Been There

Mediation Or Adjudication– Notes On Parish Conflict
A Report For The Bishops Of Connecticut
by The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
November 28, 2000

1. My experience with parish conflict. I have been ordained for 20 years and have led 4 parishes of which three have had a history of conflict. I was a diocesan consultant in Maine and Massachusetts and spent over a year working in one highly conflicted parish in which fist fights had been a feature of previous parish meetings. I was an early advocate of applying Family Systems Theory to parish life before this perspective was made famous by Edwin Friedman’s great book. As an adjunct professor I taught Family Theory and Therapy at Andover Newton Theological School and was a supervisor of field education supervisors at Episcopal Divinity School. My most profound experience of parish conflict was the first three years of my tenure at St. John’s in Stamford which culminated in the vestry asking for my resignation and my request for a Godly judgment under the canons from the Bishop. I participated in an ongoing group for survivors of extreme parish conflict held at E.D.S. in 1992-1993. Of the dozen or so members at the time I attended, including a bishop who was forced to resign his see, I was the only person who ultimately stayed in place and continued in office. During my eleven year tenure at St. John’s I have had three of the most difficult years in the priesthood and eight of the best.

2. Learnings from my experience and from the survivors group. Most of the parishes of the members of the group were known to have a history of conflict before we arrived and often had a history of involuntary terminations. Many of these parishes had outstanding problems associated with membership and financial decline which had not been resolved and which were not the primary topic of conflict. Often we felt these parishes were lacking in spirituality or theological integrity. We were often perceived as being “hard nosed” for trying to promote minimal standards for vestry service(church attendance) or administration of the sacraments(preparation meetings). Interestingly, frequently the conflict flared up when the parish was growing in both numbers and finances. In many cases where the clergy resigned for “the good of the parish,” the conflict continues. By the time we were meeting in our group some of the parishes involved were already moving toward involuntary termination with our successors.

Most of the parishes of members of the group had difficult interims and the interim process was often a source of conflict. In many cases the interim ministry was unskilled, untrained and unsupervised. Often the rectors we replaced where larger than life figures with a great deal of personal charisma. When first introduced as the rector of our parish many of us were told that we didn’t look the part. These parishes were often characterized as being very dependent on the personality of the rector and often were perceived to have faltered when the previous rector left. Often the leave taking of the beloved former rector had not been emotionally appropriate and had often been sudden or abrupt.

A sensitive issue that emerged was the role of substance abuse by previous clergy and key lay leaders in many of these parishes. Many of the members of our group were either in recovery or adult children of alcoholics or had other formative experiences of abuse and trauma as children. Many of us felt that there was a certain psychology of the victim at work. After being publicly berated and humiliated we found ourselves ashamed and secretive, often not reaching out to people who could help us and often blamed for causing our own problems when we did. We found that we were often making decisions not on the basis of our cherished beliefs and values but on the basis of how to avoid being beaten again.

Previous parish experience and advanced training were not good indicators of the potential for the ability to survive and thrive in these highly conflicted situations. Most of us were experienced and had been recommended on the basis of having the skills and experience to “handle” this kind of parish. Most of had been successful and effective in other positions and had often managed parish conflict well. Before encountering the particular parish that brought us to the group, many of us felt that, though parish conflict could be very difficult. it could be managed with the right tools and approach. “Everything that worked before, didn’t work here,” was a refrain in our group.

Though the members of the group represented a broad spectrum of theological opinion, we all felt that we had moments when we encountered spiritual evil in a way that we had not experienced it before. We all agreed that the experience deepened our sense of dependence on God and our prayer life. Those of us who stayed in spite of requests for our resignation all felt in different ways that we were called by God to do so.

