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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Conflict

We all know that conflict is an inevitable part of congregational life, but it sure can take its toll on those of us in leadership. Many of us in pastoral ministry are, by nature, people-pleasers, or at least very people-oriented, which can make dealing with conflict all the more stressful.The stress of it is often compounded by the fact of email, which allows conflict to come straight to us in a constant and disembodied way. Our question this week comes from someone who is dealing with the exhaustion and dread of opening emails which seem to bring fresh conflict regularly. We have some great responses from our matriarchs. Read on!

I'm a newer clergywoman: not quite fresh out of seminary, not quite seasoned. The things is that every day I dread opening my email. Every day it seems that there is some new conflict that needs to be stepped into, moderated, responded to, or deflected. This congregation also has a history of pastoral distrust, for good reason, so may be a contributing factor.
I am not horrible at conflict. I mean, I have a ranges of responses at my disposal, from standing ground, to apologizing, humanizing the conversation, stopping and listening... CPE did me well. But the thing is that I find it incredibly stressful. Every time something comes up, it seems to take all of my mental and emotional energy.
So here's my question, is this just what ministry is like? Is this is something that either gets better when you're longer at a congregation or a person can get better at? Or should I plan on several decades of being like this?

kathrynzj writes:
Well, judging by the fact that I could have written the very same inquiry ten or so years ago, I think the answer is that we get better at it. Here are some personal and practical things I did to help create a shift in how church challenges effect me.
a) I remind myself that it ain't all about me, sometimes it ain't about me at all. This understanding takes practice and is not always instantaneous, but I usually can get my head wrapped around what exactly is being projected on me. It sounds like you already get it - established distrust of the pastor - the next question is how do you grab that truth faster before the latest conflict has you feeling that dread.
b) Think of the big picture. In 5 years is this going to matter? In 10? And a more humorous approach: Did Jesus die for this? So many church conflicts are petty, and if we can put them in perspective it can go a long way to helping us keep our sanity.
c) Ask yourself: do I really need to solve this? I am a problem-solver and I tend to be all or nothing so not only did I follow up on every little thing, but I wanted it RESOLVED! That ain't ministry. This is why I like doing stuff around the house - painting a wall gets completed, getting the body of Christ to behave never is. You listed great things CPE taught you, one that mine taught me was: sometimes it's okay to walk away.
d) If this really is about your email then let me give you the best piece of advice ever given to me about email - you don't have to answer it. Really. You certainly don't have to engage in the conflict every time and EVERY email about a conflict should be given a 24 hour cooling off period. What's going to happen if you don't answer it.... exactly. I have turned off every sound or icon that tells me there is email in my box. I check it first thing in the morning, handle the things from the day before, check it again mid-afternoon and maybe before I leave. Maybe. I see an email sent as someone waiting in line to see me, NOT as a reason to give them instant gratification.
You asked if this is what ministry is like - yes... and no. We experience amazing sacred and holy moments and we also experience the ridiculously petty and profane. Rest assured, God is in all of them, but you don't always have to be. Breathe deep, take care of yourself, and leave that email refresh button alone.


Terri offers:
Dear New Clergywoman,
First of all, I am sorry you are experiencing this stress. No doubt the role of being a clergyperson comes with some stress. However the stress is often cyclical - something happens to raise the anxiety of the parish or the parish experiences a large number of deaths, or the congregation is in transition from one size to another or a change in leadership, or there is conflict within the church over its direction and or with its leadership. The congregation you serve, as you say, struggles with issues of trust - particularly of its leadership. You state that this is for good reason, some previous cleric broke the trust and they are slow to regain it. That seems rather normal to me.

However I wonder what kind of work the congregation has done to understand the breach of trust and work toward healing? Has there been any outside assistance from the denominational leaders? Or are you there to help do that? (Seems like a might big responsibility to put onto a new cleric).

It seems to me that a first step may continue to do what you are doing: " I have a ranges of responses at my disposal, from standing ground, to apologizing, humanizing the conversation, stopping and listening... CPE did me well..." This  is awesome - just what they need.

Secondly, you may want to find an outside consultant to help the parish understand their anxiety and work with you to help them rebuild trust. There are any number of folk who can do this: Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, local family systems for congregation specialists, Jim Gettel at Middle Voice or a number of resources through the Alban Institute.

Third - I hope you will find a good support sytem for yourself outside the congregation where you can process the stress you are feeling and experiencing. This might be a Spiritual Director or a therapist and or some holistic body work like yoga or massage therapy, it that is your thing. I have been known to use any and ALL of these approaches when I am in the midst of serving a conflicted anxious congregation. As clergy tending to our health needs to be a priority. If we are not well we cannot tend to the needs of others.

Someone wise once said, "It takes a lot of energy to be a non-anxious presence."

So, I hope you are able to build a solid network of support for yourself and then as a result for the congregation too.

Most of all I want to assure you that not every day,week,month or year of ministry will be like this. But there will be spaces of time when it is so.  It may be a reality for the congregation you are currently serving for some time to come. But not all churches are this anxious and conflicted. And some, when there is anxiety and conflict have healthy ways of moving through it.

Lastly, if the anxiety and conflict continue regardless of efforts to address it and if/when the anxiety becomes too great for you and is compromising your health, then you need to consider looking for a new call/church. Again I say, not all churches will cause you the kind of stress and strain you are feeling where you are. I am not sure how long you have been where you are - give it a little time and effort (a couple of years, maybe) and see how things are.

I will pray for you and for you congregation.


Martha at Reflectionary writes:
Dear Not Quite Seasoned,

Gosh, I hope you don't have to plan on several decades of this! The truth is that every congregation has a unique temperament. You can think of it in family systems terms. Even new people will tend to come in with the same sorts of tendencies, drawn to a system that feels familiar. Some churches, like some families, seem to draw energy from conflict. If you as pastor are not a person who also thrives on the bickering, it's painful to think of being with them for the long haul. 

