Congregations often experience conflict in response to social movements in the world around them. Since World War II, movements regarding civil rights, the war in Vietnam, the ordination of women, and human sexuality—each vitally important in its own right—also have raised challenges inside congregations, forcing leaders to address internal questions of power and culture.
Eighteen years ago, I surveyed 100 congregations in the American southwest regarding their experience of change and conflict in the previous five years. Only one change was negatively associated with conflict—meaning that it made conflict less likely. Congregations that started a “new community outreach” in the previous five years were less likely to report a significant conflict than similar congregations that did not.
Leading a successful change process in a congregation, even a very traditional one, is possible. But to do so, a leader must earn the right to make that change and partner with others to make it happen. Lone-ranger leaders who ride into Dodge and transform an entire community exist only in the movies. In the reality of congregational life, we need a patient posse.
Criticism: it’s ubiquitous in congregations. No matter how we leaders pretzel-twist ourselves to please people, we fall short—and there are always helpful, caring people who will take the time to tell us so!
The worst thing we can do is overreact. Whether by proclaiming innocence or by fighting criticism with more criticism, leaders who respond too strongly only up the emotional ante. That’s why underreacting is a key skill for every leader.
Being a part of the church does not feel safe right now. For many clergy and lay leaders, it may feel like the hardest work we’ll ever do.
Church was already hard before the pandemic because the church we’ve known—the church many of us graduated from seminary thinking we knew how to serve—was already disappearing. We used to think we knew what our job was, but the things we know how to do aren’t working anymore, and no one yet knows what will work in the future. We’re in a constant state of chaos, and no matter what we do, someone will always get upset.
Every congregation is unique. It is located in a specific place, has a particular history, and evidences a unique culture. Yet dynamics and patterns of behavior recur across denominations, polities, and locations. Following are a set of congregational constants that I’ve observed across religious traditions. Each reader can decide whether they are true of your congregation, and if so, how they might help you to become a more effective leader.
Given the extreme polarization that now infects American society, many wonder what they can do to reduce divisions in families, communities, and congregations. Fortunately, there are strategies any of us can adopt to become agents of depolarization. They range from the intrapersonal (changing attitudes and behaviors) to the systemic (advocating for social change), but all can be implemented at the local level. All the ideas that follow come from When the Center Does Not Hold: Leading in an Age of Polarization, a book I wrote with several colleagues in 2019, published by Fortress Press.