PREEMPTING CONFLICT FROM HAPPENING IN YOUR CHURCH by an Attorney/Mediator

PREEMPTING CONFLICT FROM HAPPENING IN YOUR CHURCH”
BY ATTORNEY/MEDIATOR R. WILLIAM ROLAND—-TRANSCRIBED BY SON, REV. JOHN ROLAND.

I interviewed my Dad regarding church conflict on a webinar when I worked at Luther Rice.  Here is the text of our interview.  My Dad is a Martindale AV Preeminent rated lawyer (highest rating you can get) and practiced law in Florida for 30 years as a defense trial lawyer.  For the last 12 years he has been a full-time federal mediator.   He is the most Godly man I know and has been an active Southern Baptist deacon since 1973 serving as Deacon Chair, Pastor Search Committee Chair, Sunday School teacher, and serving on every other church committee you can imagine.   He has been certified as a church mediator by the Florida Baptist Convention.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE PASTORS IN AVOIDING POWER STRUGGLES?

1. GET TO KNOW YOUR PEOPLE

Remember this is coming from a layman, not a minister so you can take it for what it is worth. However, I observed one of our Pastors when he came to our church. He came in and he got to know his congregation. He visited with people and got to know them. He listened more than he talked. He knew the secret of a good conversationalist, be a good listener. From his listening he quickly found out what the issues were in the church and then knew how to deal with them.

Another example of getting to know your congregation happened in a church in which I am familiar. The signs in front of the church had really gotten into disrepair. The new pastor mentioned from the pulpit that the signs needed to be repaired or just plain torn down! Little did he know that the family who had donated the money for those signs would be severely hurt by his remarks. A power struggle started.

2. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE CHURCH LEADERS
Get to know your deacons and church leaders. From those relationships you will become familiar with the sources of conflict in the church in the past. By inviting their input into issues with which you struggle then many times you get them on your side as your allies rather than part of a group out to “get the pastor.”

I officiated high school football for 12 years when I was younger and leaner. I probably learned more life lessons from those football games than I will ever know. Every week on Monday we would meet to review the previous Friday night’s games. We would discuss trick plays and unusual calls and of course coaches who had given us a hard time. There was one assistant coach who just loved to follow the line judge up and down the line and give him a fit. He was always on one of our officials.

I knew the coach and had actually played a little softball with him in a church softball league several years before. I decided that I would make a preemptive strike with him when it came my time to officiate a game in which he would be on the sidelines. Sure enough, the Friday night came and I had his team. Before each game it was my job to check the field and make sure there were no hazards on the field (one time we actually found a shot put on the playing field) and make sure the field was marked off properly. This particular night as I was inspecting the field I ran into the coach on the sideline. I went up to him and engaged him in light conversation but in a friendly way. There was no tension just light joking. When the game started I had no problem with him.

Seek the advice of your deacons and get to a level of trust with them that you take their advice and rely upon it. I was chairman of deacons at my church and we had a new pastor. In our weekly meeting he went over the church calendar with me and told me of scheduling a deacons’ retreat for the fall. I asked him what were the dates for the retreat. He told me and I said, “Pastor, that is the weekend when FSU plays Auburn!”
The pastor replied, “Surely our men would not go to a football game when we have scheduled a deacons’ retreat?”
“Pastor, I will be at the retreat because I am Chairman of the Deacons but I do not expect anyone else will show up and I plan to bring my radio!”

Silly story? Maybe but that was an instance that the pastor sought advice and he followed it.
I think many times if you would take the time and make the effort to get to know the leaders, or in some cases, the “want to be” leaders you can head off many problems.

3. SHOW APPRECIATION
Everybody likes to be appreciated. Think about it. Don’t you like a pat on the back and a “well done” every once in a while? Showing appreciation can go a long way in cutting off power struggles.

4. FOLLOW MATTHEW 18: 15-20
It amazes me how many times people just do not do what Jesus said do. We wear the little bracelets with WWJD on it. We talk the good game but when I got called in, too many times following what Jesus commanded us to do in conflict just has not been done.

In one church mediation one of the major things that got the matter all stirred up was the sending of several anonymous letters. I can’t imagine sending anonymous letters to the deacons, church leaders and the pastor and really think that will help solve the problem. The problem is to whom does the pastor go to deal with the problem?
Therefore, if you can identify the problem with the power struggle, go to the person or the groups as Jesus said in Matthew 18.

WHY IS KEEPING CONFIDENCES AND NOT BREAKING CONFIDENTIALITY SUCH A BIG DEAL AS A MINISTER?
I know that you ministers do not think that you and a lawyer have much in common but in the area of confidences we do have that in common. In too many of my church mediations I ran into the complaint that confidences are not kept in church or the pastor does not keep confidences.

This problem is one, which is not only bad for the reputation of the pastor and directly affects his relations with the person who entrusted something to him but it is a legal issue as well!

