Q: Our congregation recently had a big fight, and we need to heal. How can we do that? Feelings are still very strong—people are avoiding coming to services—but some don’t want to talk about it anymore.
A: “Church fight” seem like two words that can’t possibly go together, so we don’t prepare for disagreement. Not surprisingly, we then don’t handle it well when it comes and don’t heal form it well when it’s over. Having worked with many congregations after conflicts, I can suggest some activities that may help. These seven activities are in no particular order; one strategy would be to try one that seems easy and one that seems more difficult.
1. Pray. Begin with 21 days of prayer for someone with whom you are angry. If that doesn’t help, repeat as needed in 21-day increments. Recording the prayers and your feelings about them on tape or in a journal can help you to see progress or sticking points.
2. Stay purposefully connected. Attend worship. Believe you can reconnect even with those with whom you most disagree. Find olive branches that you can afford to have rejected. Call people who are missing from worship and encourage them to return. We live in a “divorce” culture where people have a tendency to walk away from problems. Disagreements give the congregation an opportunity to be a practice ground for talking things through, even though it may be uncomfortable.
3. Be honest. Share how you feel—not to lay blame, but to give your feelings a name. “I’m fine” is not the right answer if it is not true.
4. Listen for feelings. Guided listening circles can help, especially with facilitation from your denominational staff or outside consultants. Know that some may need more time or may not feel understood. We need two things before we are ready to move on from a conflict: to feel heard and to feel understood.
5. Allow for differences. Humans heal at different rates, both physically and emotionally. Like the grieving cycle, there is a cycle of forgiveness and healing that people move through in their own way. It can help, in understanding this, to read about forgiveness or healing.
6. Find the lessons. Many congregations feel that a conflict is a waste of resources, time, and energy. In fact, it may be a time of essential learning and practice that will affect the rest of our lives, a time that strengthens faith, and a time that builds up the community.
7. Prepare for next time. Building evaluation into the routine life of the congregation, learning an array of tools for working on issues, and studying and practicing as a community of faith are some ways to take healing to the next step—doing better the next time.
Patrica Carol, a Roman Catholic laywoman, was a field consultant with the Alban Institute when this article was published. She works particularly in the areas of planning (both for congregations and denominations), health and healing for communities of faith, and helping clergy with assessment of their life and work. Prior to working with Alban, she had more than two decades of experience as a parish minister and middle judicatory executive.