AT 11: Conflict and Church Decision Making: Be clear about process and let everyone be heard

by Nelson Kraybill
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 11, February 1996

If you have been part of congregational decision making that left people feeling angry or alienated, you know how painful that can be. Good process and careful listening may not remove the hurt of dealing with conflict in groups, but they increase the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. My first article (October 1995) dealt largely with conflict between individuals; the following article draws from biblical sources and mediation theory to suggest ways conflict and decision making in groups can be most productive.

Acts 15 tells how early Christians faced a volatile dispute (whether Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved) and went through stages of group process that issued in a decision most participants were able to accept. Conflict in this case went through the following steps:

1. There was a big argument. "Certain individuals" differed with Paul and Barnabas on the question of circumcision, and "no small dissension and debate" arose ( Acts 15:1-2).

2. The church sought out a forum in which all parties could be heard. The local faith community took action, and appointed "Paul and Barnabas and some of the others to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders" (Acts 15:2).

3. People in conflict had opportunity to tell their stories. The delegation of disputants arrived at Jerusalem and "reported all that God had done with them" (Acts 15:4).

4. There was enough time to air convictions, feelings and perspectives. There was "much debate" (Acts 15:7).

5. Leaders, after careful listening, proposed a way forward that took into account concerns raised by both sides on this issue. "After they finished speaking, James replied, 'My brothers ... I have reached the decision that we should not trouble [with circumcision] those Gentiles who are turning to God ... but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication ..." (Acts 15:13-21)

6. The proposed solution was ratified by consensus. With the "consent of the whole church" the leaders at Jerusalem sent a delegation to Antioch to convey the agreements reached (Acts 15:22,25).

7. The entire decision making process was handled with sensitivity to all participants, under Holy Spirit guidance. The end result "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28).

Actual events of Acts 15 might not have been as positive and pastorally sensitive as the interpretation above would suggest. Nevertheless, even by standards of modern conflict theory, the early Christians got it right when they brought conflict out into the open and gave all parties a good hearing. People in conflict want to be heard, and this especially is true when individuals believe they will be affected by decisions made by leaders or by the group.

Be clear about process

Perhaps no principle of group decision making is more foundational than the need for everyone involved to understand and accept the process by which the matter will be resolved. People are most likely to accept the outcome of group decision making if they agreed in the first place with how it would be decided. Congregations and denominations vary on process; some Christian groups make decisions "from the top down", with leaders setting a direction and others expecting to follow. Other groups work "from the bottom up", eliciting perspectives from all participants before moving toward a vote or consensus.

Circumstances of sixteenth-century history predisposed many early Anabaptists to adopt "from bottom up" leadership and decision making. Persecution and geography made it difficult for centralised, institutional leadership to mandate decisions "from the top". Congregations often had to come to their own conclusions on controversial matters, as believers gathered together around the scriptures. Church leaders today facing congregational or denominational disputes would be wise to spell out to themselves and others how the matters at hand will be resolved.

Leaders preparing a congregation for making a major decision making might, for example, propose something like this:

1) for one month we will elicit as many ideas (or nominations) as possible

2) during the second month a committee agreed to by the congregation will study the various ideas put forward and make a recommendation

3) during the third month we will decide the matter by an 80 per cent vote (or by consensus or lot or whatever the group agrees).

There are many variations possible on the above plan, and the length of the whole process should suit the scale and complexity of the issue. The important thing is to be specific about the process, and to be certain participants agree it is acceptable. Group decisions are strongest when participants also have opportunity to express their convictions and concerns. The notion that the Spirit of God moves through all believers is biblical (Acts 2:17-18), and Anabaptists understood this as one aspect of the priesthood of all believers.

Give everyone a fair hearing

The following are a few suggestions on ways to air differences in the process of decision making and increase the likelihood of real dialogue. These ideas assume there is a sensitive chairperson, respected by the group, who is determined to suspend judgement for a while and give all parties a fair hearing.

l. Provide more than one way for people to be heard. Typical church business meetings favour group members who are effective public speakers and who are secure enough to engage in public debate. If this is the only forum for response, certain personality types gain a disproportionate share of power. There are many alternatives: questionnaires, voting, small group discussions with reporting back to the larger gathering, one-to-one interviews, sermons or written presentations with opportunity for oral or written reply, and "straw polling" (an "unofficial" vote just to see where most people are).