Every state has a law making certain communications to clergy “privileged”. This generally means that neither the minister nor the “penitent” can be forced to testify in court (or in a deposition or certain other legal proceedings) about the contents of the communication. What is the justification for this rule? The United States Supreme Court has observed that “the priest–penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.”

Not every communication made to a minister is privileged and thereby protected from disclosure. The typical statute applies only to (1) communications (2) confidentially made (3) to a minister (4) acting in his or her professional capacity as a spiritual adviser.
Now this area of the law opens up a can of worms, which I am not prepared to deal with today. I would advise ministers to consult with legal counsel to instruct them what is privileged and what they must report. Do this before you have the decide on what you must do.

Suffice it to say that aside from the legal ramifications, of all people, one’s pastor should be one whom you can trust with anything without fear that it will be repeated to anyone, which includes the pastor’s wife!

I had to deal with the same privilege (a rule of evidence) as a lawyer. When a client came to me and talked about his or her problem I could not discuss that with anyone else, including my wife. In fact my wife worked as my secretary when I had my own private mediation practice a number of years ago and she said that she learned more about me in that time than she knew in the more than 30 years we had been married.

I just cannot emphasize enough how important confidentiality is for the pastor. When I run into that issue in a mediation, it is very difficult to deal with.

THINGS THAT MAY HELP

MAKE SURE THAT WHEN YOU COUNSEL WITH A PERSON THAT WHAT IS BEING SAID CANNOT BE HEARD

Is your office sound proof? Can your secretary or others who may be in the outer office hear? Does your secretary talk?

HOW CAN WE AVOID THE CONGREGATION HAVING A LACK OF INFORMATION AND THUS CONFLICT?
In nearly every church in which I have been I have found that LACK OF INFORMATION was one of the biggest complaints of the congregation. The congregation complained that either the pastor ran the show and no one else had any say in anything or that decisions were made by an established group usually small and usually not open to suggestions.

When I met with the pastor, deacons and staff they are generally surprised that the congregation feels that way. They think they are open to suggestions and are open to anyone who wants to know something that is going on.

There are times however in which I have discovered that the perception of lack of information was exactly on target. There was one church that had all finances going through a committee made up of three men who had no term limits! There was a provision in the by-laws for replacing them if they died or quit but for no other reason. There was much resentment by the congregation about how the finances were handled in that church. The congregation felt they had no input into the way the money was spent. They had a valid concern.

I find that most of the conflicts I have dealt with are more about the process of the way decisions are made in the church than in the decisions themselves! People who have a feeling that they are a part of the process seem to buy into the programs of the church much easier. Why is this?

I have my own theories:
1. WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW!

We live in a society that has been spoon-fed by the media the idea that we all have this right to know everything. That spills over into every aspect of our life and yes, even to our church life. And this is not one, which is easily remedied.
I have found two very good reasons to include the church in as much of the decision making process as possible and to let the congregation know everything that is going on:

First. With the exception of a few sensitive areas, such as personnel matters, the folks do have the right to know what is going on. After all they are the church and it is their church! If they don’t know, they tend to be suspicious and when suspicion comes into play there arises a lack of trust. That is where rumors begin and problems start.

Next. I have found that generally the more people know about the church the more they will buy into the programs of the church. If they have knowledge of what you are trying to do as the pastor and what your deacons are trying to do then they are much more likely to accept ownership of the program. That ownership then brings support for your plans and creates harmony rather than conflict.

2. WE’VE NEVER DONE IT THAT WAY BEFORE!
This is not limited to churches I can assure you. Lawyers more so than most people rely on precedent in order to advise their clients. Thus, we are extremely hesitant to make changes.

But in churches that I have mediated, anytime a change was to take place, if the pastor and leadership had communicated the change and the reasons for the change a little clearer, the congregation would have been much more receptive and the conflict would not have occurred.

3. GET MORE PEOPLE INVOLVED

I have found that in conflict most people who are the most suspicious are ones who have no real position in the church, either as a teacher, officer or on a committee. We Baptists are known by our committees and in dealing with fighting churches I have found the value of committees. Put more people to work!

AFTER SERVING AS AN ORDAINED DEACON FOR 40 YEARS AND AS AN ATTORNEY FOR 41 YEARS, WHY IS CHURCH CONFLICT IN PARTICULAR SO DIFFICULT?
I went to my first Southern Baptist Convention in Las Vegas in the late 80s. My pastor asked me as we were on the way to catch the airplane to go out to Las Vegas if I had ever been to a Southern Baptist Convention before? I said, “This is my first.” He told me I was in for a shock.

If you remember those were the years when the convention was really in turmoil and the fight was really raging. He suggested to me that I would find that among the participants of the convention I would find that they treated each other (if they disagreed with each other) with a lot less respect than did the lawyers I would deal with at legal conventions. I asked why?
“Because each side thinks they have God on their side.”

