image credit: Flickr / FBCNashville
by Diane J. Strickland

Some years ago I attended a worship service in which the organist played the music for one anthem while the choir opened their music and sang a completely different one. At first it sounded like the performance was “a little rough,” but as the noise unfolded some of us recognized what was happening. I marveled at the determination of organist and choir to persist. Neither one “gave in” to the other. No matter how dreadful it all sounded, they marched on through to the end, each finishing at different times. When silence fell, I thought to myself that if anyone had actually tried to do that on purpose, they probably couldn’t have done it! 

Could it be that sometimes ministry is like that? We just keep singing our song come what may. We wonder why it doesn’t sound quite right. We wonder why it’s so hard to keep our part going. We wonder why we don’t see the ministry results that inspired our vocations. We wonder why few people appreciate what we offer. Most of us wouldn’t try to do that on purpose. We know there would be trouble eventually.

I have been a part of a congregation all my life, including nearly twenty-five years as an ordained minister. During that time I’ve seen all kinds of conflict and been in the middle of some of it. Church folk fight about big things and small things. Some conflicts I remember from childhood, and some I remember from last week. Over the last decade, however, I have seen a different kind of conflict emerging between ordained clergy and their congregations: a conflict with its roots in vocation. A conflict of vocation is likely about spiritual dissonance. People aren’t singing from the same music. The experience may be turning ordained clergy away from congregational ministry, and turning congregations away from their ministers.

What is spiritual dissonance?

In ministry, dissonance is created by a lack of agreement about purpose. Our vocations disagree about what we are doing and why we are doing it. I call it a spiritual dissonance, because our vocations reveal to what and/or to whom we are offering our ministry. The what and/or who has spiritual power and direction for us, interpreting and creating meaning for our lives and our ministry.

Have you ever had a hunch that you and your congregation or minister were not on the same page about what matters most? Do you have that hunch often? If so, spiritual dissonance may be present.

In his popular TED talk on the why behind a product marketing approach, Simon Sinek raises a similar issue. It is in the why that we find the inspiration, the meaning, the value of something to which others respond. In business that response is measured in sales. In ministry that response is measured by people engaged and participating in what we offer. If there is a conflict in the why of ministry between clergy and congregation, we feel as if the meaning behind our ministry is confused or conflicted. Spiritual dissonance in ministry has everything to do with the why—a call to produce and offer ministry in certain ways in the hope of generating certain results.

The practical experience of spiritual dissonance rarely is lived out in large-scale conflicts where our gods do obvious battle as did Yahweh’s Elijah when he took on the prophets of Baal. Rather, spiritual dissonance is created cumulatively—in the many decisions of a congregation and minister in daily ministry. We may belong to the same worshipping tradition, but we discover our assumed purposes, priorities, and desired outcomes are different.

Can you identify conflicting purposes in these examples? 

People are not comfortable with the pastoral attention paid to “strangers and newcomers” and the time it requires from their pastor. The Council asks that he visit new people only after long time members are visited.

The minister wants an early Christmas Eve service geared to families with young children. She hopes it will open a connection to unchurched families in the neighborhood. The congregation wants everyone to stay together at the longer and later service, and feels the extra work is too much to ask of volunteers on Christmas Eve.

Denominational mission contributions are paid only after local expenses are met. Sometimes there is nothing left to pay. The congregation is not happy with national policies and decisions, but the minister values the connection to a larger body of the Church and the work done together around the world.

The Board isn’t happy with infant baptism requests from parents they never see again, but have no problem with the grandchildren of members being baptized whose parents they never see again.

The music budget rises as section leads and instrumentalists are needed to support the aging choir that includes long time church members, now retirees, who take extended vacations. Hiring someone to lead a worship band or a community children’s choir, however, is out of the question.

On their own, these things don’t sound like the end of a pastoral tie but day by day, season by season, the gap in shared purpose and meaning of ministry becomes a chasm. Each side in these issues has valid points to make, and there is something of vocational meaning at stake in decisions made, even if participants aren’t aware. The problem lies here: there is no agreement on what is the greater priority at stake in the decision and few perceive that this lack of agreement is vocational dissonance. It is then repeated in dozens of similar kinds of decisions.

How does spiritual dissonance affect ministers and congregations?

Spiritual dissonance creates wear and tear on both minister and congregation. Each group may be doing their very best work, but the why behind that work reveals different spiritual purposes. The end result is that, over time, ministers begin to see their life’s work being directed to purposes that (to them) are worth less than the ones upon which their call depends. It becomes impossible to lead effectively because congregational goals reflect different goals than the minister’s call to ministry.

