October 11, 2011

Conflict and Decline

Here’s a set of numbers that should give us pause.

According to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey conducted by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Research, we are a conflictive church. In that survey 61% of Episcopal churches reported that they’d experienced serious conflict in the past five years, with 93% of that group saying that these serious conflicts had resulted in a decline in Average Sunday Attendance.

But it isn’t the high-profile conflicts over human sexuality that tend to lead to congregational decline. As Ward Richards puts it in his article Elephants in the Sanctuary, it’s more often the “day-to-day experiences, rather than ‘hot button’ issues, that are the cause of conflict in parish life, with new buildings and leadership styles leading the charge.” Indeed, in his summary of results from the Faith Communities Today Survey, researcher Kirk Hadaway notes that while human sexuality was the most frequently cited source of conflict, it is “conflict over leadership and conflict over finances that were most strongly related to decline in average Sunday attendance.”

As lay and clergy leaders, it is vital that we become better at addressing conflicts over leadership and finances in our congregations. While it isn’t easy to prepare for the next hot-button issue on the horizon, we can prepare for the conflicts that erupt over budgets, buildings, and poor leadership that are a recurring part of congregational life.

Here is a collection of articles to help us along the way:
Skeletons in the Sacristy
It’s often the case that alongside the official, generally positive histories of our congregations, there are skeletons in the closet that congregational leaders are refusing to address. The past editor of Vestry Papers, Lindsay Hardin Freeman, explores how even decades later these skeletons continue to shape congregational dynamics and why these need to be addressed head-on. “There’s an old saying, ‘anybody can take the truth, but the secrets can kill you.’”

Elephants in the Sanctuary
The word “conflict” evokes negative images of bickering, power struggles, and congregational infighting. Many church leaders’ response to conflict is to avoid the issues altogether, force others to their own position, or see compromise as the only path forward. In this article, Ward Richards talks about learning to view conflict as an opportunity for critical problem-solving.

Avoiding the Quick Fix
Peggy Treadwell writes about the rector’s role in the midst of conflict, particularly in terms of pushing the vestry and wider congregation to avoid quick fixes and address the long-term, deeper issues that are at the heart of the conflict. A psychotherapist, Peggy also explores triangulation and the role that family dynamics play in shaping how clergy respond to conflict.

Blowing Off Steam
We've all been there. In this blog post, Richelle Thompson talks about when leaders blow up and say things they later regret.

Behaving Badly (and publicly)
Some congregational conflicts become local media sensations. As diocesan communicator for Southern Ohio, Richelle shares one example in which the rector responded appropriately and skillfully diffused the situation.

When Social Media Gets Mean As congregations create blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter followings, Jake Dell shares what communicators can do when "the comments section reads like the bathroom graffiti in a college bar."

What other resources have you found helpful in addressing congregational conflict?