That is one of the things I find different from my everyday legal mediations. I usually deal with folks who have sued each other and they are trying to reach a settlement without going to trial. They will try to find common ground and compromise. Too many times in our churches the conflict becomes very personal and each side cannot compromise because they think they have God’s ear on this issue.

One of the things that I have found interesting and quite surprising however is that of all the mediations I have handled, only one dealt with a true doctrinal issue. Most of the conflicts I have dealt with have been more about the process by which decisions are made, not the content of the decision.

Seven common sources of conflict in churches:
1. Lack of information
2. Action taken too quickly
3. Lacking trust in leadership
4. A suspicion of motives
5. Changes seen as unneeded
6. A long history of conflict
7. Protecting church secrets

Give your members plenty of information, listen to them, get to know them and above all follow Jesus command on how to deal with conflict.

Comments

  1. Louis says

    As a fellow lawyer, most of the time on the defense side, I cannot agree more with Mr. Roland.

    Great advice.

    Great post.

  2. says

    Wise counsel from your father, John!

    There’s so much packed into this article that could be expanded. Each one of the seven points at the end could be an article all its own, for example.

    We have some fabulous articles on SBC Voices so far this week.

  3. Roger Simpson says

    Would you please compare and contrast the idea of a “church having secrets” and the need “to provide more information”. It seems to me like these are two opposing concepts.

    What would be an example of “church secrets”?

    How can a church / pastor / staff be open with the congregation when certain topics are designated as “secret”?

    Do these secrets align with covering up crimes such as child molestation or financial theft from the church?

    Roger

  4. William Thornton says

    I appreciate the lengthy thoughts.

    Anecdotal evidence indicates to me that there has been a trend in churches towards more secrecy, less transparency, and less openness. The megachurches and large churches, the ones the hackers and plodders seek to emulate, have led this trend by either keeping their finances hidden or making it difficult for members to access them. I’d do battle in a church over this but as a pastor thought it proper to be transparent.

    I don’t think priest/penitent laws shield a minister from having to disclose a crime in my state.

  5. says

    I thought I read somewhere once that priest/penitent laws apply to Catholics only, or at least those who hear confession of sin in order to offer absolution. Since Baptist don’t hear confession in that same way, they have to share knowledge of a crime. Counseling privileges exist, I assume. And of course everyone should report crimes involving children.

    Is this real or did I just make it all up, the difference between Catholics/Evangelical confession?

    • Doug Hibbard says

      Depends on the jurisdiction. Some states there is a distinction, some there is not.

      I know of no states that permit child sexual abuse to go unreported, and most don’t allow imminent crime to go unreported and the shield laws only apply to past actions. That question is likely best answered by local legal professionals.

      • Zack Stepp says

        Luke & Doug:

        “That question is likely best answered by local legal professionals.”

        I would strongly encourage every pastor to seek professional legal guidance, preemptively, on this issue, because both privilege laws and mandatory reporting laws very widely from state to state, and the ins-and-outs of these laws can be exceptionally complex and nuanced. If you’ve got a lawyer in your church or in your community whom you trust, I’d highly recommend you get them to give you a brief rundown or your local laws.

        “I thought I read somewhere once that priest/penitent laws apply to Catholics only, or at least those who hear confession of sin in order to offer absolution.”

        I can’t speak to ever single state, but by and large the clergy privilege extends to all Christian pastors, preachers, priests, etc., and usually to rabbis and any other ministers under the broad Judeo-Christian umbrella of religion. Like I said, I can’t speak to every single state, but I’ve never heard of any Catholic-only distinction in modern law. Every time I’ve seen the privilege formulated, it’s written very generally to include any direct pastoral counseling.

        In Georgia, for example, the privilege extends to “[e]very communication made by any person professing religious faith, seeking spiritual comfort, or seeking counseling to any Protestant minister of the Gospel, any priest of the Roman Catholic faith, any priest of the Greek Orthodox Catholic faith, any Jewish rabbi, or any Christian or Jewish minister or similar functionary, by whatever name called.” (Note that this is limited very strictly to information the pastor receives from the individual directly, and not to information the pastor receives via any other means.)

        “I know of no states that permit child sexual abuse to go unreported[.]“

        Actually, in the specific case of clergy privilege, a majority of state privilege laws will preempt mandatory reporting laws. It’s not universal, and certainly there are many states in which the mandatory reporting laws preempt the privilege laws, but the general thrust of most states is that privilege prevails. It gets tricky, though, because many states don’t explicitly resolve the conflict, and there are a few jurisdiction where there is an option, but not a requirement, to break the privilege. This, of course, is why I strongly recommend that pastors seek guidance from a local attorney on this issue.

