August 15, 2014

Confronting Clergy-Congregational Conflict

Christ Church in Anytown, USA is an Episcopal congregation with an average Sunday attendance of around 75 and an annual budget of about $150,000 with an aging but beloved physical plant. The parish is facing the usual challenges of finances, and hence stewardship; declining membership; leadership development and quite frankly, relevance. The vestry wants to grow but has no idea what that entails of what that even means. The Rector has been in place for five years. He/she is competent, hard-working but somewhat “stuck”.

Furthermore, like most priests, he is introverted and hence perceived as aloof, and tends to over function. More and more the Rector is being pressured to do something to improve, enhance and energize the life of the congregation. Once again, the vestry has no idea what that actually means but the dialogue and rhetoric continue – “we need to grow, we need to change, we need to engage in our community, we need strategic direction and focus, we need the Rector to lead us, guide us and direct us.”

The Diocese is struggling with finances, staff reductions and the ongoing challenge of convincing the congregations that they’re actually getting something for their assessment or voluntary contribution but couching it in terms of communion, community and engaging in God’s mission in the world. The diocesan convention passes resolutions on global warming, immigration reform and economic justice but little is said about congregational vitality and sustainability. Actually, other than in matters of deployment and transition, the diocesan office provides little in terms of resources and support to congregations except when something is perceived to be wrong. The bishop is affable and well-liked but is unable to articulate a vision for the Diocese, surrounds himself with a small group of trusted advisers and avoids conflict at all costs.

The Rector finally decides to do something she perceives as being bold, creative or new, e.g., reinvigorating the music program by “asking” the current organist to leave or freeing up money in the budget by eliminating the full-time office assistant position or changing the service times and instituting a new contemporary worship style or inviting the local social service agency to tutor children at risk in the parish house or meeting with the head of the altar guild and convincing her it’s time to step down. While the Rector believes that he covered his bases and talked to the right people in advance of these decisions, the rumblings begin - “Who does she think she is?” “He never came to the vestry for approval.” “She’s out of control.” “The parish is coming apart at the seams.” “I never really liked him anyway.” “It’s time for new clergy leadership.” “We need to go to the bishop.”

A small group of parishioners meets with the bishop to articulate its concerns and the bishop concludes that something indeed is wrong. After a brief telephone conversation with the Rector the bishop decides to come to Christ Church the following Sunday to celebrate, preach and facilitate a meeting of the entire parish. The bishop asks the Rector not to attend and encourages the congregation to be open, honest and share all of their hopes, fears, frustrations and dreams. The Bishop loses control of the meeting as it becomes a general gripe session against the Rector. Afterward, the Bishop decides to assign a “consultant” to work with the Rector and the parish leadership to resolve their issues but the sniping continues and the differences seem irreconcilable. People take sides, some people leave and the Rector begins to lose any sense of control, influence and authority. After several months the Bishop “convinces” the Rector that he needs to resign for the good of the congregation. The parties negotiate a separation agreement, the Bishop assigns a durational priest–in- charge and the Rector begins her discernment and search process with a “scarlet letter” on her chest hoping that she finds another job before her severance runs out.

Over the past few years, I have become aware of several situations like the one described above. While the factual circumstances may be different, there are some common elements – (a) a congregation with significant challenges with a desire but inability to change; (b) ineffective or dis-empowered lay leadership; (c) a priest who feels pressured or compelled to somehow respond to the challenges without the necessary training, support or resources; (d) a diocesan infrastructure that is unable or unwilling to manage conflict at the congregational level, and (e) an embedded process that scapegoats the clergy, divides the community and damages the future vitality of the congregation.

My purpose here is not to solve the problem of forced clergy resignations but to offer some ideas on how to prevent or avoid the circumstances that lead to this painful, wasteful and divisive result. I have concluded that it’s really about leadership or leadership development and the critical need to articulate and implement a shared vision for the local faith community. Accordingly, I offer the following suggestions:

  1. Priests need formational and ongoing training and resources in identifying and developing lay leaders as full partners in ministry as well as in visioning, strategy development and conflict management. Traditional seminary education and even alternative formation programs still perpetuate the theory that clergy have the primary if not solitary responsibility for the health and vitality of the congregation and provide little or no training in developing skill sets in such areas as collaboration and team building. It is little wonder that in addition to maintaining an attitude of “Father/Mother knows best” clergy also feel the need to over-function. They tend to measure their effectiveness by how much time they’re spending on individual tasks rather than the impact of their ministry on the congregation and its individual members. Furthermore, conflict often arises when lay leaders do not effectively participate in the formulation and implementation of key decisions that are central to the life of the community.
  2. Each faith community, of whatever size or configuration, needs to engage in an ongoing process of visioning and strategic thinking. This is a shared process between the Rector and the Vestry with appropriate input from the full congregation. And I’m not necessarily talking about formal mission statements to print in the bulletin or strategic plans that sit on the shelf. I am advocating a thoughtful, prayerful, yet practical process of determining where God is calling the congregation and concrete steps to get there. Without such a process, significant decisions on part of the Rector and even the Vestry are perceived as arbitrary and capricious rather than specific steps to move forward with a particular strategy or vision.
  3. While bishops may need to preach and teach the role of the church in God’s mission in the world, they also have to provide specific and concrete ideas, suggestions and solutions for struggling congregations. It is very difficult for a local faith community to look beyond its walls when it is fighting for its very survival. Even a painful and controversial suggestion of closing or merging is more helpful to a congregation than pretending that the problem doesn't even exist. Dioceses also need to engage in a process of visioning and strategy development. Once again, decisions about budget cuts and staff reductions are much easier to explain and comprehend when the Diocese is able to articulate a broader vision for its future if not its very existence.
  4. We need to implement healthier and more effective ways to deal with conflict at all levels of the church. Currently, we usually ignore conflict - hoping that it will go away, escalate it by blowing it out of proportion or dealing with conflict in passive aggressive ways. Bishops especially need training and access to resources on conflict management. And, while it may be appropriate to bring in outside experts and consultants to deal with high-conflict situations, the Bishop is still the primary person responsible for the ongoing health and functionality of the diocese and its congregations. Consequently, he needs to confront and manage conflict head on. This role cannot be delegated to consultants or diocesan staff.

These four suggestions, in and of themselves, are not going to solve the complex issues of relationships between and among clergy, congregations, bishops and diocesan staff. They do, however, provide some positive steps for moving forward in a time of significant challenges and anxiety. We can no longer afford any more dispirited clergy, dis-empowered lay leaders, damaged congregations or broken systems. After all, we are in this together because we are the Body of Christ.

This post first appeared on NECA Caring for Clergy Project website and is reprinted with permission. The project is a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA).