Controlling contention in the congregation: Pastors diffuse holy hostilities

(Illustration by Jason Smith)

 

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

Every pastor has a story about “the budget committee meeting of 2014” which will “go down in church lore,” said the Rev. Jim Klausing.

People fight. Even in church. And it’s up to pastors to figure out how to navigate conflicts and minister to everyone involved.

Klausing, pastor of Connections Church, is often called upon to handle funerals of those without a church of their own. In these scenarios, he’s seen “the good, the bad and the ugly.” When there is family drama, he may know he isn’t “going to cure it,” but the goal is to leave everyone feeling like the funeral service honored the deceased.

He’ll ask beforehand if anyone is likely to show up and cause a scene. Similarly, in premarital counseling, he asks couples, “Are there any crazy exes I need to worry about?”

The Rev. Ralph Mineo, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in North Baltimore and St. John’s Lutheran Church in McComb, and dean of the synod’s Central Conference, said irritating moments are inevitable in any congregation. A church has lots of different groups: a women’s group, a youth group, and a choir, for example. The leader of each group is usually “very passionate” about what they do — but passion “can sometimes translate into crankiness,” Mineo said.

Klausing said he tries to point out the positive, saying things like, “You have a passion about this and that’s awesome.”

Mineo trained in Healthy Congregations, which “deals with family systems.” He learned that the pastor’s role is to be a “nonanxious presence,” to listen and be a buffer, without taking anything personally. He also learned that, though they’re perceived as bad, “triangles exist” — such as between one organization, another organization and the pastor. The goal is to keep them healthy and balanced, he said.

Accept that conflicts are a part of life. But “keep small things small,” Mineo said. Little problems “don’t need a major fix,” and too large an approach could exacerbate the situation.

Mineo has been at St. Luke’s for 30 years and said he knows the people well by now, which helps, as he can recognize problems before they grow.

Conflict resolution

Do you want to talk about conflict?

“Let’s talk politics,” said the Rev. Scott Woods, associate pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Findlay.

The church won’t tell parishioners who to vote for, but St. Michael’s represents a cross-section of society, meaning “the staunchest of Republicans and the staunchest of Democrats” attend. Woods has brought up topics in the pulpit including the death penalty and DACA, and he suspects he has made people angry. Every Monday, he said, in the Diocese of Toledo office, staff likely field phone calls and emails from Catholics upset with various priests throughout the region. He encourages people, rather than writing the bishop if he upsets them, “You should write to the bishop if I don’t upset you.”

And, he said, if someone is upset with their priest, he encourages them to talk directly with that priest about it. Don’t “confront” them — that’s not exactly the right word, as it can imply one person is right and the other wrong — but engage in conversation.

“If someone’s upset with me, I want to have some resolution,” Woods said.

Woods said “we’re supposed to be kind and merciful” at church, and this can lead to pushing issues “under the rug.” Sometimes, people might be “a little passive-aggressive to each other,” as it’s hard to openly state your anger at church. But, he said, he is humbled when people are so frequently honest about the fact that something isn’t right there.

Klausing said people can repress their anger, as they are less “willing to allow themselves to lose it” at church. He said saying to yourself, “Every time I see so-and-so I want to choke them” isn’t helpful — but, honestly saying that, then immediately recognizing that you yourself are guilty of anger, can be a good thing.

Woods noted that Catholics have the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as confession. He reminds people, “I’m a sinner, too, and I go to confession.”

The priest is in the person of Christ, but is also in place of the community. Say you’re driving down Tiffin Avenue and become irritated with another driver, “you give them the sign of peace with one finger,” Woods said. (Perhaps a nonpriest might have a different phrase for this gesture.)

Afterward you feel guilty, but you don’t know who the driver was, meaning you can’t apologize. The priest takes their place, Woods said. Or if you wish to apologize for a social sin, like racism, the priest represents the community.

With about 10,000 parishioners on the books, and an average of 3,000 attending each weekend, “you can avoid someone” fairly easily at St. Michael’s. So, if there is a conflict between two people, sometimes they simply choose to have nothing to do with each other.

