Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation
By Susan M. Lang
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Lang, Susan M. Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation. Minneapolis: Congregational LEADER Series, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002, 112 pp.
Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation is a handbook intended for individuals in leadership roles within established religious congregations/communities. It contains a multitude of techniques and advice for dealing with organizational, values-oriented, and interpersonal conflicts. Topics in this work are consistently approached from a generally Christian -- and more specifically evangelical Lutheran -- point of view, with numerous Biblical citations. Each chapter of the book deals with a different facet of the sort of conflicts that frequently occur within a congregational setting. Also included are tools, exercises, and worksheets pertaining to the various models and systems to which the book refers.
Chapter One, "Our Perceptions of Conflict," discusses the role of psychosocial dynamics and personal interpretation in the various stages of conflict. Here, Lang deconstructs and defines conflict, and discusses some of the psychological and social defense mechanisms -- such as denial -- that people frequently employ when dealing with conflict in their lives. Included in this chapter is "A Blueprint for Change," a set of five steps ("Analyze perceived needs," "Seek viable options," "Decide with the appropriate group," "Educate the congregation," and "Monitor and adapt"), each with detailed explanations and instructions, for seeing a conflict through from beginning to end. The chapter ends with a summary and reflection, in which Lang encourages the reader to recall a conflict in his or her past, and to complete a short written exercise with the chapter's lessons in mind.
The second chapter, "Who We Are as People of God," consists of two main sections. The first draws together conflict resolution and religious teachings, pointing out parallels between typical contemporary congregational conflicts and Biblical scripture. The second part of the chapter addresses the potential for values conflicts within groups in which multiple generations are represented. For instance, Lang describes the "G.I. generation" (individuals born between 1901 and 1924) as being likely to act as builders and "team players," whereas "Boomers" tend to be more focused upon individualistic work and personal accomplishment. These categorizations are not put forth as hard-and-fast rules, but are offered as hints to deciphering the motivations and attitudes of people from different generations.
Chapter Three, "Family Systems and Congregational Dynamics," explores the connections that individuals may knowingly or unknowingly make between their private lives (and personal family dynamics) and their religious work, especially to the extent that these connections may influence the ways in which such individuals handle congregational disputes. Lang includes a reflective exercise designed to enlighten the reader to his or her own learned behavior for handling conflict situations. A section entitled, "The Ghosts of Conflicts Past," offers insight into how past experiences with conflict may continue to shape the ways in which we behave when faced with new disputes.
"Community Conflict" is the title of the fourth chapter, which discusses many typical facets of organizational and large-group disputes, including boundaries, organizational roles, alliances, polarities, forgiveness, and "triangulation [which] occurs when two people aren't relating in a healthy manner and aren't comfortable with each other, so one of them -- usually the most anxious -- draws in a third party (49-50)." This chapter is perhaps the most information-intensive of the book, and discusses many classic conflict resolution terms and concepts, including reconciliation, respect, forgiveness, and the "squeaky wheel" factor.
The fifth chapter, "Learning Life Skills," illuminates the art and mechanics of effective communication, in conflict situations as well as in general social interaction. Lang highlights three steps essential to productive communication and conflict resolution -- "reflective listening," the content analysis of interpersonal interactions, and measured, informed response. She points out the dangers of "reactive response," or jumping to conclusions before a problem or complaint has been adequately heard and analyzed. She suggests that congregations compose basic groundrules for communication, not only to help keep current and future conflicts on a healthy level, but also to bring the concept of communication itself out into the open.
Chapters Six and Seven, "Surviving the Storms" and "Storm Cleanup," deal with the inevitability of conflict occuring within a religious congregation, and offer advice for religious leaders once a congregational conflict is actively underway. Lang offers advice on keeping conflict as healthy and constructive as possible, and discusses warning signs of unhealthy conflict processes (such as triangulation). She also explores the effects (both positive and negative) that conflict can have upon the cohesion and operating efficiency of a religious community. "Unhealthy conflict," she writes, "can damage our communications, identity, and vision for ministry. Once you've come through a difficult time, it's important to assess where you are in these areas." (81) Lang also offers suggestions for healing the relationships within a congregation in the wake of a divisive conflict, and highlights the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Following Chapter Seven, the book also includes a separate set of tools and self-assessment exercises -- for both individuals and groups -- correlated to particular chapters. These tools are designed not only to explicate the topics discussed in the chapters, but also to show readers how the conflict resolution advice offered in the book may be taylored to an individual's own experience and circumstances. Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation is clearly and accessibly written, and includes many illustrative scenarios, as well as the aforementioned tools, worksheets, and exercises for practicing and applying the techniques and concepts discussed in the book. Once again, readers should note that this book is written from a strongly theological point of view, and will likely resonate more completely with readers of similar orientation; nevertheless, the advice and information it contains regarding conflict resolution is largely universal, and is useful for anyone dealing with organizational or large-group conflict.