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.