Conflict and transformational challenges
Recently, I had the privilege of reconnecting with one of my former college band directors (who was also my trumpet teacher). The year that we spent together included a 6 week concert tour throughout Europe. I learned to appreciate and admire John as a leader, musician and committed Christian. He retired not long ago after spending 40 years of investing himself as not only conductor and professor of trumpet … but also as chairperson of the Department of Music at Evangel University. Simultaneously, John was an invested lay leader in the church where he attended. For obvious reasons, he became a staff person in the music ministry … developing and conducting a remarkably skilled orchestra of approximately 50 instrumentalists. As styles of worship and music evolved, the music ministry added a ‘praise team’ and a more contemporary ‘band’ to blend with their 85-voice-choir and orchestra. To be in worship was spiritually enriching and musically satisfying.
Over the last two years, the church welcomed a new pastor who did not share the musical and worship values that had developed within the music ministry and congregation. The influence of the new pastor has been growing. Slowly, the new pastor began to disengage the choir and orchestra from participation in worship in favor of the ‘praise team’ and ‘band.’ Sunday after Sunday, John watched and listened. He knew what was happening. John made an appointment with the pastor to talk about the changes that were occurring. The pastor thought he would educate John on the role of music in the church. (Imagine that!) John listened. The two engaged in brisk conversation. John finally summarized their time together this way; “we do not agree. I will not create unrest in the congregation as a result of this discussion. But I would like you to think and pray about what you are doing and why. As a congregation, we have spent many years developing our values. I have spent my life teaching young people to discover their gifts … and then to return those gifts to God so that God might multiply the gifts in building the kingdom. I have taught and encouraged my students to get involved in their churches and to invest their gifts of leadership and music. I taught them that if the church does not have a choir … or band … or orchestra, then start one. If they do have an established program – then make it better. I have spent 40 years modeling and teaching that kind of message. And in less than two years, you have begun to undo everything that I have spent my professional and ministry life trying to build. I suddenly feel unimportant because it seems to me that you are demeaning things that I believe and value. I don’t know what to do with that or what will be the outcome. But I ask you to think and pray about it.”
Conflict is not ‘the enemy’ in the church. Conflict is as much a part of living as breathing in and breathing out. How we deal with conflict becomes one of the most important dynamics within any healthy and growing congregation. The truth is that positive and creative forward movement generally comes through the furnace of conflict. As leaders, we must enter conflict, manage it prayerfully and wisely, and then orchestrate the process toward healing, resolution and redemption.
I believe that John modeled a Biblical pattern of dealing with conflict. He didn’t start with talking to others about his concerns … he went to the pastor. They were able to speak and listen, disagree, find a way to co-exist even in the face of disagreement, along with the hope of praying and learning their way into a new understanding. As I understand it, the pastor put his action plan on hold until more conversation and feedback could be sought and gleaned from a variety of sources within the congregation. The next chapter is yet to be written.
One of the most respected experts on leadership is John P. Kotter. He writes in his book, Leading Change, (pg. 17); People who have been through difficult, painful, and not very successful change efforts often end up drawing both pessimistic and angry conclusions. They become suspicious of the motives of those pushing for transformation; they worry that major change is not possible without carnage, and that leadership is incompetent. I draw a different conclusion. Available evidence shows that most organizations can be improved – but our history has simply not prepared us for transformational challenges.
There is no question in my mind that improvements within the church must be made. Creative and prayerful thinking must be encouraged and entered fully. Synergistic conversation must happen. Plans must be made and implemented IF the church is to earn its voice in the world of which we have been called to serve. Are we prepared to enter and fully engage the transformational challenges that are before us?
As a Superintendent, I (as well as my colleagues on the cabinet) deal regularly with conflicted situations. The predictable sources of conflict within a congregation seems to focus on; worship styles … leadership styles … competency and effectiveness of both clergy and lay leadership … financial issues … morality, ethics or values of clergy and lay leaders … trust (or the lack thereof) … power and control issues … and the dynamics (or speed) of change. All of these issues may actually prove to be a catalyst for helping us re-define, re-imagine, and renew our sense of purpose as the Body of Christ called to be salt and light in a world that needs the Good News. Let us re-commit ourselves to being a model of spiritual wholeness in the way we value one another, engage in conversation, deal with our differences in light of scripture and tradition, and move decisively to re-establish our primary purpose of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’