Similarly, congregations gradually find their passion for what is worth their ongoing participation is dissonant with their minister’s priorities. It becomes impossible for those congregants to follow their leader enthusiastically because the minister’s ministry goals are different from their own. Either way, it’s a conflict that is now cutting to the heart of what matters most to both minister and congregation—the very things upon which their calls are based and inspired.

In the case of ordained ministers, a prolonged experience of spiritual dissonance leaves them feeling more and more disconnected from their call as they do their daily work. They become dispirited, frustrated, and often begin to question their vocational decision. After all, the work they are doing is not why they made material and life sacrifices, or why they asked their families to do the same. In the case of congregants, a prolonged experience of spiritual dissonance leaves them feeling inadequate, defensive and less likely to take on leadership roles. Their joy in ministry dissipates. After all, this is not why they donate time, talent, and treasure to their church, either.

Spiritual dissonance diminishes and isolates both ministers and congregations.

This is a conflict of vocation, where the call to ministry of clergy and the call to ministry of congregation are understood so differently that they cannot find common goals of purpose that will sustain a satisfying working relationship over time. It doesn’t matter that the mission statement on the Narthex wall or in the Sunday bulletin makes it sound like there is agreement. It’s what we do and what we won’t do that reveal what matters most to us. Our operating purpose is found there. The meaning of our call is revealed.

How do we avoid this?

In my work with research colleague Joel Den Haan, we’ve created ways to bring to the surface and identify the dominant carriers of meaning operating within congregations. In my coaching and counseling practice, I also do it with individuals. Not surprisingly, a big part of my practice ends up talking about real or potential conflict. We can help avoid conflict by identifying the areas around which it might gather, and planning accordingly. If it’s too late to avoid conflict, we can identify it and recommend ways of addressing it.

Getting ahead of such conflict isn’t easy, but there may be a way to uncover this particular conflict potential before a minister accepts the next congregational call and before a congregation extends it. As they say—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Ministers and congregations who are not in between calls can use the process as a joint ministry review. They may better understand each other, and have a better idea how to approach the future.

Questions for ministers and congregations to ask each other 

What kinds of things are going on when this congregation/minister feels they are in their ministry “sweet spot”—being and doing what they recognize as God’s call to them? What are they doing? Describe the energy. How does it feel? Describe the results. What is ministry success for this congregation/minister?

When this congregation/minister has had major conflict in the past, what was at the heart of it? Music? Theology? Money? Congregational/Ministerial conduct? Ministry priorities? Power groups or a power person? Other? (please specify) Each should answer for the last three major conflicts.

If you had to choose, what would you say are the three most important things to this congregation/minister? What is not negotiable in this congregation/minister? Why are these things important?


With these three groups of questions, a minister and a congregation will begin to perceive what carriers of meaning are behind each other’s call to ministry. Respondents will also gain a better self-understanding as well. A framework emerges around which to have a meaningful discussion about ministry priorities, both shared and different. Each party gains a clearer understanding of whether minister and congregation are singing the same anthem, another arrangement of it that’s worth learning, or something else altogether. With better mutual understanding, there may be room to negotiate their ministry covenant so that each party gains something of what they need to continue in ministry together.

For some, the question remains as to how vocational meaning is challenged if it doesn’t appear to live up to the standards of Christian gospel and the purpose we believe it has in the world. When is a minister not really a minister of the Christian gospel? When is a congregation not really in ministry for the Christian gospel? We can see how difficult these questions are. They sometimes need to be asked so that we can all renew the meaning of our baptism and deepen our ministries by deepening our vocation. That work is best conducted with additional resource people, including presbytery, diocesan, or other judicatory resource people, as well as outside consultants trained to do this kind of core level work. Exit interviews, vacancy profile work, or commissions of judicatories may raise this opportunity for all parties. Knowing the meaning behind ministry vocation is no longer an assumption to be made. Spiritual dissonance is in play and the consequences are costing us all.

Is dissonance all bad?

In my many years as chorister, singing in different kinds of choirs, I have appreciated the experience of musical dissonance as a device to create suspense, interest, and the possibility of a change. One of my choir directors used to urge us to “love those clashes—it’s the only way they can do what they need to do”! Spiritual dissonance in ministry can also create a time when assumptions are challenged, room for a new idea is created, and the possibility of a change is recognized. That’s how we move theology and praxis along. But choirs and organists, ministers and congregations need to be in the same songbook so that dissonance eventually resolves.

Spiritual dissonance. Vocational conflict. When trouble gathers around what matters most in ministry, it is an opportunity for everyone to talk about the meaning of our vocations. Otherwise we are going to need a big box of earplugs.

Congregations, 2013-03-22

2013 Issue 1, Number 1

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