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Leading in a Time of High Conflict

Having walked with hundreds of congregations through periods of high conflict, I see some predictable ways such conflicts unfold. In the wake of the 2019 United Methodist General Conference, I want to share some common patterns and feelings that you may recognize in yourself or others, as well as some suggestions for healthy ways to channel energy.

But I want to first acknowledge that some may not find this helpful right now—it may sound too emotionally detached as I describe how things often unfold. Like every United Methodist, I’ve been struggling with my own feelings about what has happened in my own denomination. If you find yourself feeling reactive as you begin to read this, I encourage you to stop—it might not be what you need right now but could be helpful later on. For others, seeing how things typically unfold might provide some hope, courage, and steadiness in these days.

1. Tremendous pain

When very high conflict erupts in an organization, the shock, pain, hurt, and grief are overwhelming. Many people feel disoriented, numb, hopeless, or even sick to their stomachs. The world as we know it or as we expected it to be has dramatically changed.

It’s important to take care of yourself! Be very tender with yourself and with others. It’s counter-intuitive but while we want to ruminate on what has happened, we need to do the opposite. We need to slow down, breathe, pray, go for a walk, and engage in activities that help us periodically disconnect and spiritually re-ground. Unfortunately, pastors and lay leaders instead are called to go into crisis management mode—listening to others, providing support, managing the reactivity of others, and solving immediate problems. It’s easy to quickly become exhausted. Try to carve out some time to be alone and engage in activities or practices that you find life-giving.

2. Intense reactivity

After the shock and pain sets in, intense emotional reactivity follows. We are hard-wired to react. It is part of our fight-flight-freeze response and is a gift from God. But it can be hard to manage our reactivity. Unfortunately, reactivity breeds more reactivity, which speeds up and escalates the conflict.

Encourage people feeling intensely reactive to take a break from social media, the internet, and live-streaming. I have learned to be careful about how much negativity I “let in” to my soul because I know how important it is for me to be there for others, and I can’t truly be present if I am overwhelmed with my own emotions. This can look like I am being an ostrich sticking my head in the sand, but it is more like titrating—continuously measuring and adjusting the balance of the pain.

At the core of reactivity is blame or shame. When humans are in deep pain, we feel desperate and we look for ways to end that pain as quickly as possible. Blaming ourselves or others is an attempt to re-gain control. It mobilizes our anger, and anger is often an easier feeling to experience than pain and grief. Anger can be positive if it is well-managed. It causes us to mobilize for the fight, and that helps to restore a sense of control.

However, the more we react and blame, the higher the conflict rises and the more damage we do to one another. In my experience, the reactivity can be worse than the conflict itself. It is not unusual to find out later that what actually happened was not nearly as catastrophic as it felt in the moment. Reactivity sometimes keeps us from seeing clearly what is happening. Reactivity also creates impatience, which causes us to act prematurely, which can make things worse and create more problems.

3. Fleeing toward those with whom we agree

In periods of conflict, we tend to move away from those who see things differently and toward those who agree with us—a behavior I call “clumping.” We vent (which can be healthy), find comfort and support, and lessen the isolation. While clumping feels safe and comforting in the moment, it can also make the conflict worse.

If we refuse to spend time with those who hold different views, we miss important pieces of information that we need to solve the issues before us. We also lose empathy, and this is dangerous. The more we disconnect from those who differ from us, the more likely we are to demonize the other. We project all of our fears on them—and blame increases. We take rigid positions and dig in for the battle.

Being with those who hold differing views, while possibly difficult and frightening, is the only way to get to resolution. Clumping can easily escalate to camps and factions led by demanding and loud spokespersons. And sometimes this leads to violence. We are more likely to want to hate and harm others when we don’t have a relationship with them, when we don’t know what they most care about and who they are as children of God.

4. No golden path now

The higher the level of conflict, the messier things become. I’ve said to many leaders in conflicted congregations, “There is no golden path now out of this conflict. Any path you choose will have more complications and will likely bring more pain.” When the conflict has escalated to a certain point, there is so much damage that there is no longer a perfect, win-win resolution.

That is the bad news. But here’s the good news: Everyone involved already knows this truth. They know that an important threshold has been crossed and they can’t keep wandering in the old desert. Naming and acknowledging that we need to choose an entirely different path is the very first step toward recovery. There is a strange sense of relief when that happens. This is the core of the Christian faith—something has to die in order for us to experience resurrection. Just like Jesus, who begged God to take this inevitable journey to the cross away from him, we finally have to face it and surrender everything to God.

5. The high cost of leaving

It always grieves me when some folks in a highly conflicted organization choose to leave. I understand it, but I am always sad about it. I am sad to see important, long-term relationships fracture. I am sad when I see folks who are so traumatized that they can’t set foot on a property anymore. I am sad when people who are dealing with so many challenges in their personal lives leave a church that once provided relief from their struggles. And I especially hate to see folks lose their faith as a result of the conflict.

Here’s what grieves me most: When folks leave and disconnect in the midst of high conflict and stay emotionally stuck in their pain—sometimes for the rest of their lives. I once worked with a church in conflict where the two principal parties had remained frozen and stuck for more than 40 years! As I spoke with one person involved, it was as if the conflict had occurred the day before. It was just as fresh, raw, and agonizing as the moment it happened.

I realize that some folks have to disconnect for a while to get their bearings, find support, and maintain distance that allows them to find perspective and heal. That can be very healthy. Leaving is not always bad and sometimes brings great freedom. But I always encourage people who leave to come back, even just for a visit, when it is safe enough for them to do so and when their strength has returned. Here’s why: Things will change, and hopefully will get better. Even in the worst conflicts, when even I have lost all hope, I have been amazed again and again at the miracles that God can perform.

6. Resolution and recovery

The organizations that most successfully recover from and are transformed through their conflict are the ones that view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. When we stop the fighting and blaming, set down our emotional swords and shields, and become curious about what God might be trying to teach us through our conflict, profound transformation often occurs. Conflict happens for a reason, but not always for the reasons we find on the surface. Usually conflict occurs because something deep in the culture of the organization has needed to be changed for a long time, but we haven’t been clear enough or courageous enough to do the hard, adaptive work.

My hope and prayer for our denomination is that we find the courage to make the deeper changes and to do what is good, right, and just for all people. Thank you for your heroic, courageous, and inspiring leadership during these turbulent times.

This article was riginally published on the website of the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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