1. Don’t take it personally (even when it’s intended to be personal)The reality that high-intensity congregational conflict inevitably focuses on top leaders has torpedoed many clergy careers. Unable to absorb the slings and arrows, many clergy under assault resign rather than resist. While this option may be appropriate in some cases, in most situations the ability of leaders to persist despite personal attacks may allow the congregation to move beyond a focus on the “identified issue” (leadership) to the underlying issue (generally systemic patterns in the congregation itself).
To persist successfully, however, there are two necessary conditions. First, the leader who is under attack must resist becoming defensive. This requires enormous discipline, as the natural human response to an attack is to defend oneself. Yet such defensiveness only increases the focus on the clergyperson as the “source of all our problems.” Second, someone other than the clergyperson needs to assist the congregation in identifying the underlying issues that are driving the conflict. In some cases, this can be a gifted layperson with an ability to do systemic analysis; in other cases, it’s someone outside the system (such as a judicatory official or consultant).
2. Rely on a support group (outside of your congregation)Every leader under assault needs a safe space to vent, clear his or her mind, and receive wise counsel. For clergypersons enmeshed in a high-intensity conflict, such a group is a sine qua non for personal survival. Of course, a support group needs to be established well before the onslaught begins—as the likelihood of creating such a safe space in a few weeks or even months is remote.
I’ve known pastors and priests who have stayed connected with friends from seminary days, convening on an annual basis. I’ve also talked with rabbis who maintain a close connection with a mentor or spiritual director. In my own life, I’ve been part of three “supper clubs” (in three different communities) the last 35 years that provided both safety and accountability.
3. Rigorously protect your Sabbath (despite protests)Most clergy have learned over the years to identify a “Sabbath” other than a Saturday or Sunday (when they are focused on enriching the Sabbath experience of others). But whatever day of the week they choose as their personal “Sabbath” there are multiple potential interruptions. Whether parishioners to visit or emails to answer, the temptation for clergy is to allow the Sabbath to be whittled away by the legitimate demands of ministry.
In a high-intensity conflict, the routines of Sabbath keeping become essential. The God of Israel called Moses to Mount Sinai not only to communicate the law, but also to strengthen Moses to deal with opposition. When overwhelmed by demands for healing and teaching, Jesus also regularly “withdrew” from the people to spend time alone with God. In my much more modest ministry, I’ve committed to an annual “silent retreat” at a local Catholic retreat center, a practice that strengthens me for my consulting work with congregations and other organizations.
In addition to regular exercise and daily spiritual disciplines, I’ve observed that these three practices are essential survival strategies for clergy in high-intensity conflict situations. Don’t take it personally, as it probably isn’t about you. Rely on a support group that you joined or formed well prior to the conflict. And rigorously keep your Sabbath.
These practices have no magical power to make the conflict disappear. They will, however, provide you with greater strength for the journey through conflict. Such high conflict experiences, while generally awful, are always temporary. If you’re able to survive the journey, you and your congregation will likely thrive on the other side. But the key is to survive the journey!
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