I've thought for a while about writing a column about "Everything we clergy wish we were taught about in seminary (but weren't)." I think it could make for some interesting fodder. I think most of us would agree that while we learned a lot in seminary, but being a faithful minister has required a lot of on-the-job training.
One thing we have all come to encounter is how to serve as a leader in a church composed of people with such a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and opinions. Family theory applies well to churches. We want to be a faithful church family, but like your family and mine, we are not immune from conflict, disagreements, resentments and frustrations. Being the church together is hard and sometimes even painful. Leading a flock of broken people prone to conflict while too being broken ourselves can place upon us a very uncomfortable target for heartache and pain.
"They say you can't please everyone all the time. Well last Sunday, they all came to my church..."
- Anonymous Pastor
While there is some conversation about conflict resolution taught in seminary today, the most difficult types of conflict can lead us to wish we knew even more. You can probably guess where I'm going here.
The type of conflict that hurts the most originates with one person or a few people (often with influence) who decide to stand up and speak out too quickly and too harshly.
* They challenge every decision.
* They cherish the past and remember well the supposed "glory days." "Why can't things be like they were back when..."
* They don't care for change and resist it at every move. They speak the 7 deadly words of being the church: "But we've always done it this way."
* They feel personally responsible for the purse strings of the church finances, often with an unspoken push for bold ministry on the cheap.
* They love to hold meetings after the meetings to sure up their group of like-minded followers.
* They aren't afraid to write letters filled with criticisms (often not constructive) and will sometimes enjoy sharing them anonymously. Sometimes these letters get intense. Sometimes they don't want to consider or hear any response.
* Even personal attacks can get thrown into the mix of all of this.
More than likely, if you've been a clergy person for more than a few minutes you've experienced some, if not a lot of the above realities. There are plenty more we could add to this list.
So, how do we manage these difficult realities that frequently come with our most faithful efforts to lead the church? There's no one size fits all answer, but there are a few areas we should consider.
Passionate People are Passionate
First, we must know that we are leading an endeavor comprised of passionate people. Passionate people can do amazing things together, but can also struggle passionately. Compromise and calm can be hard to come by when passions are not all lined up together. Much of the conflict in our churches comes from passionate people being passionate. In one regard, this can be a blessing. Consider this - would you rather have a church full of passionate people or a church full of people who don't care? Let's be thankful that our churches have many passionate people. Passionate people hold the energy for ministry. They, however, can also help create the most friction.
We as clergy, however, can be the voice of calm in the midst of the impassioned storm. As my old seminary professor, Dr. Everett, used to remind us, the calmest person in any situation or conflict is also the one with the most control. Sometimes our call as clergy is to provide a calm and fair space for people to have their say. Listening without being defensive is a lost art, but being a calm and active listener is a gift many people are hungry for, but don't know how to seek or receive. Listening invites the aligning of passions and opens doors for building bridges and seeking compromise. When passions run high, be tempted to be present, say less and listen more.
Conflicts Need Boundaries
Second, we as clergy must set proper boundaries for how we interact with people, conflicts, frustrations and even anger. The church is a place to be with God, seek his guidance and give him our praise. It is not a setting for an unmitigated free-for-all when "things of sorts" start to hit the fan. Believe it or not, we have a lot of opportunity here to determine and project how healthily conflict can be addressed and handled. We can set the boundaries.
Church policies have their place, but one of their greatest benefits is that a policy makes for a great "bad guy." Everyone can take issue with a policy, but a policy is not a person. A well crafted policy can set the tone for how situations are to be dealt with and handled. Does your church have a healthy policy for how issues and concerns are to expressed and handled and what is not permitted or inappropriate?
What if your church developed a policy or guideline that reflected this understanding:
* We are all the church together and our calling is to lovingly encourage, care for and help one another.
* Conflict is real and part of our being in broken, but faithful relationships with one another.
* Concerns and criticisms may appropriately be expressed in the best light and with care only after first engaging in significant prayer and spiritual reflection.
* Issues are to be addressed directly and in person and with compassion with those involved.
* We are greater as a church together than as a church of individuals. All thoughts and opinions matter, but ultimately our work together is NOT to discern which of us is right, but rather to seek God's will and desire.
* Anonymous feedback and criticism that is not constructive will not be permitted or addressed.
Constructive criticism of a positive nature, designed to encourage and uplift is healthy. Knee jerk criticism based in rage, anger and personal difference must be understood as unhealthy and inappropriate for the up-building of the body of Christ.
Conflict as Windows of Opportunity
Finally, I'd like to share a theory I have developed over time that I think is true and may shed a helpful light on the issues of personal conflict we often encounter as clergy. It's simply this:
Often, people who are the most critical and even demeaning are giving us a window into their own personal struggles and their voided need for affirmation.
Our broken human nature can lead any of us to perceive that we can only understand ourselves as right if we can identify that someone else is wrong. Those with the greatest internal struggles can find themselves taking out their frustrations on others. It's not healthy, but neither is it uncommon. Clergy can often be a soft and available target of this transference of personal frustration.
Something we might do well to consider in a time of conflict with another is to simply ask, "Would we wish we could change places with the other person?" Likely the answer will lead us to wonder less about the issue at hand and more about what is going on in this person's life and how we can be more understanding, less defensive and more helpful. Sometimes the issue presented is not the real issue - and yet an opening to listen and an invitation to feel, and help them release, their pain.
Nobody ever told us being pastors would be easy. In time we see just how difficult it can be. Yet rarely in any other profession or calling would we be granted a greater opportunity to walk with people in times of greatest struggle and yet opportunity. Perhaps our greatest tool is how we engage others with a focus on the cross and a passion to listen and encourage - especially in the face of adversity.
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About the Author
Hi, I'm Pastor Andrew, an ELCA pastor with a love for sharing empowering personal stewardship for fellow church leaders. I enjoy researching the financial wisdom of the scriptures and of fellow church leaders and I hope to share my findings in a way to help clergy of all types!