Q: Our congregation has had several conflicts, major and minor, in 10 years. We can’t continue this way. How can we break the pattern of conflict?

A: I hate the destructive results of conflicts. People and congregations get hurt. Few conflicts result in healing and reconciliation. Many leaders know how to fight and reject—but not how to fight, make up, and achieve harmony. I work with conflicted congregations because existing faith resources can be learned and applied, leading to resolution.

One effective resource is a mediation team—a group made up of four to six people who commit themselves to serve two to four years as mediators for a congregation. I prefer as mediators people who have suffered and integrated their suffering into a healthy faith perspective. They should have listening skills, relate easily and warmly to others, and desire to help disputants find a win/win outcome. A single mediation team for a dispute comprises a man and a woman, if possible. Anyone in the congregation may approach any mediator to request an initial conversation on possible mediation of a conflict. A mediating team can initiate conversation with one or both parties to help them consider a mediation covenant.

Elements of the Covenant
In a mediation covenant the disputants agree to these practices:

  • We present our views to develop mutual understanding.
  • We are committed to the best interests of each disputant, the congregation, and the Creator as Reconciler.
  • We start with a win/lose perspective and seek a win/win outcome.
  • We develop common ground accepted by all parties.
  • We identify the issues, interests, and needs of all parties, and we agree not to focus on individuals.
  • We accept our tendency to want to debate the issues. But we agree to learn and practice dialogue as our mode of conversation.
  • We evaluate options by how well they meet needs and satisfy interests of all parties.
  • We collaborate in working out a solution.
  • We begin in confidential conversation and end with an agreement on what can be made public.
  • We reward each other for each step toward a mutual outcome.

The Mediation Process
Mediation efforts often consist of three to five meetings of two to three hours each. One mediator keeps confidential notes, which are used at each meeting to review the previous one. A mediator who has the gift of discernment, and is attuned to the involvement of the Spirit of God, may share helpful insights. The mediation team indicates at the outset that everyone is committed to learn and that no one is an expert. We develop directions together.

The desired outcomes: (1) we develop an agreement based on what is best for all involved; (2) we agree to disagree and not to continue the dispute; (3) we agree that no agreement is possible and that we wish to continue the conflict; (4) for the good of all, we agree to separate ourselves from the congregation; or (5) we set boundaries for what is permissible or impermissible for people involved in congregational life.

In many congregations the dispute involves a staff member, often the senior clergy leader. A mediation team provides a structure for a disputant and a staff member to meet to develop understandings; share perceptions and assumptions; explore each “conflict story” to create a common, reconciling story; and identify common ground for continued learning and support.

When Mediation Won’t Work
Unfortunately, egos influence people’s willingness to enter into mediation. Mediation does not work when people assume that one right answer exists and that they have it. Nor does it work when people argue simply to win their point and prove others wrong. It doesn’t work when people are out to harm others for what they believe to be the good of all, or when a group has decided that its values are God’s values.

At one meeting I presented the structure of a mediation team to work with disputes within the congregation. I asked if anyone had any experience with mediation. In a group of 15 adults and one teenager, the senior-high youth replied that her school had taught her peer mediation, and that she has used it. It works. She is a modern-day Paul. The apostle Paul wrote his letters because of conflict within the early congregations. In each letter, he compliments the community, identifies issues, presents possible directions, and gives thanks for members’ commitment to live in greater harmony.

Having disputes is natural and normal. But instead of opting for mediation, we would rather fight and win, or avoid confrontation and pretend the conflict will go away. If the methods used by your congregation to deal with conflict have not worked, why not give a mediation team and process a try? It may work for you and your congregation.

Rev. Fred Shilling, an Alban Institute field consultant, draws on 40 years of consulting with more than 600 religious groups to assist people in healing disputes and creating healthy organizations.