2. Experiment with alternative group processes. There are many ways to get a group to interact on controversial issues without simply inviting persuasive speeches from the most articulate. Among these are:

a. The Human Rainbow (so named by my colleague Alastair McKay). If there is a difference of opinion on a matter to be decided, the chairperson can invite all participants physically to position themselves at some point between two extremes in the meeting room. Suppose, for example, there was a debate about whether or not the church should renovate their worship space. The chairperson might say: "Imagine there is a line down the centre of this room from one end to the other. In a minute I'm going to ask everybody to stand at some point on the line. Those who strongly favour renovation, please stand at the left end of the line; those who definitely are against renovation, please stand at the right end. If you are somewhere in between those extremes, position yourself accordingly. There is no "right" place on the line; this is simply a way to visualise our different views. Nobody stand, please, until everybody knows exactly where on the line they will be. When I give the signal, everyone will move quickly to take their position."

After everyone is in position, then the chairperson may give opportunity for people at various points on the Rainbow to say why they stand where they do. It is surprising how this exercise enables people to express themselves to a group. At minimum people can be "heard" simply taking a visible position on the line; often they are able to state a reason for why they stand where they do. On complex issues it may be useful to have participants stay in their positions for a few minutes, talking about what they observe about the group's convictions. The chairperson can also say "what do people at this end of the Rainbow need from your sisters and brothers at the opposite end?"

b. The Samoan Circle (reportedly used by villagers in Samoa). Suppose fifty people at the business meeting. are divided into two or more factions on the church renovation issue. Fifty chairs are placed in a circle (or concentric circles) with enough space in the centre for a smaller circle of, say, six chairs. The group agrees that all discussion (for a set period of time) will take place within that innermost circle of six chairs. It may be helpful, to start the process, for one or two individuals from each side of the debate to present their argument at the inner circle. Other volunteers fill chairs in the centre circle along with the presenters, and amongst themselves they begin to discuss and debate. Anyone else from the larger circle, at any time, can join the debate by moving to a chair in the inner circle. If all chairs are full, people from the larger circle may come and stand behind one of the chairs already occupied. Whoever is seated there is under obligation to move out within a short period of time, when they are finished speaking. This method of dealing with disagreement (or processing difficult decisions) works well if everybody respects the rules (no comments from the outer circle!). In situations of high tension, this structure has the effect of slowing down and moderating interaction. People in disagreement have to look their opponents in the eye and be close enough for actual dialogue, with the assembled congregation as witnesses. Angry people are less likely to make careless statements in that context. Congregations in conflict have used this structure over a period of several meetings for up to eight or ten hours. Much less time may be needed for relatively simple issues or conflicts.

Look for common areas of concern

People in church decision making often take a position and seek to defend it ("I absolutely do not want us to renovate the meeting space!"). Good group process should help people voice the underlying interests that led to their position. For example, a pro-renovation group might say "We want to renovate our meeting space because we believe it will make our church more attractive for visitors and increase our impact on the neighbourhood" The anti-renovation group might say, "We want to use the money that would go to the renovation to start a day care programme that will be a means of service in our neighbourhood." In that case both groups have a common interest: to make an impact on the neighbourhood. Underlying common interests may take time to identify, but usually the commonalties are there. Look for them, and help participants in the debate step back a bit from their positions to reflect on underlying interests.

Having identified the interests of both parties, the group then is ready to move toward possible solutions. Here brainstorming may be useful. A flip chart or chalkboard is essential, and the chairperson writes down all suggestions and ideas for a possible solution. The chairperson must emphasise that this is a time for any ideas, and that none will be evaluated until the brainstorming time is finished. The more ideas there are offered, the more people will think creatively. With many ideas available, the group then need to make choices. Seek solutions that take into consideration underlying interests of the various participants. Seek God's will by providing space for silence and prayer. When the group comes to a decision, write out the agreements clearly so there is no disagreement in the future about what was decided. Be prepared to revisit the decision again some time in the future; perhaps even incorporate a formal review after a trial period of, say, a year or two.

Nelson Kraybill is an elder at the Wood Green Mennonite Church in North London. He and Alastair McKay work with Bridge Builders, a mediation and conflict training programme for churches sponsored by the London Mennonite Centre. If you are interested in mediation or training for your congregation, contact Bridge Builders, 14 Shepherds Hill, Highgate, London N6 5AQ (Tel: 0845-4500 214). Or see the Bridge Builders website