The intervention of the diocese and consultants in many cases made things worse rather than better. In highly conflicted parishes consultants that were highly competent and experienced made what they admitted were “dumb” mistakes. In these highly anxious systems competent people often became incompetent. Our reflection was that most consultation models are mediation models or negotiation models. This is a model that works well with in a relatively stable situation when people of fundamentally good will disagree over some objective content. One of the features of these conflicts was that it was very difficult to uncover an objective content to the conflict. Our antagonists often could not articulate specific complaints or specific desired actions or corrections. The interim priest of a famous New York parish which has recently pushed out its rector commented when asked about the parish that “the vestry had no idea what it wanted and would stop at nothing to get it.”

A useful distinction is made by Kenneth Haugk in his book, Antagonists In The Church, between conflict for which mediation is appropriate and conflict for which adjudication is appropriate. There is some conflict that is driven by emotional and spiritual pathology and is not amenable to negotiation. Perhaps the most famous example of someone misreading the nature of conflict in this way is the British Prime minister, Chamberlain at the Munich Conference with Hitler. The end game that led to final resignation often included a number of steps the purpose of which was to appease the antagonists. They usually wanted more. The very presence of the consultants on site often seemed to embolden the antagonists. Often processes that were set up to facilitate communication were “hijacked” by antagonists who engaged in “get out the vote campaigns” while the supporters of the clergy were often not aware of what was going on. Often we were counseled by bishops and consultants to “take the high road” and not attempt in any organized way to rally our support. This was often a source of great anger and bitterness to our supporters when we left or resigned. “I had no idea what was going on,” or“I wish someone had talked to me,” were refrains that we heard from supporters after the event

It is sometimes appropriate to use the canons and the system can work. In most cases we were counseled to avoid the canonical process at all costs. Resignation of the rector was seen by many consultants and bishops as a last resort that was still to be preferred to enacting the canonical process. In my own case I was repeatedly warned that if I invoked the canons I “had already lost,” and that “even if you win canonically, you will not be able to govern the parish afterwards.” In my own case I am convinced that this was bad advice and that much like the Watergate episode in American political history, a crisis which can be resolved by the rule of law has a role in restoring faith in the integrity of the institution and the office involved. It is good for people and bad for bullies when the rules are understood and uniformly enforced. Rather than being morale destroying the are times when invocation of the rule of law can be morale building.

It takes extensive, overlapping support systems to survive and overcome in severely conflicted parishes. I had a spiritual director, therapist, organizational coach and several support groups. I also found solidarity in prayer with other clergy vital.

3. Suggestions For Action

A. Establish an early warning system. The diocese already has an ordinands training program that provides an opportunity to be in touch with new clergy who may be experiencing parish conflict as they start their careers. It might be helpful to establish two additional groups. There could be a group for clergy that are leaving their cures that could provide mutual support, encouragement and training in best practices for a good close to a term of ministry. This group should cover at least the last three months of ministry. Another group would be for clergy of whatever stage of experience that were taking up a new cure. This should cover at least the first year to eighteen months.

B. Trained interims are not necessary in all transitions but in parishes with a long history of conflict there is a need for well trained and well supported interims. The amount of support and supervision people working in such an environment need is roughly equivalent to the clinical supervision needed by a therapist working with a severely troubled family or with borderline personalities. In other words a lot of debriefing time off site with an experienced colleague.

C. Continuing supervision for the new rectors in troubled parishes by supervisors who have psychological and organizational skill and who have spiritual depth. Catching conflict early and intervening with skilled off site coaching of the clergy and at times key lay leaders appears to me more effective than sending in the “mission impossible team” at a later date. On site consulting often moves conflict in these parishes to a higher level.

D. A clear message which permeates the diocesan system that clergy can be terminated for good cause but that unless it involves moral failure, such terminations are rare and costly.

E. Establish a norm for lay leader training where lay people can learn about the polity of the church, come to understand diocesan vision, values and policy and learn necessary skills, like conflict management and how to appropriately handle antagonists in the church.

F. Do anything which will raise awareness about the problem of substance abuse in parishes and which will help the many clergy who have grown up in alcoholic families understand how that experience might be affecting their ministry.

G. Continue to keep an emphasis on spiritual growth and development. Emotional, spiritual and organizational health are interrelated.

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