Making Peace Before the War: Facilitating Congregational Dialogue

by Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mills
Immanuel Baptist Church, Toronto

Faith communities are typically warm, welcoming places where people care for and encourage one another. At least, this is the type of church community we aspire to become even when they are not always as we imagine they should be. Sadly, many churches go through times of conflict, power struggles or “cold war” disagreements that cripple the church and compromise its witness in the community.

Through my years of ministry I have been involved in a number of difficult situations involving conflict. The following points are some of the lessons I have learned about dealing with challenging situations involving the whole congregation.

1) It’s Easier to Stay Out than to Get Out. This is a quote from Mark Twain and it is a useful truism that applies to situations that may lead to conflict. It is far easier to deal with potential problems before they happenby proactively engaging with the people rather than deal with the fallout of conflict. When you hear chatter on a topic or face a big decision in the church, don’t wait for it to escalate. Give people a place to voice their concerns. Even if the final decision is not their preference, most people will be more willing to go along with the decision if they know they have been heard.

2)Give People a Place to Voice their Concerns. When people are wrestling with some issue in the church, if they don’t have a legitimateway to talk about it with others, they may end up talking in hushed tones in the parking lot about it. In many cases, they may be experiencing emotions that they need to express. Even if you don’t personally feel the issue is important, it is important to recognize when others do. Make sure there is an open forum for discussion.

For example, if a recent change to the bulletin is causing back room whispers, hold an open meeting where people can express themselves freely. Open expression minimizes the potential for quiet dissention.

But remember that point two works best in conjunction with point one: If you are planning to make changes to the bulletin, be proactive and hold an open forum for dialogue beforethe final decisions are made. (A useful technique for allowing open dialogue—without being dominated by a vocal individual while at the same time encouraging quieter members to share their thoughts—is the nominal method.)

3)Keep a Servant’s Heart. Congregational church polity means that the congregation has the final word when it comes to decisions making. Not every decision requires consultation and dialogue, but I have found that transparency through dialogue reduces the amount of friction in a congregation and it builds trust for more complex and challenging decisions. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:26). Servant leaders are not afraid to make decisions and lead, but they are mindful of the thoughts, concerns and aspirations of the congregation. I have always found that the best way to discover these things is to give people the place to talk about them.

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