Hopefully, your situation is not chronic. When there has been an injury to or through a previous pastoral relationship, we hope it will be sorted out in the transition time between pastors, but when that hasn't happened, the new pastor can be left to deal with the consequences. From your question to us, it sounds like you know there has been past trouble, and they are testing you to be sure you can be trusted. 

Do you have support from someone at the judicatory level (Conference Minister, District Superintendent, Bishop, Executive Presbyter, etc.)? Or are there pastors in the area who might know your church's history? If the congregation is projecting past mistrust onto you, you're going to continue to be hampered. I once served an interim where we had to do the work that should have been done in the previous interim, and the pastor I followed had suffered all through his ministry there because people worked out there anger at his predecessor on him. People need to be gently brought to consciousness of what they are doing, but it's hard to be the one to do it when you are the recipient of their acting out behavior. 

All of this is to say, get some local, outside perspective. If you feel fairly sure the conflict is a reaction to their past injury rather than a way of life with them, begin to talk to leaders in the congregation about their past and share your concerns, not so much about your own stress, but about how stressed they seem. Are you pushing their buttons without knowing it? (They are certainly pushing yours, right?) Can you begin to sort out together the difference between how things once were and how things are now?

And if they can't hear you, I promise, it's not like that everywhere. Keep your heart and head open to where God might want you to be. Pray about whether it's with these people and in this church. Pray for them, especially the ones who send you the emails. And be sure you have a place to vent with trusted colleagues (not necessarily the ones mentioned above). We all need that in our ministry lives.


And RevHRod/Heidi adds:
I have thought about this long and hard.  What I am now going to write may be totally off base, but please know that it comes from someone who used to have her own moments of dread. 

No, this is not what it’s like.  If you are experiencing a regular sense of trepidation when opening congregational emails, there is a problem.  My strongest suggestion is that you talk with someone locally to provide you some good counsel.  Seek out a professional who not only understands anxiety but also has a handle on church systems.  Samaritan Interfaith has a network of offices across the country who may be able to help.  I can’t tell you what the problem is, I just know you need some guidance from a trustworthy and knowledgeable person who can help you get to the bottom of what is going on for your sake and the sake of your congregation.  It is time to reclaim your joy!


Thank you, matriarchs, for your wonderful and thoughtful responses. To our questioner, I hope you have found not only some wisdom here, but also some solace, in knowing that others of us have felt as you are feeling and that it won't always be that way. Hang in there and blessings on you!

What would the rest of you add to this conversation? Please join us in the comment section. And, as always, sned us your questions at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. It sounds like they are putting you in the middle. I have been in a similar situation and I found the best way to break the pattern is to bring it to council meetings...lay it out on the table. My general response was "if this is bothering you then bring it to our next meeting." Encourage them to talk to each other and not through you. This is work caring for a church with trust issues and all churches are not like this.

  2. I'm not sure I can add much more wisdom that has already been shared, but I will add a quote I recently ran across that helped me begin to change my view of conflict.

    Conflict is, to choose a simile, like sex. Victorians saw sex as something one must tolerate, learn to live with, but not enjoy. Most persons voice the same negative mindset toward conflict. Like sex, conflict should happen between persons committed to be present with continuity, occur with appropriate frequency, be mutually exciting to both, activate both parties equally to contribute their best selves, and be prolonged until mutually satisfactory climax is possible for each. When it is over, both should feel better as a result. And its energy should then empower other areas of life with vitality and creativity. Like sex, conflict is a source of joy, fulfillment, empowerment, and celebration.

    David W. Augsburger. Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, pp. 66-67.

    Another useful book is Church Conflict: from Contention to Collaboration by Norma Cook Everist. In it she explores conflict and gives some ways to "dig deeper" into it and then guide the conflict in healthy and productive ways.

  3. What great responses! For my part, and on a completely practical level, I have learned (the hard way) that it does not work for me to open e-mail within 2 hours of bedtime or between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning (first thing). I have a few reasons for this: first of all, if it's an emergency that needs to be responded to NOW folks will use the phone (eg, a death or serious illness); secondly, worrying about what I just read, during hours in which there is nothing I can do about it anyway, does no one any good (and keeps me up at night or wakes me up in the wee small hours with worry); thirdly, reading e-mail when I have the time and energy to deal with it (and the means) allows me to operate out of reason rather than anxiety. Even now, whilst my primary work is staying home with my son, I find that these rules I have made for myself about e-mail are helpful.

    1. This is so wise, and something I need to work on.

  4. I've just discovered that I overlooked a response by one of our Matriarchs. Sharon writes:
    Perhaps you are too good at dealing with conflict, so their conflicts keep landing in your email and your lap and wherever they throw them. What might you do to teach / lead your congregation to deal with their own conflicts? Have you considered leaving them alone to resolve it themselves sometimes?

    Yes, it can get better if your congregation is growing and maturing and learning to trust. I encourage you to judge success by their progress in navigating community life competently, rather than by whether you can do better (you can, of course!) or whether they will ever be conflict free (they won't, of course!).

    And no, this is not what ministry is like, if by "this" you mean constant conflict, dreading emails, being mistrusted and disrespected, and using up all your mental and emotional energy on this stuff. You don't say what you love about them, what you are looking forward to, or how this congregation replenishes your energy. I want you to have that list going too!

    Jesus came that we might have life abundant, even in church, even in ministry. If this setting is not life-giving for you, consider whether God is calling you and them to a new thing. Is that new thing something you can do with them? Or is God calling you to a new place?

    Prayers for wisdom and grace in this challenging ministry!


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