Despite the ideal image of the loving, peaceful congregation in which everyone is happy—an image deeply ingrained in most all of us—leaders at times need to encourage conflict. They need to act in ways that make conflict inevitable. They need to enhance, not reduce, conflict. Doing these things is difficult. Few of us enjoy conflict. For many of us, taking deliberate actions that will lead to conflict runs counter to both personal desire and our image of our role in the congregation. The very thought of it may make our stomachs tighten, our hearts pound, and our palms sweat. And yet, at times inciting conflict is what effective and faithful leadership demands.

The leadership role in facing an adaptive challenge is not to provide answers, because no one knows what answers are needed to address the concerns the organization is confronting. The key to discovering the answers is giving the work back to the people, so that the answer can emerge from their experience. What do the people have to offer that enables this answer to emerge? In a word: conflict. The appropriate responses to adaptive challenges most often emerge out of a conflict of values within the organization. Sometimes the conflict is between values held by different groups. Sometimes it is between professed and lived values. But the answers needed nearly always emerge from a conflict of values. Without the conflict, there can be no answer.

In many organizations, conflicts, especially conflicts related to the organization’s purpose, are avoided at all costs. Deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors are transmitted, usually nonverbally, about the way one should behave so as not to provoke disagreement. Avoiding conflict, however, is one way to ensure the slow death of the organization, because if disagreements are not faced, there is no possibility of the kind of change that will enable the organization to renew itself. In this situation the leader’s role needs to be one that encourages conflict. The leader doesn’t create the conflict, of course. It is already there. What the leader does is bring it to the surface—usually by refusing to engage in the conflict-avoidance behaviors that are the accepted norms of the organization. The leader may simply ask questions about the issues or reflect upon what seems to be underlying stress in the organization’s life. Sometimes a more direct approach may be needed, such as deliberately raising issues that everyone else is avoiding, because everyone else fears that any discussion of them will provoke disagreement.

Focused conflict at a controlled level enables the answers needed for positive change to emerge. Unbridled conflict about secondary issues doesn’t help at all. If the role of leaders is to instigate, encourage, and enhance institutional stress and conflict, they need to be prepared to suffer the consequences. The not-very-pleasant reality is that if leaders are instrumental in bringing conflict into the open and increasing stress in an organization, much of the uneasiness, resentment, and anger created will be directed toward them.

Comments and emotional responses directed toward the leader are not personal—they may sound that way, but in truth they are aimed at the leader’s role. If your actions seem to be creating conflict and increasing stress, it’s safe to assume that most people will conclude that you are not meeting their expectations. Negative reactions are likely. Being able to make this distinction between self and role doesn’t automatically eliminate the leader’s feelings about the way others respond, but “it enables an individual not to be misled by his emotions into taking statements and events personally that may have little to do with him.” Even personal attacks are not really about you. Reacting to them as personal can have the detrimental effect of moving the focus of the work to you and away from the adaptive change needed.

Most of us who are leaders in the church do not like conflict. First, it goes against our nature as caring people. Second, the image we have of the congregation as a community of faith usually does not feature conflict in any significant way. Third, those involved in congregations are dealing with stress and conflict in many areas of their lives and neither want nor need more conflict when they come to church. If church is a place of stress and conflict, they might just stop coming.

Part of the reality of the pastor’s life is his or her awareness of the issues that create stress in the lives of people in the congregation. Such an awareness may be present to some extent for all leaders in a congregation, but pastors are often more deeply conscious of these issues than most. Knowing that people you care about are already dealing with the financial stress of being laid off from work or the emotional stress of a troubled teenager or the stress of a difficult marriage—or any number of other life situations that create stress—makes it difficult for a pastor to decide to enhance the stress level within the congregation. More than anything else, it seems, these people you care about need church to be a place in which they can find some measure of escape from the problems they face, some measure of peace.

The difficult reality is that it often seems that to be compassionate means to forego dealing with the issues essential to the vitality of the congregation. Time and again I’ve discovered a close parallel between the issues causing stress in an individual’s life and the issues that need to be addressed in the congregation. The people are the congregation, after all, and the dynamics that shape their personal lives often shape congregational life as well. While surface issues may differ in many cases, the underlying and most significant issues in both personal and congregational life are similar. Working on the issues in one area has a positive impact in the other. Thus raising the level of institutional stress needs to be seen as something more than adding to the stress of already stressed-out people. It may well be that, of course, but it can also provide a setting in which it is possible to address concerns in a way that will have a significant and positive impact in people’s personal lives.

The congregation, for example, may struggle over balancing the budget or venturing into a new ministry to which many believe God is calling them. To bring this issue into the open and to encourage dealing with it will increase stress. But it will also help the congregation deal with important issues related to the balancing of material concerns and God’s will. In doing this it can have a direct impact on the way people in the congregation deal with similar tensions in their own lives.

The relationship is not always clear, but I am coming to believe that an important connection exists between the issues that create stress in our personal lives and those that create stress in the congregation. If the congregation can handle these issues appropriately in its life, this effort will have a significant impact on the lives of members. Yes, it still increases stress, it still means that the congregation won’t be a place of refuge and peace, but it does hold out a real possibility of important growth—growth that offers enough reason to endure the stress.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog 


Adapted from Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership,  by Jeffrey D. Jones, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey Jones is hosting an online seminar, Leading in the Congregation, at Andover Newton Theological School February 13- March 9. 


AL380_SM Heart, Mind and Strength:
Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership
by Jeffrey D. Jones

Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.

AL309_SMTraveling Together:
A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations
by Jeffrey D. Jones 

By becoming congregations of disciples, churches and their individual members will prepare themselves to do the hard work of seeking God’s will and discerning God’s call, finding new possibilities in old answers as well as radically new ways to be and to do church. Jones guides readers through what it means to be a disciple, from key experiences that contribute to the growth of disciples to the practices of disciple-forming congregations.

AL387_SMHoly Clarity:
The Practice of Planning and Evaluation
by Sarah B. Drummond 

In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: to find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change.

AL382_SMPromise and Peril:
Understanding and Managing
Change and Conflict in Congregations
by David B. Brubaker 

In Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations, David Brubaker brings the tools of organizational theory and research to the task of understanding the deeper dynamics of congregational conflict. With a doctorate in sociology and more than twenty years working with congregational conflicts, Brubaker helps to explore the causes and effects of conflicts on a wide range of congregations. This book will help congregations avoid the pitfalls of conflict and instead head toward a healthy relationship between and among church staff and members.


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