Today’s interview kicks off a four-week series on the topic of conflict in the church. Over the next four Thursdays, through interviews and book excerpts, Bearings Online will examine why conflict occurs in the church, and give several ideas of what can be done about it. In the interview below, Betsy Johnson-Miller interviews Anita L. Bradshaw about her recent book, Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even If You Hate Both).
In your book, Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even If You Hate Both), you say that the church’s calling inherently creates conflict. Can you explain what that means?
The church’s calling is to love, serve, and respond to God’s call. On the face of it, those actions seem like they would bring congregations into harmony, and yet those very actions often bring us into conflict with one another. As we engage with each other to discern God’s calling in our lives, we find that each of us responds to that calling differently. The disparity between our individual responses often leads to minor or major conflict. This doesn’t necessarily look like the ugly behaviors we often associate with conflict, but it does mean that we may disagree, and have to work together to understand how to move forward and answer God’s call in light of those disagreements.
Moving forward requires humility because while we may think we know what it means to love, serve, and respond to God’s call, such knowing is always tentative given our finitude. We may know the next right thing to do, but we will never know the whole picture. Some people may have trouble living with the ambiguity of not knowing fully. Conflict may also arise between those who are sure of an action plan and those who are not.
You also discuss the status quo in your book, which could be seen as the opposite of change and conflict. What should a church’s relationship be to the status quo? How can a church know when and what to change?
The answer is not a simple “stop this” or “start that.” Change is more nuanced than that. If a congregation continues to ask itself, “What is God calling us to do and be?” then that answer may, and probably will, change over time. New answers will naturally raise the question of whether the status quo is fulfilling God’s call or not. The status quo is what it is—the existing state of affairs. But the church must always be attentive to the call of God and never just rest in the way things are.
In addition, there are ways to honor what we let go of, and even to hold on to the spirit of something we leave behind. For instance, many churches today struggle with how to structure themselves. Long-established congregations are often burdened by heavy board and committee structures that no longer serve them. Those structures can tie them down and deplete members so that they no longer have time or energy for doing the church’s real ministry. No one joins a church in order to serve on a committee.
People want to do meaningful ministry that fulfills their faith, which means it’s time for churches to let go of top-heavy structures and to streamline. This is a clear letting go, and yet at the same time churches can honor the past by imitating their predecessors who created those structures, as a response to what they at an earlier time discerned as God’s call. In essence, congregations honor their ancestors in faith by following their example. They create new structures that allow a church to move forward into what God is calling them to do and be here and now.
You write, “Conflict may, in fact, be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity.” Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make some of us as uncomfortable as conflict and change? If so, how can we come to welcome this ferment?
The Holy Spirit is not always a welcome presence in churches because the Spirit shakes things up in unpredictable ways. Often the shaking up results in conflict and change. Since many congregations have a poor understanding of the Holy Spirit, they need to do some work that will enable them to welcome the Spirit into their midst. Bible studies and discussions of the Holy Spirit can help to awaken our consciousness of the importance of the Spirit. Intentional prayer with the Spirit is another possibility. Lifting up Pentecost and other points in the liturgical calendar where the readings lend themselves to preaching on the Holy Spirit is important as well.
In a number of places in your book, you use the term “bullying behavior.” What does that look like in a congregation, and what should a church’s response be to that kind of behavior?
A church I was part of early in my ministry had several bullies. They belittled new members in congregational meetings by yelling at them for not giving enough money. They physically got in the personal space of the pastor in order to intimidate him when they disagreed with him. They scheduled secret congregational meetings and only invited the members they knew agreed with them. They tried to unseat members of committees with whom they disagreed by claiming they weren’t members of the church and harassed them. They spread rumors about the pastor and insulted him publicly under the guise of jests and jokes. I have seen these sorts of behaviors in more than one congregation. The whole point to bullying behavior is to intimidate and force people to either agree or be silent and allow one particular group to have its way. It is ugly and defies the meaning of being Christian.
Churches need to have clear boundaries and guidelines in place about how members behave with one another, engage in conversations, and negotiate disagreements. Often, this takes the form of a behavioral covenant—a covenant that spells out behaviors that are acceptable and ones that aren’t, the consequence of violating the covenant, and who will enforce the covenant. The process of working out the covenant often stops these kinds of behaviors. In the case I just cited, we made it clear that yelling, insulting, cruel or insidious jokes, physical intimidation, and so forth, would not be tolerated. If people engaged in these behaviors, they would lose their right to speak until they could be civil. If necessary, persons were asked to leave meetings. In one case, a person was asked to leave the congregation. It wasn’t easy, but until we could learn to have good conversation that was respectful even when disagreements arose, we couldn’t even think about becoming the congregation God was calling us to be.
If you could give churches one piece of advice relating to change and/or conflict, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid of either change or conflict, even if it means losing a few folks. Change and conflict are natural, normal, and necessary for any congregation that’s vital and alive. And certainly don’t ramp up anxiety over either one. The more we can welcome the unavoidable ebb and flow of conflict and change, the more able we are to give ourselves to the business of being church.