What would motivate someone who never has enjoyed being in a conflict—whether his own or someone else’s—to spend almost four decades in the midst of congregational conflicts? “I’m curious,” explains Speed B. Leas, a long-time Alban Institute consultant who has pioneered consulting with conflicted congregations. “I want to understand why people fight. I don’t think you can figure that out unless you stand in the midst of it.”
Leas, who will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a consultant next year, says his understanding of why people fight has evolved over the years. “I started out not paying attention to many of the dimensions,” he recalls, “but only to the problem that needed to be solved or the decision that needed to be made. I was seeing it through the lens of problem-solving and mediation.”
Later, he began to understand that the problem-solving dimension was only part of what was going on. Through his study of the work of Murray Bowen, Edwin Freedman, and Michael Kerr, Leas began to appreciate the power of interpersonal dynamics and personal psychologies and to pay attention to the systemic dimension of conflict. Then about 10 years ago, he began to recognize yet another dimension related to conflict—a faith dimension.
“When people fight, there is a sense of hopelessness at the center of their scrabbling to fix the situation,” he explains. “The more hopelessness there is, the crazier the fighting becomes. But if there is hope—even when there is death—and people can see the possibility of something renewing or redemptive, they can better deal with the conflict.”
Leas also credits his nearly 40 years of consulting with congregations—especially in the area of conflict—to his interest in “focusing in on a narrow topic and getting good on it” so that he could share his learning and experience with others. “Doing that,” he says, “gives me the greatest sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
“I also think the church is an important institution. I have wanted to understand and make contributions to it. I am proud of my association with it.”
Leas is perhaps best known for his “levels of conflict,” a standard among consultants, congregational leaders, judicatory executives, and seminarians for understanding congregational conflict. He describes how conflicts begin as problems to solve but can escalate into intractable situations if not managed well in the early stages (see box, page 9). He also suggests helpful strategies for each conflict level.
Leas’ typology of conflict management styles also has had wide impact. He identifies and defines six styles of approaching conflict: persuading, compelling, avoiding/accommodating, collaborating, negotiating, and supporting. He also provides suggestions for when and how to use each style.
Steps along the Path
After completing divinity school, Leas served as a parish minister and community organizer before becoming the first director of Los Angeles’ Center of Metropolitan Mission-in-Service, which sought to motivate churches on poverty, racism, and other urban issues. Although he had studied community organizing with Saul Alinsky, he began to question whether such highly confrontative approaches were appropriate when working with congregations.
It was while he was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Management that Leas learned about other ways to bring about institutional change—including consulting. Leas began to experiment with consulting in congregations. Those experiences—along with his study in organizational management, change, and conflict—resulted in the 1973 book Church Fights: Managing Conflict in the Local Church, which Leas co-authored with Paul Kittlaus.
Leas moved to Michigan in 1973 to become director of training at the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies. He continued to consult with congregations, as well as to offer training nationwide. He says it was during this period that he shed his identity with social change advocacy and fully took on a new identity with conflict and consulting.
Through his work for the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, Leas often found himself in meetings with or presenting alongside Loren Mead, Alban’s founder. “I invited myself to join Loren in his new venture,” Leas jokes. The invitation paid off; Leas became an Alban consultant in 1977.
Shortly thereafter—thanks to a major grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—Alban was able to engage a national network of consultants, and Leas became director of consulting. In addition to consulting with congregations and judicatories, training congregational leaders in conflict management, and doing research in the area of congregational conflict, Leas managed Alban’s team of consultants until 1992, when he returned to full-time consulting work as an Alban senior consultant.
A Man with Many Fans
Both current and former Alban consultants voice their appreciation for Leas’ leadership, expertise, mentoring, and role modeling.
“I believe Speed brought a really sound theoretical understanding of consulting and organizational dynamics to Alban,” notes Gil Rendle, an Alban senior consultant. “His was the hand on the tiller that kept Alban—and me—constantly turning toward meeting high standards of practice. Obviously I learned a lot about working with conflicted people and congregations from Speed, but I also learned much about the process of working with congregations from him. I appreciate the way in which he modeled the importance of staying in touch with a breadth of ideas, writings, culture—all of which usually find some place in the work with churches.”
Terry Foland, a retired Alban consultant, points to Leas’ strength as a listener and clarifier. “His greatest gift is helping a client find their own solutions because he understands them so well,” Foland explains. “He then offers options they will choose based on their own analysis. That skill is perhaps his greatest contribution to both Alban and congregations.”
Susan Nienaber, also a senior consultant, is grateful for yet another aspect of Leas’ work. “I think his greatest contribution to the entire field of conflict resolution is his levels of conflict,” she says. “This framework endures. It feels like it will have an eternally helpful place in the field.”
Senior consultant Alice Mann describes Leas as an “engaging teacher, a generous and supportive coach, and a model of spiritual maturity.” She notes that he has given “courageous responses to congregations in conflict and pain” and contributed “a deep and disciplined practice, modeling the highest standards of professionalism.”
Leas’ warm embrace of his colleagues has been an important strength of Alban consulting for a long time, says senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss. “For me, the option of calling Speed on the phone has been an enormous comfort as I have moved into this perilous and unpredictable work,” Hotchkiss says. “In my first few years with Alban, I made use of the ‘Speed hotline’ many times.”
Nienaber describes Leas as conveying a “no-nonsense, almost crusty exterior.” But, she adds, “he’s really a big softy on the inside. He cares deeply about others and is devoted to his clients. He spends a great deal of time preparing for his encounters with his clients and on any written reports. He’s very conscientious.”
Among Alban’s consulting team, stories about Leas abound, many of them reflecting the “crustier” side of his personality that Nienaber noted. “My favorite story comes from a time in which Speed and I shared a client in New York City,” recalls Rendle. “After several rounds of negotiating the design of our work with the client i
n which they consistently redrafted our designs to make them ‘safer,’ we ended up on a conference call with Speed in California, me in Pennsylvania, and the clients in NYC. The client once again redrafted a part of the design, making it much 8 congregations • summer 2006safer for their group. They explained the change and then asked what Speed thought of the change, which was part of the design that he was to lead. After a Speed-like pause, I heard him say to the client: ‘Well, we could try that. Or else we could try something that would actually help.’ I left the room to do my laughing.”
Nienaber recalls a time before she joined the Alban staff. “I was consulting with Speed about one of my cases,” she says. “It was a situation where someone’s ongoing bad behavior finally caught up with him. Speed said, ‘Well, as my mother used to say, time wounds all heels!’”
Although Leas officially retired in 2004, he continues to consult with congregations, train consultants and other congregational leaders, and serve as a valued colleague to members of Alban’s consulting team.
In reflecting on his 30 years with Alban, Leas mentions several highlights. “Among the highlights was when several others would get a bee in their bonnet about a research project they wanted to do and would get me involved in pulling it off.” Those projects included a study of involuntary terminations of clergy by congregations; research on “inviting” congregations; and an examination of how polarity management works in congregations. “After we had done the research,” he adds, “we would go around the country, sharing what we had learned and finding out what other people knew or had experienced. In that way, we were both teacher and leaner.”
Leas points to the number of congregations with which he worked and which succeeded in dealing with their conflict as another highlight. While that work was not as public or as large a project, he says it was highly satisfying.
“Building an institution with colleagues I admired also was a highlight,” Leas concludes. “While it didn’t always feel satisfying at the time, it feels like a highlight now as I look back.”