Sunday, December 11, 2016

Seminary PL30: Preventing Group Exit

This is the sixteenth post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the twenty-ninth post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post in this series looked at Tillich's Protestant Principle and the tendency of Protestant churches to split over interpretations of the Bible. Bob Whitesel's book can be bought here.
1. In a post on "Causes of Conflict," we mentioned four basic sources of conflict: 1) conflict that comes from the life cycle of a church, 2) conflict that comes from the pursuit of the church's goals, 3) interpersonal and interrelational conflict, and 4) conflict resulting from trends in the church's environment. Any of these conflicts can lead to "group exit," where some subset of the church decides to leave and go elsewhere. If the group leaving is large enough, we call it a church split.

2. Life cycle conflict is inevitable. When a church or organization is in decline, there will be conflict over diminished resources. If a church grows and new people begin to make the original core group feel less significant, there will be conflict. When a church is launching, there can be conflict over how and when to launch it. There is a good chance that people will leave at these pressure points.

As the leadership of a church sets goals and casts vision, the introduction of new ideas and directions almost inevitably leads to conflict. If the conflict is great enough, some will inevitably leave... or the pastoral leadership will be pushed out.

Interpersonal conflict is the stuff of humanity. People get their feathers ruffled, often over nothing. Often we say we are disagreeing over ideas or situations, but it is really just carnal human nature doing its thing. People will inevitably exit a church from time to time in a huff. Often, it is a relief to everyone when they go.

Pressures from the outside world can cause divisions in a church. The 2016 election was the most divisive election of my lifetime. Families and friends parted ways. No doubt there were individuals who left one church for another during this season as well.

3. It is important to acknowledge that groups can part company in peace. They can "agree to disagree." I happened to be in a church once where someone who had led a split returned to the original church and shared some of his reflections before moving out of the city. I thought his advice was uncanny: "Don't disagree for long," he said. "If you cannot come to an agreement, part as friends and double the effort for the kingdom."

So unification is not always the ideal outcome. When Paul and Barnabas parted ways, the gospel came to Greece. Just think of how much longer it would have taken if Paul and Barnabas had not agreed to disagree and gone their separate ways!

4. Bob Whitesel suggests that a church can limit group exit by counteracting the exit trajectory at key "trigger" points. [1] He lays out six stages of change that can either result in group exit or group harmony.
  • He starts with relative harmony, assuming a church that is generally at peace at the start.
  • Then a conflict trigger emerges. He focuses mostly on ideas ("Idea Development Stage") but the trigger could be any of the sort mentioned above. There may be tremors and rumblings of conflict at this point.
  • The third stage is change. A change happens. Two possible trajectories often start here, one of which could end in group exit. There can be an "alarm event" that sets a course that, unless addressed in some way, will end in some group leaving the church.
  • There will almost inevitably be resistance to change when it occurs. This is the most crucial stage because another event is coming, either a "polarizing event" or a "harmonizing event."
  • If a harmonizing event takes place, then the next stage will be one of dissonent harmony, where there is disagreement within the context of unity. If rather a polarizing event takes place, then the next stage will be one of intense conflict.
  • Finally, the conflict runs its course. The one trajectory leads to group exit, the other to group retention
Whitesel offers the advice of going slow and building consensus, as well as building in the expectation of resistance into the process.

5. The way you address conflict depends on the source of the conflict, remembering that not all group exit is bad. When an organization has to change or die, such changes do not have to be done offensively, but they must be done. When new goals are put in place for the good of the organization, they can be done in a way that tries to build consensus and get as many people on board as possible.

Opponents to a course of action ideally would feel like they are being heard. There is a point of course where a gripe session emerges that only is harmful. Most people resist change, often even when it is helpful. It's often helpful to separate opportunities for venting from moments of decision. And it's best to separate gripes so they don't poison the well.

Again, sometimes those gripes are right. Sometimes the pastor or leadership team is wrong. Good leadership gives a good listen to those who oppose change.

On the other hand, if people feel manipulated and shut out, there is a greater chance that group will eventually leave. But there is a time to go forward for the intended good of the organization even if some leave.

6. You cannot always convince those with objections. Human beings operate primarily on their intuitions and then come up with reasons to support their gut feeling. So while we have logical discussions over ideas, that is often not where the real opposition is coming from. The interpersonal dimension is more important if the goal is resolve the conflict.

There is a point where continued discussion is pointless. That point is when it is clear that neither side is going to convince the other. At this point, those who have the authority to move forward with their side will do so, and the other side can either stomach it or will leave.

From a Christian perspective, there shouldn't be sore winners or losers. The winning side has won and would ideally be gracious to the side that has lost. If the losing side cannot do anything more to change the outcome, it should resolve itself to the loss or leave. Of course there are less than ideal situations too.

7. Trending situations on the outside of the church can unify a church. They can also polarize it. If the church unifies against changes to which it needs to adjust, then the church is on a trjectory that will keep it together until it dies. Sometimes some in the church want to accommodate the world when it should be standing firm. Sometimes the church mistakes politics for religion and that causes divisions in the church.

Our citizenship is in heaven. Our loyalty is to God. Hopefully a church can sort out its priorities to where it knows what is central and what is not central when the outside world causes conflict within. But not all conflict can be resolved. If it becomes a cancer or interferes with the mission too much, then exit is not a bad thing.

Next Week: From Out Group to One Group

[1] Whitesel has two key books relating to this topic: Staying Power and Preparing for Change Reaction. See also his wiki articles on group exit.

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management
Conflict Management

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