Holding space for congregational stress in the midst of change

March 21, 2024

By Rev. Rick King

I was sitting in a recent Executive Board meeting, and we were discussing the budget, repairs needed on the building, and church staffing for children, youth and families. All three have been competing for our attention ever since major roof and masonry issues were discovered in our building’s east (Court) wing last winter, and since Katie Johnson’s resignation at the end of last summer from the youth ministry and outreach coordinator position.

In our annual meeting back in January, we were wresting with the same things, which looked like competing priorities. People were passionate in expressing their views, and the energy in the room felt good, productive, healthy. I loved it!

Conflict is natural and to be expected whenever there is change. In fact, the conflict which differing viewpoints produce creates much of the energy that powers change, that enables it to happen. This doesn’t mean it’s always simple or easy to face conflict when it emerges.

My friend and seminary classmate Anita Bradshaw, now retired from conference and interim ministry in the UCC, pretty much begins her book, “Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even if You Hate Both),” with this assertion. But she says much of the destructive energy that can doom congregations comes about because often, Christians mistakenly believe they aren’t supposed to have conflict in the first place. Which leads to denial when there is legitimate disagreement.

Our church knows this from past experience. This is why we have, and regularly use, our behavioral covenant to remind ourselves of what’s most important when we disagree: “As seekers and servants growing in God’s transforming love, we will speak the truth in love, celebrate each other’s gifts and perspectives, and choose the good of the whole church over our individual preferences and comforts.”

If you attended the annual meeting, you know our church is engaged in a group discernment process to chart a path toward a vital and sustainable future in view of financial stresses, physical plant challenges, and the need to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in this moment.

Healthy disagreement and planning conversations should go hand in hand. In nearly 35 years of ministry, I have come to believe congregations make better decisions when there’s a diversity of viewpoints and opinions brought to the conversation. We need one another to help remove the specks and planks from our eyes so we can see more clearly what’s in front of us.

But genuine conflict can still be difficult and even scary. When disagreements and tension arise in board meetings or other settings, they remind me of how important it is to develop ways to hold space for stress and conflict to be let out slowly and over time, so they don’t explode and cause irreparable damage to relationships.

So I want to ask you: What do YOU think it would it look like for us to intentionally create and hold space for each other to disagree, express frustrations, verbalize our hopes and anxieties about the future as we go through this process of reinventing ourselves as Church?

Let’s talk. I really want to know!