In my involvement at presbytery and in my ministry, I have seen – and been caught up in – many conflict situations. Some of the insights I have gained, I am happy to share with you all. I do not propose to give you a check-list to tick, or a quick fix resolution, or even new information you haven’t already explored in order to resolve conflict situation.
One of the key pieces of advice I would like to share is: Be Prepared. You will undoubtedly encounter conflict, and probably have already: it cannot be avoided.
- Attend training workshops, offered by Assembly Office, presbytery, other organisations such as Scripture Union (WAY2GO), tertiary institutions and community groups (these could be funded by your church as professional development). Having attended many of these courses and workshops myself, I have learnt a lot and acquired a library of good resources to go to, such as the material published by the Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self Deception – Arbinger Institute, available as an e-book).
- Actively participate in parish review processes as these may give an early indication of unrest within a parish or parish committees. A review may also identify situations that can be remedied and ameliorated before they deteriorate to the point of requiring intervention.
- Make sure that every employee and those working with children and young people have current police checks. Ensure that staff and volunteers attend training courses, especially those relating to risk management.
- Have regular supervision. CAIRA supervisors are trained to help those who deal with conflict, and they can also assist with finding ways that conflict can be managed. All ministers, leaders (such as youth and family pastors) and those working in situations of responsibility should seek supervision.
Other advice that I would recommend is: Act now. If you delay or defer, the situation will probably escalate. I am aware of many situations that have descended into chaos merely for the lack of quick intervention and the tardiness of appropriate responses to conflict events.
- Report it immediately if a situation is a health and safety issue. Do not think that the incident is a “one-off” and will not happen again. If there are children or youth involved, this needs to handled with sensitivity, and without delay to the appropriate authorities. It may mean involving the Police.
- Involve the church courts as soon as possible. Report to session or parish council, to presbytery and if necessary to Assembly Office. Processes need to be put in place quickly to help prevent gossip, conflict escalation or inappropriate intervention. Processes for expert advice and consultation need to be undertaken without delay.
- Involve experts in conflict resolution to help with the process – mediators, counsellors, advisors – and commit to the processes required.
- Support the parties involved. Help them to actively commit to solving the situation and work towards a positive outcome. Where situations arise out of historical contexts (even from many decades past), endeavour to find the original issues, who was involved and ways forward for those who still feel their voice has not been heard.
Dealing with bullies. As I have encountered a few bullies in my years of ministry, I offer the following reflection on how I dealt with some of them.
- Listen to what they have to say, but do not think that all they are saying is factual. I have discovered that bullies are prone to invent alternative facts. What they are saying is what they believe, but it is not necessarily the full truth.
- If a bully references the actions, words or thoughts of others, thank them for their input, but check with those they have included: ask if that is the way they see the situation. Do not be afraid to find out from others whether they support the accusations made by a bully.
- Stick to your own understanding of a situation, your role, and find someone who is able to give you support and good advice on appropriate measures to implement to ensure your safety and wellbeing. If a bully makes personal accusations, report them to the minister, your supervisor or a church council.
- Put into practice measures that will safeguard your wellbeing in a situation with a bully that they can take advantage of, such as being caught alone with them. Do not rise to any arguments or accusations with heated words or disregard for their understanding of the situation.
- If a bully is part of your leadership team, ensure that the others on the team are aware that your opinion and that of the bully are not in accord, that you are trying to not buy into the argument and appreciate support from other leaders in defusing heated discussions.
- Once you get to understand the way a bully operates, the tactics and devices they use, try and find ways that circumnavigate their schemes and seek better ways of achieving consensus with the majority of those involved.
I hope that some of these reflections are helpful and in particular make you aware of preventative measures – and some of the pitfalls to be avoided – with regard to the resolution of conflict in your ministry context.
Heather Kennedy is currently the transition minister at Ellesmere Co-operating Parish.