Connections has about 70 to 80 parishioners who refer to each other as “family.” And if there’s a conflict with a family member, you’re “tied to” that person and can’t just dismiss them, Klausing said.

No tally sheets in heaven

When you get to heaven, Klausing said, Jesus won’t hold up a tally sheet listing the number of times you were right, or the number of arguments you won.

“Jesus doesn’t care if you’re right or wrong,” he said. “There’s no record of that.”

But unity is talked about in the Bible, he said.

If someone tells Klausing they intend to join his church, after having recently left another church, he says they’re welcome to do so — but should first go talk with their former pastor to make things right. Otherwise, the person can attend but cannot become a member.

Klausing said God gave everyone different personalities for a reason. Those personalities can clash. On a church committee, there aren’t “just two egos,” but maybe five, he said. And sometimes, once an argument starts, everyone else present wants to join in. Klausing emphasizes their purpose for being there. That is, if the budget committee is meeting, why are they arguing about songs used in worship? They have good ideas and he’ll bring them up to the worship committee, he might say.

If someone in your life grates at you? “Welcome to life. … Some people just rub you the wrong way,” Mineo said. And, he said, his own personality likely rubs some people the wrong way.

Woods said pastors may find themselves in “less than harmonious relationships” with others. He said a document by Pope John Paul II says the personality of the priest should be “a bridge” that leads people to Christ — not a barrier. And, Woods said, he should help others to be a bridge themselves.

Woods said our culture says to “forgive and forget,” but those two words “don’t mean the same thing.” We can choose “not to lie in this bitterness,” he said. But “forgive” doesn’t equal “forget,” and when people say “forgive and forget” it may imply that if you can’t do one, you can’t do the other.

“Trust might have to be rebuilt” as you forgive, and dialogue is needed, he said.

He chooses not to identify someone by their worst big mistake, not to make that “the lens through which I view you.” Doing this will harden your heart, he said.

Human beings are made for relationships with others and “We’re better together than we could ever be apart,” Woods said. But wherever there is relationship, there will be conflict.

“Conflict gets a bad rap. … Not all conflict is bad,” Klausing said. It can “shake us out of our status quo,” he said. And Jesus was “not a nonconfrontational type of person.”

You deal with situations as they happen, “and sometimes a blowup is needed,” Klausing said. Bad behavior needs to be called out, he said.

In other cases? Maybe God sent this person into your life so you can learn from them.

“Every argument is not a battle to be won,” Klausing said.

‘The tension is good’

Mineo said he wishes he knew 30 years ago what he knows now.

“You’re constantly learning,” he said. “You’re constantly growing.”

Leaders and pastors need to realize, “We’re not perfect, either.” And if you make a mistake, you apologize, he said.

“From time to time in 20 years of ministry you have people who disagree with you,” Klausing said. “And that’s OK. The tension is good.”

It leads him to examine his own rationale, he said.

Pastors, of course, are supposed to be kind — but they, too, are human, “and if you’re honest with yourself, you get angry,” Klausing said. He goes to the gym to “exhaust myself” and rides a Harley for “wind therapy.” He used to live near Oakwoods and would have conversations with God, walking in the woods looking like he was talking to himself, and even once “a really interesting conversation with a possum.”

Woods served as a peer mediator at Toledo Central Catholic High School. Students in conflict sat on opposite ends of a table, with mediators in the middle to help them talk through the issue. After the first person spoke, Woods would turn to the second and ask, “what did you hear the first person say?” The role was “not to fix it” but to provide a space. It was a formative experience for Woods.

On New Year’s Day Woods preached about the Solemnity of Mary, observed on Jan. 1. In Luke 2 it says twice that Mary pondered in her heart. So often there is just a “knee-jerk reaction” to things that happen, but we can look at Mary, who kept it in her heart and reflected, he said.

Mineo looks at a congregation as a family. He himself has three brothers and three sisters and recalled, as adults, all of them sitting around a table one day “going through some of the childhood stuff.” Their mother got upset but the children pointed out that they were, in fact, laughing about old conflicts — they hadn’t forgotten them, but they were no longer angry.

Mineo said he strongly believes, “A congregation is healthy when we’re laughing together.”

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs
Twitter: @swarthurs



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