Leanna K. Fuller: What's a church to do? Dealing with conflict during a pandemic

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Some of our go-to conflict resolution practices may have to be creatively re-imagined because of the pandemic. A professor who has studied conflict offers four suggestions -- and a warning -- about resolving congregational disputes.

Conflict is a normal part of church life, but it’s rarely easy to deal with. And disagreements in our faith communities feel especially fraught at the moment.

A recent survey found that 27% of evangelical and mainline pastors cited addressing conflict and maintaining unity in their congregations as primary sources of stress -- up from just 8% in April.

This isn’t really surprising, given the enormous strain churches are under. But it raises a question: How can congregations handle conflict amid so much uncertainty, especially when most still cannot safely meet in person?

As an ordained minister and seminary professor who has spent years studying and writing about congregational conflict, I am intrigued by this question. After all, best practices for managing conflict generally rely on face-to-face conversation.

But given the unique circumstances created by the pandemic, some of our go-to conflict resolution practices may have to be creatively re-imagined. Here are a few suggestions for how faith communities and their leaders can address conflict across physical distance in a time of heightened anxiety.

Provide opportunities for many voices to be heard. We know from social science that people are more likely to support a decision when they’ve had a chance to express their concerns and have those concerns taken seriously. Ordinarily, one of the best ways to achieve this goal is through a facilitated small group process.

If in-person meetings aren’t possible, a small group process could also be achieved via a platform such as the now-ubiquitous Zoom, either by using breakout rooms or simply convening multiple sessions with a small number of people in each. (Note that studies in psychology and education have found that groups of four to five people work best.)

There may be people in your faith community who do not have regular access to technology or are inexperienced using online platforms. Think about what measures you could put into place to make sure those folks are included.

For instance, a meeting on a platform such as Zoom could be set up to allow participants to call in by phone. Or people without technology could be invited to gather (in an appropriately distanced way) at the church or someone’s home to take part in a small group session.

Have calm, effective leaders facilitate these conversations. This is critically important, because discussing controversial issues is especially complicated at the moment. It may be profitable to enlist the help of lay leaders.

Look for people who bring a sense of centered calmness to tense situations (you likely already know who those folks in your congregation are!) and ask them to consider helping lead conversations with their fellow members.

Even better, provide them with some training in group facilitation so they’ll feel more comfortable in their role. Check with your denominational leaders to see whether they offer such training or could point you to resources. You might also consider this video-based resource by Christianity Today. Though it is designed for training small group leaders in large churches, the skills taught could be adapted to many different contexts.

Recognize that decision making may take longer than usual right now. The more intense a conflict, the longer it will take to be resolved well. Carefully consider which decisions need to be made immediately and which could be postponed until a time when things feel less stressful or people are able to meet face to face.

Make communications more frequent and extra clear. Because we are not able to gather in the usual ways, we are missing informal modes of communication such as chats in the hallway and announcements in Sunday school classes. This means that leaders will have to be very intentional in informing members about what is happening, particularly if an important decision must be made.

If a leadership body is tasked with making a decision -- especially one about which there is significant disagreement -- make sure to communicate openly about the process. Also, be as clear as you can about what factors went into the decision and why a particular course of action was taken.

That being said, be careful with email! Email is often the best tool for disseminating information to many people at one time. But if you’re trying to engage people who are angry or upset, email can come across as cold or insensitive.

Convening a video chat to talk with people who are unhappy with a decision or feeling left out of a process can be a more effective means of communication. Though not perfect, video allows people to see others’ facial expressions and hear their emphasis and tone of voice, all of which are absent from email.

We know that communication is key in resolving church conflict. But at present, resolving disagreement may take more time and intentionality than we are used to giving.

Perhaps this is the work to which we are being called in this moment: to be honest about the differences in our midst, to find ways to express our perspectives and to honor the voices of others -- and to grant each other an extra measure of grace in these very trying times.