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The Accommodate – Avoid Parish

There’s a model of conflict styles that looks at two dimensions – the extent of cooperativeness and the degree of assertiveness. When placed on a grid the model offers five basic styles of how we can manage conflict – competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating.[1] The model assumes that each style has its benefits and its costs – collaborating is very useful when we are trying to develop sustainable long term solutions; however, real collaboration takes a lot of time and not all issues are worth the investment of time and energy. Also, that each style may fit certain circumstances better than others – avoiding may not be very useful when the ship is sinking.

 Parishes often have an organizational culture in which one or a couple of the styles hold sway. A friend of mine interviewed to be rector in a parish that prided itself on being a “competing parish.” The parish climate was hard edged and argumentative with lots of debating. When asked if they would like to adjust the culture and expand the range of ways of handling differences, the answer was “no, we like being this way.” The priest withdrew from consideration. The withdrawal wasn’t so much over the style as it was over the unwillingness to expand their capacity. In fact, her own preferred style was Compete.


I’ve worked with several parishes in which the culture is to accommodate and avoid as a way of managing disagreements and tensions. These parishes have been so enmeshed in the styles that they are unable to learn from their own experience. A group profile of parish leaders would show a tendency toward the accommodating and avoiding styles.

One parish had a deficit budget. The total budget was around $430,000. The deficit was around $80,000.  The budget showed a portion of the deficit being covered by using reserve funds and another portion as being a deficit. When asked about the $80,000 gap parish leaders reassured members that it would be dealt with by an increase in membership and people increasing their pledges. Another element of their approach was that everything was dealt with year-by-year. That was the strategy.

What made the picture even more distressing was that the problem and the proposed solution was the same as seen in the past couple of years. Each year they would be saved by membership growth and members increasing their pledges. Didn’t happen.

In another parish large and small issues would be raised and the following year, raised again. There seemed to be an inability to either establish a strategic direction or make Sunday morning more renewing and grounding and less rushed and busy.

There was no learning from experience. Change is unlikely in the first parish. The parish avoids community wide conversations. It’s partly habit and partly a lack of skills for facilitating such conversation.  The parish also tends to avoid using trained and experienced consultants.  There’s more hope for the second parish. The parish uses external consultants for the annual vestry retreat and the rector is aware of the need to become more assertive and provide safe processes for the needed conversations.


The benefits of an accommodating – avoiding parish

There are benefits to having an accommodating – avoiding parish culture. The climate is pleasant, calm, and relaxed. Relationships are highly valued. Harmony is maintained. As with all systems, of all styles, the parish will develop a rationale for the behavior. In the case of a church it’s likely to include the unity and oneness of the church and to stress Jesus’ command to love one another.[2] Benedict’s call that there be “no grumbling” is valued while his call to consult with the community is either ignored or incompetently engaged. If structured forms of conversation are used at all there's likely to be a preference toward appreciative processes.

The difficulties

In these parishes it’s not that there aren’t people with other views but those views are suppressed, at least initially it's usually with great kindness and love. In such parishes, to raise questions is often to be seen as doing something wrong; maybe as being too aggressive. Someone violating the norms of that culture are likely to find themselves excluded or punished in some manner.

Difficulties in these parishes are embedded in the culture. It's not so much that the rector wants to hold onto power. It’s more that the rector wants to avoid tension. Self awareness may be part of the problem. Often the priest and lay leaders have no idea that they are suppressing diverse views and compulsively smoothing the waters.

Such parishes can find themselves:

  • Tolerating injustice and/or unproductive direction for fear that some people will be upset about a decision.
  • Avoiding a growing problem until it becomes much more difficult to address.
  • Denying the reality of differences in viewpoints and gifts among members. The truth that we all have something to contribute is used to wash out uniqueness and the reality of a diversity of gifts.
  • With tentative and confused working relationships
  • With an underdeveloped or under-nurtured Apostolic core
  • With degraded communication and decision making processes.
  • Facing an undertone of resentment that is usually managed by individuals disengaging but does have the potential of breaking out into open conflict.
  • Experiencing a loss of investment among a significant segment of the parish.



So what is to be done?

First, what doesn't work is assuming that people will change their temperament. It's not going to happen. At least not easily. With training, coaching, support, and personal perseverance the leaders can expand the range of their abilities. Somewhat.

The most effective action to take is an organization development approach – change the structures, processes, and climate (rather than focusing on changing individuals).  Learn and institutionalize new ways for group conversation and decision-making.  When we do that we help people who may tend in their temperament to an avoiding or accommodating style to engage more collaborative or direct ways of dealing with issues and problems.  

For example, ask people to sub-group for a few minutes and identify what they like and what concerns them in the proposal being made about managing parish finances or developing a long term sense of direction. Then gather the ideas on newsprint pads.[3] Then give everyone three votes to use in placing a mark next to the ideas they see as most important. 

At the same time, you need to say “no” to a question and answer format. In an accommodating – avoiding culture the question asker can seem aggressive. Most people remain silent.  The question asker extends the length of the already boring, low participation meeting. If at all self aware the person may choose to avoid getting into that position in the future. And the avoid – accommodate culture is reinforced.

Such methods can take a lot more time than a Q&A session (unless the Q&A becomes angry). But they also usually mean greater ownership of the solutions arrived at. A good rule of thumb is to use such a method at least once in every vestry or parish wide meeting.


[1] There’s an instrument, the TKI, that helps an individual assess their preferred styles.

[2] The approach focuses on unity and the common life over the individual. The BCP’s statement of mission, “To restore all people to unity …” is affirmed. The approach of theologian John Macquarrie might feel uncomfortable --  "..our belief is that the whole process only makes sense in so far as, in the risk and the struggle of creation, that which is is advancing into fuller potentialities of being and is overcoming the forces that tend toward dissolution; and that continually a richer and more fully diversified unity is built up.  ...The end, we have seen reason to believe, would be a commonwealth of free, responsible beings united in love; and this great end is possible only if finite existents are preserved in some kind of individual identity. Here again, we may emphasize that the highest love is not the drive toward union, but rather letting-be."

[3] Organizational culture is such a strong influence that even standard methods to increase participation are often unconsciously modified to fit the culture. So a standard brainstorming/prioritizing process will be modified in order to make those with an avoiding and accommodating temperament more comfortable. They may use a brainstorming process in which all ideas are gathered or put up but they don't get around to allowing people to narrow down the list. There's no prioritizing. That helps the group avoid anyone feeling bad because everyone else doesn't love their idea.