Severe parish conflicts tie up the time and energy of bishops and their staffs while destabilizing the life and ministry of parishes. Bishops learn of a parish conflict too late in the process. By the time someone calls the diocesan office the relationships in the parish have been badly damaged. The conflict is now at a stage requiring substantial resources of time and money. Worse yet our first attempts to help the situation usually involve methods that are doomed to fail. We send in consultants and staff people. We try to get the parties to talk and take steps to rebuild their relationship. It usually flops. It’s unsuccessful not because the methods are wrong in themselves or people are unwilling to try. It fails because the conflict is too far down the road for these methods. We are too late.
How can we change that pattern? How can we keep conflicts at the lower levels? How can we allow the new hopes and dreams as well as the emerging frustrations and disappointments, to be sources of energy in shaping the parish instead of sources of strife?
Speed Leas – Levels of conflict
Many parish leaders are familiar with Speed Leas Levels of Conflict model. There are five levels ranging from a “problem to solve” to “Intractable.” In other words from a situation that most of us don’t even see as a conflict to a conflict that requires separating the parties; from a situation in which the difficulties we face are sources of productive energy to a situation in which some people must leave the parish.
Parish leaders usually call the bishop’s office when the conflict is already at levels 3, 4, or 5. That’s reasonable behavior. Why would you call if the level were lower?
The slide from level three to four and five
The behaviors at level three include -- threatening, resistance to peace overtures, hanging back waiting for others to show weakness, personal attacks, emotional appeals, limited social contact; language is distorted - overgeneralized (“you always..”, “everyone..”), exaggerated, parties making a case, some are expecting magic or rapid change, others are expecting people to read their mind, it feels extreme, there are only two sides, we lose the shading and gray, it’s becoming black and white.
By the time conditions reach level three the likelihood is that things are about to spiral out of control. We have lost our ability to head off people leaving and long term damage to the parish’s emotional and spiritual life. In other words things move rapidly from three to five.
Leas’ model does have suggestions about what might be done at level three to manage the conflict—structure a clear process and carefully manage it, use an external consultant, meet with the conflicting parties separately and built toward a time when they can again talk face-to-face. There are two problems we seem to have:
1) We tend to use methods that fit level two instead of what fits level three. We bring people together for face-to-face discussion. We ask them to use communication methods and follow ground rules. It seems like “the Christian thing to do.” The face-to-face encounter is likely to enflame matters and the attempt to make use of communication skills with people you now dislike may be experienced as manipulative and a waste of time.
2) Parishes don’t do well at hanging in with the tension. Once we hit level three in a parish church something has been violated. The psychological contract has been broken. That “contract” may be one that is generally healthy and faithful (the parish will have enough stability in worship and relationships that the person can be nurtured and develop some proficiency in the Christian life) or it may be particularized yet tolerated (allowing us to understand the parish, at least sub consciencely, as something more familiar to a secular mindset—as a voluntary associate, a club, a historic society, social change group or social service agency) or it may be an expression of childish or unformed faith and practice (the priest will always be kind to me)
Once the psychological contact is experienced as broken we face profound issues of trust and hope. It’s all too easy to slide downhill from there.
Our need is to keep conflicts at low levels. We want the tensions to be at levels 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.