Are you part of a nice church or a great church? A nice church is where everyone gets along because we never really discuss anything of substance. We value community and fellowship and fear upsetting what we see as a delicate equilibrium in the congregation. Nice churches will do well but they will never be great churches because they are unwilling to put the effort into dealing with major issues and needs.
Let me be honest up front--I don’t like conflict. On the various conflict management inventories, I usually score high on avoid and/or accommodate. Conflict makes me tired and frustrated. I have learned, however, that very little progress is made if we continue to avoid needed discussions and hard decisions.
Speed Leas wrote a classic book titled Discover Your Conflict Management Style[i]. He includes an inventory to identify your default style or styles of dealing with conflict. The lesson to be learned, however, is that you do not have to function out of your natural style. You can choose other approaches that may be appropriate in the situation.
Leas suggests six approaches to dealing with conflict.
1. Persuasion. This approach assumes that all parties are committed to engaging in a dialogue where the various sides of an issue are presented. Of course, some are better equipped to take advantage of this than others and they are usually the proponents of this strategy. They assume that they can present enough information that the other side will accept their argument. This rarely works because most church decisions are not based on facts and figures but on emotions.
2. Compulsion. With the strategy, the appeal is to authority. The authority may be the pastor, the Bible (as some would interpret it), the constitution and by-laws, or denominational polity. The person with the biggest stick wins the battle but may ultimately lose the war. In the end, someone is hurt when compulsion is used.
3. Avoidance. Leas includes four responses under this heading: avoid, ignore, flee and accommodate. The big problem here is that these strategies don’t change anything. We are left with the status quo and may even be weaker because some choose to disengage either temporarily or permanently. This just postpones the inevitable.
4. Collaboration. This approach assumes a level playing field where people of good will are ready to do joint problem-solving. This is a win-win strategy. The biggest challenge is that this takes time and work. The group must develop skills in consensus building and avoid rushing to a decision. Some have no patience for this strategy.
5. Negotiating. This is a transactional approach that sets up some to win and others to lose. Although a decision may be reached, some will not be happy and the matter may not really be settled.
6. Supporting. Although Leas provides this as a strategy for dealing with conflict, it is more about finding a way to clarify the problem and to get someone to the table for discussion. This is best accomplished when no decision is going to be made immediately. We use a listening approach. This is what we do in “town hall meetings” in the church where no recommendation is on the table, and we just gather to discuss possibilities, throw out ideas, and share hopes and concerns. This is a low-level approach to conflict that may prepare the way for other strategies.
The bottom line is that we need to find ways within each congregation to honestly address those things that are of concern to members, impact the congregation’s ministry, or determine its future. These discussions may not be pleasant but they are necessary if we are to move from being nice to being great.