential. She went on to greater things. The congregational went on to greater things. Jesus reigns.
How was this possible – especially when there were shades of Level 4 (sacks of dirty diapers left in my driveway, personal threats to my safety) and Level 5 (someone declared a fatwa against me.)? The answers – which were blessings from heaven and not a result of my awesome leadership – are the same answers that mark a thriving church:
- The congregation was not stuck. We had new members all the time and no one ever said, “We’ve always done it this way” because we rarely did anything the same way. The congregation was too transient for that to happen much.
- There was no gossip – at least about this situation. 20 people knew every detail and 20 people kept confidentiality for the sake of healing and wholeness.
- Communication was excellent. There were warnings to the staff member. There were records kept. The whole board was informed of all the specifics. The congregation was informed as much as possible. There were public conversations to answer questions.
- The congregation trusted their leaders. We shared that the elders’ vote was unanimous and that fact indicated to church members that Elder X (a much respected leader) and Elder Y (another respected leader who rarely agreed with Elder X) and Elder Z (who was new but growing in leadership skills) had all agreed about this decision. And that also impressed church members. Parishioners didn’t have all the details about the situation, but they didn’t need them.
- The Presbytery was visible and appreciated. Neighboring church leaders stepped in to support the congregation on behalf of the Presbytery.
- The elders backed up the Pastor during this stressful time. Instead of pulling the Pastor aside to say, “You need to leave,” the Pastor was surrounded by elders who said, “It probably feels tempting to leave right now, but we trust you to get us through this.”
- We prayed (a lot) and the Pastor discovered that trusting in God was her most essential recourse. Note: there were moments when I prayed for God to give me the right words, my mouth opened, and the perfect words came out. That was the Holy Spirit right there.
Conflicted times are not calm times . . . unless God is in total control. Note: God uses more than “thoughts and prayers.” God also works through faithful Elders, hopeful Pastors, extraordinary Educators, gifted Musicians, solid leadership training, theologically wise children, and Jill Hudson. Thanks be to God. And hang in there.
Image is the church fight scene from The Kingsman.