A program for parish churches
Vaccinating against conflict
Nurturing healthy relationships
Across the country the amount of serious conflict in parishes consumes the time and energy of priests, lay leaders and the diocesan staff. It undercuts the life and ministry of parish churches. Frequently parish leaders assume they will be able to handle it on their own and so are late asking for help. By the time a bishop learns of a parish conflict a great deal of damage has been done to the relationships in the parish community and it is often at a stage requiring considerable resources of time and money. How can we change that pattern?
Caesura: A word that means “pause.” (pronunciation) Part of what allows a parish community to better manage the tensions that emerge in its life is to learn to pause before acting. Pausing is partly about slowing down and partly about reflecting before acting. Caesura is a word used in various settings – the pause at the asterisk in the psalms, in poetry, literature, and music. It denotes an intentional pause, usually for sense or impact, for rhythm and meaning. Creating opportunities to pause, to slow down, to stop the forward movement is an important element in the spiritual life and effects our ability to manage tension. Pausing allows us to collect ourselves individually and communally. We see opportunities for pausing, for listening, as pathways for the parish to channel the normal energies of the congregation toward an improved common life and ministry and in so doing avoid their serving division and resentment. This program equips congregations to do that by drawing on the tradition of Anglican pastoral and ascetical theology, especially as expressed in Benedictine spirituality.
Purpose: To provide a pastoral strategy that helps reduce the amount and degree of conflict in congregations while also promoting healthier relationships. Caesura is a set of assumptions, methods and processes that tend to keep routine conflicts at low levels and that permit the parish to better generate and harness productive energy arising from the parish’s hopes, expectations, new ideas and existing challenges. This involves helping leaders establish processes, structures and a climate that allow these normal and inevitable sources of tension and energy to enrich the life and ministry of the parish instead of moving into depression or destructive conflict.
Focus and Approach: Parishes need to understand that churches have fights. Low-level conflict and disagreements are inevitable, healthy, and absolutely necessary for growth. If churches never fought, St. Paul may never have written the epistles. More seriously, the disagreements and new ideas that emerge in parish churches provide energy for shaping the future together.
We also want participants to understand that over a period of time the church began to develop ways to better manage tensions and disagreements. Certain Benedictine practices and approaches can be a particularly helpful lens in thinking about this. For example, St. Benedict provides useful guidance to leaders in taking responsibility for the community’s health and direction. He also makes it clear that leaders need ways to consult with and hear from the community more widely, to hear the community’s wisdom, without abdicating responsibility.
We focus on practices and methods that encourage a “listening” climate, and that make use of modern behavioral science understandings of interpersonal and group dynamics. Ultimately, though, we recognize that it’s much easier to train clergy and lay leaders in using methods and processes that will tend to bolster a healthier system, than it is trying to train all the members of the congregation in how to better manage their reactivity or improve their communication skills.
In our experience, parishes tend to underestimate the seriousness of conflicts and to respond too slowly to escalating issues. At the same time, they tend not to make effective use of the normal disagreements, new ideas, and small dissatisfactions—they may not be sure how to do that, or they may have understandable anxiety about opening up a can of worms. We want to help people to identify these energies earlier and use appropriate processes and methods to best keep the issue from escalating.
Do it Yourself
A parish or diocese may want to undertake this using their own existing resources. You should be able to conduct a program if you have a few people with parish development training and solid skills in educational design and group facilitation. Especially useful will be people trained in one of these programs -- Church Development Institute, College for Congregational Development, Shaping the Parish.
If you'd rather have assistance we can design and lead a program in your diocese or parish church
Time: A program of 1-1/2 days -- usually Friday evening (6:00 - 9:30) and all day Saturday (8:30 - 4:00). The first two segments train participants in the stance and skills for use in the parish. The third segment is focused on the use of implementation methods and a deeper understanding of change dynamics. It would be a time to develop an action plan for making use of the skills learned in part one. We think this would be a particularly useful time to integrate the work of diocesan consultants.
Size: We suggest a limit of ten churches at a time. Our hope is that a team of 2 - 4 would come from each. The team would have to include the rector/vicar/priest in charge. These clergy-lay teams are generally useful in helping implement needed changes in parish life.
Fees and expenses: $1,500 for each 1 1/2 day offering of the program. The fee would be shared between the two of us, for designing and presenting the program. Plus all expenses - travel, hotel, meals, and related.
Our assumption is that the diocese will manage and cover the cost of logistical matters such as advertising, registration, locations, meals/refreshments, having working materials available (newsprint pads and easels, markers, blue tape, handouts).
Transition: If the Bishop finds the program valuable we’d be glad to transition it over to an appropriate group within the diocese to offer it on additional occasions. The most obvious people would be those running a program such as the Church Development Institute and/or the diocesan consultants (if they have been trained in an approach congruent with the program). We would want to conduct the program at least twice before making that transition. Once the transition was made the diocese would be free to use the design and program material as it sees best. If additional consultation time proved necessary for an effective transition we would work out the time involved and fees with the diocese.
Participants: A parish group including all the active clergy, the wardens, and other leaders and potential leaders. Between 12 and 25 people.
Time: A program of 1-1/2 days -- usually Friday evening (6:00 - 9:30) and all day Saturday (8:30 - 4:00).
Fees and expenses: $1,500 for the 1 1/2 days on site plus advance preparation to include prior contact by e-mail and phone. The fee would be shared between the two of us, for designing and presenting the program. Plus the cost of expenses - travel, hotel, meals, and related.
Our assumption is that the parish will manage and cover the cost of logistical matters such as advertising, registration, locations, meals/refreshments, having working materials available (newsprint pads and easels, markers, blue tape, handouts).
Possible follow up work with parishes and/or a diocese
There are at least three possible areas of follow up work. 1) To work with parishes in implementing the approach. 2) To coach diocesan consultants and trainers offering the program in the future or helping to implement it in congregations. 3) Additional conflict training or consultation, e.g., the five day experiential conflict management workshop, consulting with the diocesan staff and/or consultants in reflecting upon conflict situations and strategies.
Interested? -- Contact Michelle Heyne