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Posted June 12, 2015

Book: Change and Conflict in your Congregation: How to implement conscious choices, mange emotions & build a thriving Christian community
Author: Rev. Anita L. Bradshaw
Skylight Paths. Woodstock, Vermont

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Change and conflict are often feared in churches --- but they don't need to be. When we learn to see these difficulties as normal, healthy parts of being a community, it is much easier to navigate them with a minimum of anxiety and bad behavior. We are able to let go of our fears and face change and conflict as catalysts for moving forward in the mission of showing God's love and justice to the world. In fact, there is no way to move forward in mission without change and conflict.

This warmhearted guidebook will help your church navigate change and channel conflict into deeper understanding and a stronger sense of community. Lay leaders, pastors and church staff will be empowered by creative, easy-to-implement strategies to:

--Establish appropriate congregational behavior and communication
--Practice non-anxious leadership in the midst of upheaval
--Foster productive community discussion and discernment
--Manage a community's tendency to polarize disagreements
--Encourage imaginative thinking and creative responses to difficult situations
--Replace a congregation's discouraging self-image with an empowering vision for ministry

An Excerpt from the Book:

What is Our Story?

Discovering and changing the way we see ourselves

The more I listened, the more I understood the unfolding story of the congregation. It was a small, struggling inner-city congregation whose longtime members, upper-middle-class professionals, were becoming retirees with less disposable income. The new members were primarily young families who had not yet reached their full earning potential. The funds bequeathed to the congregation by the deceased members had not always been handled with an eye to the future. Leaders had used some of the money as it came in, and the congregation was now facing a looming financial crisis. On top of the financial challenges, the church had limited parking, which served as a major impediment to growth.

The biggest issue facing this congregation, however, was an identity crisis: members didn't know what their mission was and what they wanted to do. They did what "churches" do, and they did it as a family. But just like many families, they had their dysfunctions. They were not open to new folks, and they had no idea how to work together, to find a balance among the roles of the pastor, lay leaders, and members.

Their long-term pastor had overfunctioned, doing nearly everything for the congregation, from making sure the boiler worked to preaching to organized events and activities to pastoral care work and visitation to community outreach. The less the congregation's member did for themselves the more the pastor picked up and filled the vacuum. This arrangement would probably have continued except for a devastating depression and nervous breakdown that forced the pastor to retire. This abrupt change was difficult for the pastor and his family, and the congregation took his illness hard and was lost in a sea of guilt, shame, anger, and grief.

In the interim period before calling a new pastor, the congregation worked to understand how it had contributed to the tragic situation, and the pendulum swung the other way. When the next pastor was called, he significantly underfunctioned, and the congregation picked up the slack. The pastor preached and led worship but did virtually no pastoral care and provided little leadership to the congregation or the staff. Congregational leaders struggled with when and how to tell him it was time he moved on. He saved them the trouble and accepted a call from another congregation. People were happy for him and relieved that they could now move into another phase of the congregation's life. They just didn't know what that was or how to go about it.

This congregation's internal problems were systemic. The system had allowed for extreme over-functioning in one long-term pastorate and significant under-functioning in another, shorter pastorate. The congregation had responded accordingly, moving from extreme under-functioning to significant over-functioning. Members admitted they weren't sure what normal functioning was. They knew they were tired. They knew they needed leadership, but they were having trouble letting go.

Three major forces were at work in this congregation and appear in many others like it. First, the system was out of balance, and leaders did not understand how the systems work. Second, the metaphors of the congregation as family and church as home pointed to not only a closed system, but also a potentially damaging way of understanding themselves and their potential for attracting new members. And finally, their shortcomings had found their way into the story they kept telling themselves about who they were. This narrative of the broken, declining church that had nearly killed a pastor haunted them and their perception of themselves. As one person said to me, "It is past time for us to let go of that story and stop carrying it around."

Every congregation has a system that dictates how it functions (or doesn't function) in times of change and conflict. And every congregation has metaphors it uses to describe its life together. And finally, every congregation has a story or stories that members tell themselves and others. These three elements are vital to understand if we are able to manage the conflict. In many ways, the story most clearly conveys what is going on. To understand a congregation, leaders need to know how to look for clues that unveil the system and metaphors that drive its story.

Table of Contents:

1. Is this normal? Accepting change and conflict in the church
2. What are we so afraid of? Using scripture, history, and theology to reframe our perspective
3. Why is change so difficult? Understanding and managing the process of transformation
4. How can conflict be positive? Strategies for working with and thriving through disagreements
5. Why do we love extremes? Developing imagination and managing polarities
6. What is our story? Discovering and changing the way we see ourselves