TAG received a call from the Reverend Bill, Rector of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, requesting help understanding the organizational dynamics of his church. The rector felt there were unresolved conflicts undermining the growth and development of the parish and hoped that an impartial outside perspective might provide some ideas that would allow the parish to move forward and realize its potential.
The assessment phase of the consultation consisted of; meeting and interviewing the Vestry of St Ann’s, interviewing the Rector and his wife and interviewing the rector’s staff. Everyone was very open and cooperative and clearly had the best interest of St. Ann’s in their heart. Each person shared their thoughts with me about what they had observed regarding the developing tension in the parish. And as is often the case there was a general consensus about the problems of St. Ann’s. But in very rare cases is the agreed upon “identified problem” the actual problem. At Tag we are looking for the actual underlying problem that we call the “Thing in the Bushes”. It is this conflict that is affecting the entire system dynamic but unknown and unrecognized by those closest to the situation.
Understanding the principles and dynamics of your own group or organization after a problem has arisen is nearly impossible, hence the need for an outside perspective. Everyone interviewed identified some or most of the following issues:
· Most parish members strongly supported Father Bill and his ideas
· There were only a few members of the parish in conflict with Father Bill.
· These were people who had been influential in the life and direction of the parish in the past.
· This small group felt displaced by Father Bill
· This group of long time members resented the new ideals that Father Bill brought to the church...
· Father Bill worried too much about the feelings of this small group.
· Father Bill had become too sensitive to the criticism of this group.
· Father Bill needs to handle these particular parish members in a different way.
· There was a general fear that Father Bill would become so discouraged that he would leave St Ann’s.
· Father Mark (the former rector) was loved by everybody and is a hard act to follow.
· People liked the way Father Mark ran the parish.
· Father Mark did not change much in the church.
· Father Mark let some things slide in order to keep peace
· Father Bill confronts many issues and introduces many changes.
While most of the above issues contain some elements of truth many of them contradict each other and provide no real direction for solving the current conflict. More importantly the current conflict as stated may only be a symptom of something that the church as well as the community is facing; something deeper and more difficult to address. There is always the danger of providing symptomatic solutions for symptomatic problems. Solutions that don’t address the underlying conflict may initially relieve tension but invariably create another set of problems that can prove to be even more difficult to resolve.
Voices of dissent in any system, in any organization, provide clues about the more deeply felt but unexpressed pain in the community. However these voices are misinterpreted because they are seen as oppositional or undermining or attacking. It is hard to hear the message when one is being personally attacked, and almost any response to the attack makes the situation worse.
Father Bill finds himself trapped in this very dilemma. He has not really understood the resistance to his initiatives, especially when most of the parishioners apparently agree with his values and vision. No matter what he has tried, no matter how he has handled the conflicts, the situation has grown steadily worse and he has suffered and his family has suffered. Consequently this suffering has created doubt in Father Bill –doubt about his ability to lead and doubt about his vocation. As he has grown more and more depressed he has also struggled with growing bitterness and resentment. He has found it hard to preach the gospel each Sunday. When our hearts are filled with anger it is hard to preach the gospel of love.
Yet Father Bill is hardly alone in this experience of doubt and seeming failure. Many rectors could identify with Father Bill and his struggles. All people in leadership especially those called to deal with the suffering of their people, face these problems. Unfortunately their seminary training does not provide them with even the basic skills necessary to deal with the problems they will encounter in their work. Most folks in these situations do not know where to turn for help. They struggle alone until they are too tired, too beaten, to continue. They resign because they are ineffective and exhausted. With resignation comes failure and failure of course brings with it shame so they are reluctant to share their experience with anyone and they carry the wound forever. I hope we are not to late to help Father Bill. He is a wonderful man and by the way the right man for the job.
What is the problem at St. Ann’s? I can say without any reservation that the problem is not Father Bill, although he as leader has become the lightening rod, the scapegoat if you will. The problems of St. Ann’s began long before Father Bill became rector. Father Mark I am sure experienced the problems as well and might even identify them in the same way as they are now identified. But Father Mark did not threaten the members of the church in the way that Father Bill does. Father Bill has challenged the status quo. He just never realized what he was doing. He never realized that he would stir up such resistance… And when he did, neither he nor the community understood that the gospel and not Father Bill was the real threat. Even more confusing he thought he was doing exactly what the community of St Ann’s called him to do. He thought he was called to bring the gospel, to teach the gospel, to preach the gospel, and hold his self and hold the members of the community accountable for living the gospel. This is what excited him about becoming the rector of the church of St. Ann’s.
The search committee that recommended Father Bill never fully understood that living the gospel would require a change in their behavior. Father Mark was a pastor who tended lovingly to the needs of his flock but he did not challenge them to live the gospel in the way that Father Bill does. The search committee knew they needed a leader that would challenge the community. They knew instinctively that Father Bill would challenge inherent contradictions whenever he saw them. This does not make one popular. Father Bill’s great error was innocence. He was very, very naïve. He thought because the community needed and said they wanted change they would embrace change. They would embrace him and his family. Instead as he confronted the contradictions he saw in Christian values he was attacked. He did not understand this. He felt betrayed and wounded. He personalized the attacks. This only confused him and created shame and guilt in the members of the parish.
The members of the church who had been doing certain things for years and had never been confronted about their behavior felt wounded and betrayed by Father Bill. They did not understand what he was doing or why he was upset. They felt personally attacked by Father Bill. Father Mark had never confronted them in this way and their only response to Father Bill was to attack back.
As this dynamic unfolds a recursive pattern is immediately set in place because people in the community misperceive the conflict. The conflict is played out in the community as more and more people take sides. And because the discussion in the community is never at the level of the conflict (about the living the gospel, and not Father Bill) the situation worsens and the divisions grow. The outcome if unchecked is always bad. Everything supports the problem. In this case even the surrounding economic context serves to intensify the feelings of failure that everyone is now experiencing. Corrective action is needed and needed now. Here is a list of recommendations to begin the healing process and preserve the community of St. Ann’s.
· Father Bill must begin to de-intensify the conflict
· He must begin to re-build relationships one at a time and over time
· He must initiate discussions with those that disagree with him.
· Father Bill must depersonalize the situation. The conflict is about values not people. (He misunderstood the conflict was directed at his role, not at his person). He did not have to embrace the attacks as personal, even though they came packaged this way.
· He must realize that those who attack him do not really understand what the real conflict is.
· He must work to clarify the conflict for all the community.
· He must recognize his own emotional responses
· He must become aware of when others are reacting to him.
· He must recognize the weight of the authority he carries and how people respond to his authority.
· He must recognize situations in which he creates anxiety for the community
· He must change the pace of change. He felt he had a mandate to change St. Ann’s overnight. That simply was not going to happen. The anxiety created by this pace was too high.
· Father Bill must build shared vision in the community.
· Building shared vision requires building a shared values structure and that requires building consensus in the community for those values.
· Developing a strategic plan with the vestry and other church leaders for the future direction of the St. Ann’s. (Mission and Vision)
· In this article we’ve used terms that can be more fully explained by going to our website, http://www.transformingchurch.net/. Our book, Thriving Through Ministry Conflict should prove helpful.We’re also posting explanations of key concepts that should also b