by Bill Wilson
It comes in a variety of accents. It can be a man’s voice or a woman’s (my favorite is the female Australian). It can break your heart or serve as a warning. It will mock you. It will scold you. When I am behind the wheel, to hear it makes me cringe. If you have a GPS in your vehicle, you know the word “recalculating”. It means you have taken a wrong turn, you might be lost, or at the very least you have wandered off the path your GPS prefers that you take. The unspoken message is “way to go dummy, now wait patiently while I figure out how to get us out of this mess.”
Every generation comes up with words that aptly describe their era. From “groovy” to “whatever”, the English language has an amazing ability to morph and shape itself to fit an ever-changing population. Could it be that “recalculating” is a word that describes congregational life early in the 21st century?
Every healthy minister and congregation I know is doing some form of recalculating. Most ministers come out of their theological training only semi-prepared for what they find when they go to work in a local church. No surprise there, that is the prevailing model of higher education in most specialties. Why do you think Medical School graduates go from Medical School to a Residency, rather than straight into practice? For most clergy, our theological education is the background for the ongoing education that begins at graduation. Every sensible minister understands that recalculating is the normative way of life for us. To be described as relevant is one of the greatest compliments one can receive as a minister or as a congregation.
While we serve an unchanging God and represent eternal truth, the methods by which we do so change daily. Recalculating is the standard operating stance for effective ministers. Every day, our antennae are up and sensitive to the ebb and flow of the world we live in. We must read, think, pray, and experience our culture constantly if we are to be able to link the Good News of Christ with those around us. We cannot assume that what we knew five years ago about our community or those we serve holds true today.
Likewise, congregations are awakening to the fact that recalculating is an essential skill that we must master. Some things do not change about us, and those unchanging eternal truths are the values at our very core. Everything else, however, is changeable. Whether it be worship times, styles, music, structure, facilities, VBS schedule, ministry partners, or staff job descriptions, the operative word must be “recalculating”. Everything that is not eternal is temporal, and should be regarded as open to recalculation.
Healthy congregations and clergy invest significant money, time and effort in this regard. They engage in proactive thinking, rather than reactive. This means they actually schedule time to think, brainstorm and project into the future. Most of us are so busy trying to do all that has to be done this week, that the idea of taking time away to think and reflect, in the spirit of Jesus, is laughable. Actually, it is laughable to imagine that we can do the work of the Kingdom without time devoted to recalculating.
To embrace “recalculating” as an essential ingredient in our congregational life will mean sending staff and key leaders away on retreats, to conferences, and insisting that they leave day-to-day operations to others in order to recalculate. It will mean we invite clergy to think more and do less, to pray more and perform less, to reflect more and talk less.
The new reality of congregational and clergy health includes a healthy dose of what the corporate world calls “R and D”: research and development. How are you going to make such thinking part of your daily and weekly diet of responsibilities? What you are going to do to encourage your ministerial staff members to recalculate regularly?
Occasionally, I get fed up with my GPS and it’s insistence on recalculating. I turn it off and launch out on my own, choosing to ignore the fact that I am hopelessly lost. Such journeys seldom end well, either for me, your staff or your congregation.
Perhaps we need a female Australian voice over our loudspeakers at church inviting us to stop, admit we are a bit lost, and “recalculate.” Would we be so wise as to cultivate a congregational culture that encourages recalculating among its leadership? If we do, we may find ourselves squarely on the path God has envisioned for us as we move into the future.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org).
For Baptists Today
Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis
By Bill Wilson
Ask any minister, “What is the worst part of your job?” and nearly all will tell you, “Conflict!”. Ask any congregation member what they like least about their church experience, and most will answer the same. Conflict is everywhere people are, and it seems to be escalating. The incivility of our culture is having a toxic effect on ministry and congregations.
The FACT 2000 survey of 14,000 congregations found that, in the past five years, 75 percent of churches have experienced some level of conflict. At any given time, one-fifth of congregations are in active conflict. With our depressed economy and seismic job losses, many lives are deeply stressed. It comes as no surprise that churches are experiencing more conflict than ever. Regarding conflict as blessing seems foolish and naïve. Is it possible, however, to learn to manage our conflict constructively?
Speaking up early
Church leaders are wise to address conflict early and proactively before it escalates to become divisive. The issue is not whether you will have conflict, but what you will do with it. Following biblical commands means handling conflict with openness, compassion and as much transparency as possible. Speaking up early, rather than sweeping disagreement under the carpet, avoids a host of problems that over time can leave a congregation divided and deeply wounded.
Conflict within a congregation can begin as a simple difference of opinion over worship styles, carpet color or youth activities, or it can be as shame-filled as division over clergy sexual misconduct or staff financial mismanagement. It always causes discomfort, and it can be downright painful. And yet, conflict within a congregation can be a catalyst for healthy growth.
Growing through the pain
In my experience, it is the rare adult who makes any significant life change without discomfort and pain. Throughout the Bible, God uses conflict to grow his people. Paul, Peter, Martha, Mary, David and Jeremiah are examples of heroes who learned through the ache of failure and conflict. The letters to the early church are filled with instructions for managing conflict. We are not the first to walk this way.
Conflicts and crises make excellent teachers. They often lead to new and better ways of doing things. If a youth leader’s misbehavior results in a safer policy for adult interaction with teens, the youth ministry is strengthened. If employee theft inspires a smart policy that minimizes risk, congregational trust is enhanced. When bitter argument gives way to thoughtful conversation, community is built.
Keys to navigating conflict
At the Center for Congregational Health, we believe there are several keys to navigating conflict. One is to avoid triangulation. During conflict, it is tempting for people to talk about each other to anyone who will listen. Instead, we are called to take Matthew 18 seriously and learn to talk to each other about the issue. Such conversations must come in from the parking lot to the fellowship hall. Leaders can facilitate opportunities for guided conversations in a manner that allows everyone to voice an opinion. Mature leaders can help others learn to discuss deep issues of differences, disagreements and disappointments. When people feel belittled, ignored or disrespected, the outcome is very different from when they feel valued, included and heard.
A second practice is to anticipate conflict. Healthy congregations have regular times to talk about life together. Opportunities specifically devoted to open discussion create a safe place for the congregation to ask hard questions and relieve anxiety. Deacon or business meetings that include unstructured time for asking questions build trust. Congregational leaders who are willing to hear suggestions and critiques without undue defensiveness model maturity and deepen the fellowship.
A third practice is to get help. As with Paul and Timothy, in some cases, despite the best efforts of leadership and the congregation to remain open-minded and transparent, a polarity cannot be resolved. When conflict gets especially heated, a third-party intervention may be required to enable us to overcome our emotional anxiety and harmful habits.
Finally, we need to learn the art of graceful exits. If a conflict escalates beyond reconciliation, our goal as Christians ought to be to bless one another and then separate. Often, in a worst-case intractable conflict, the two sides take their focus away from the issue and set out to destroy each other. This tears at the fabric of the church and decimates our witness for Christ. We can certainly do better.
While the church of Christ may be filled with sinners and conflict, when we manage conflict in a way that leads to a healthier congregation, we become a message of hope to the larger world. There may be no better way for the church to witness to a conflict-weary culture than to handle its own, internal differences with wisdom and grace.
Crisis and conflict awaken our passions and can motivate us to a better way. When conflict arrives, as it must, please do not waste the opportunity to seek to turn it into a blessing.
Learn more about understanding conflict and a discussion of the levels of conflict, as identified by Speed Leas.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org).
Please site Bill Wilson, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.
Resources for Conflict
The Center is available to help with conflict. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.
Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!