        Once again, by way of example, in Georgia, this privilege can trump the mandatory reporting requirement. “No such minister, priest, rabbi, or similar functionary shall disclose any communications made to him or her by any such person professing religious faith, seeking spiritual guidance, or seeking counseling, nor shall such minister, priest, rabbi, or similar functionary be competent or compellable to testify with reference to any such communication in any court.” Furthermore, even though pastors are, generally speaking, mandatory reports, “a member of the clergy shall not be required to report child abuse reported solely within the context of confession or other similar communication required to be kept confidential under church doctrine or practice. When a clergy member receives information about child abuse from any other source, the clergy member shall comply with the reporting requirements of this Code section, even though the clergy member may have also received a report of child abuse from the confession of the perpetrator.”

        Each state is different, and each state law is equally nuanced. For pastors, this is not an area where you can just lean on casual, lay understandings of the law.

        • Doug Hibbard says

          I think for Baptists, this is the operative phrase you cite: “a member of the clergy shall not be required to report child abuse reported solely within the context of confession or other similar communication required to be kept confidential under church doctrine or practice.”

          Under no Baptist doctrine is confession required to be kept confidential–one may confess sins in seeking a pastor’s prayers or support, but unlike Catholic doctrine which mandates the disclosure of a penitent, Baptist doctrine does not require disclosure for forgiveness. Since this is the case theologically, the “policy of the church” phrase comes into play. So set your church policy accordingly: we do not cover up child sexual abuse. End of story. This is disclosed up front if someone comes to me for counseling or asks for prayer and asks about confidentiality: if you tell me about certain things, like sexual abuse, I will report it according to the law. Further, it’s stated clearly in church policies.

          I’ll see if I can find where an Arkansas lawyer did a rundown on our state law and post his notes. His interpretation was that state law essentially only privileged information that religious doctrine compelled a person to disclose–any voluntary disclosure was not privileged, so a person coming to a Baptist to tell of sexual abuse could not expect their voluntary disclosure to not be reported. He pointed out that we likely would not have admissable testimony because of hearsay rules, but that we did not have a legal shield to not disclose information.

          He basically said that the law was the same for all ministers, but that the differences in doctrine meant that Catholic priests and Baptist pastors would be treated differently under the law.

          It’s a curious thing to study–but as to sexual abuse, I’m afraid I’ll have to open myself to lawsuits rather than be silent. Confess to a bank robbery years ago? I can keep that quiet, but tell me that you’re harming the kid down the street? Sue me from prison. I’d rather lose doing what’s right.

  6. says

    This is a must read by every minister regardless of position! Well done! The only thing I would add would be the following:

    When you think you have communicated clearly – communicate more and in different mediums!

    Excellent article!

  7. Zack Stepp says

    Since I just posted such a lengthly, narrowly-focused comment to Luke and Doug’s questions above, I wanted to offer a general bit of praise for this article. There is a wealth of great information and advice here. I love seeing the wisdom learned from the practice of law applied to encourage the health and welfare of churches.

  8. William Thornton says

    I think it should be clear to pastors that if they receive a credible report of child abuse they should report it to authorities. No abuser should have any expectation of confidentiality if they disclose such things to their minister. It would be a mistake, possibly criminal, for the minister to do otherwise.

    • William Thornton says

      I would amend that to be “a report” of abuse. It is up to the proper authorities to assess the credibility. We have repeatedly seen ministers in trouble because they wanted to have an in house investigation before they called authorities.

  9. says

    I’ve read some of your comments about reporting sexual abuse. In my undergrad work, I studied Psychology as my minor. We studied at length the Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California. The supreme court of California ruled that counselors were required by law to report threats that a person made against a person.

    From my understanding, this is the precedent for such things as you are talking about. If a counselor doesn’t have the right not to report, a minister definitely does not. A person’s right to confidentiality is null when it involves another person’s physical well being.

    Thomas

  10. William Thornton says

    Mr. Roland does a good job covering a lot of ground and only touches on the matter of keeping confidences, something on which the minister should be found trustworthy. No church member should go to his minister and disclose a penchant for pornography, for example, and find that the minister went home and said “Guess what…” to his wife who then mentioned it to the church loudmouth and then everyone knows.

    Ministers who haven’t thought much about child abuse in a church context should not be distracted by possible priest/penitent exceptions to reporting abuse. I don’t recall ever seeing a case like this in SBC life. If the minister “has reasonable cause” (Georgia law wording) to suspect abuse of a child. It’s not complicated. One doesn’t need to have a legal opinion in place on this. Pick up the phone. Call authorities. Church employees and volunteers are mandated reporters in this state.

    The GBC has a lengthy, very thorough, article linked on its home page on the subject:
    http://gabaptist.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/reporting-suspected-child-abuse.pdf

    Me. Roland has a considerable amount of very good counsel on church conflict. I regret that the comments have been so narrowly focused.

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