A Tale of Three Churches

One story: The months preceding the formal “New Rector Installation” service were relatively calm and easy. Afterward, a member of the Vestry claiming to have “issues with authority,”  began blatantly opposing every point raised by the Rector in Vestry discussions. The wardens and Rector teamed up to listen to and work with this Vestry member, enabling better communication and more effective Vestry meetings.

Later, another parish conflict arose over human sexuality and whether openly gay and partnered persons should be bishops. The Vestry and Rector along with other community faith leaders organized a series of ecumenical and congregation-wide conversations on human sexuality. Although a few people left the parish because of the Episcopal Church’s stance on partnered gay bishops, most people stayed. The leadership encouraged open conversations which revealed more diversity within the congregation than was previously assumed. Eventually the anxiety eased and the congregation was able to focus on mission and ministries.

A second story: Six weeks into a new call the new Rector hired a consultant to help navigate complicated interpersonal dynamics, which revealed themselves in the first week of the Rector’s arrival. That week, in separate incidences, three different people closed the Rector’s office door and then proceeded to insist that the Rector fire the Parish Administrator, who had been hired by the interim. Members of the congregation continued to tell the Rector what the Rector could or could not do, in no uncertain terms. Six months later there was open conflict in Vestry meetings. Ten months into the call the Rector arranged for the consultant to meet with the Vestry in an effort to learn more about the conflict. Despite great effort to identify issues and concerns, the “Problem” could not be clearly articulated. A pattern emerged, as soon as one issue was addressed another one reared its head.

Not long after, following the New Rector installation service, the Bishop had a closed door meeting with the Vestry, without the Rector present, in order that the Vestry could speak “freely.” A few days later the Bishop called and told the Rector how to respond to concerns that were raised by the Vestry. When the conflict continued to rise the Bishop made a second visit with the Vestry, this time with the Rector present, and told the Vestry what to do. Seventeen months into this call the Rector began receiving daily emails, carbon copied to undisclosed recipients,  that were personally and professionally demeaning. The Bishop had a second closed door meeting with the Vestry, again without the Rector present. After that meeting the Bishop told the Rector to resign and laid out a plan for the Rector’s departure. The Bishop stated that the Rector’s leadership style was not a good fit for this parish.

A third story: The priest was called to a parish that felt like a “perfect fit.” The first two years were filled with enthusiasm and joy.  However, in the third year conflict arose. For the better part of an entire year the leadership team and Rector wrestled with concerns about process, who had authority and how were decisions made. This culminated in two public conversations with representatives from many of the parish committees. The conversation was facilitated by a parishioner and a member of the diocesan staff, both trained mediators. These conversations eased the anxiety in the system by providing an opportunity for everyone to speak and be listened too and a plan was put in place for moving forward.

Conflict is a normal and natural part of human relationships and congregational life. The absence of conflict does not mean that a congregation or a relationship is necessarily healthy. Absence of conflict may indicate a system or relationship that is stuck in patterns of behavior that ensure a false sense of comfort at the expense of interpersonal growth and well-being. This comfort is false because people are suppressing their true feelings in an effort to get along. Christians congregations have a tendency to “be nice,” believing it’s the Christian thing to do. Paradoxically being nice usually means people are quietly tolerating other people who are not being nice to one another. It also manifests as unspoken pressure to accept values, beliefs, and behaviors that are not one’s own.

A normal aspect of congregational life, conflict can play out in healthy and unhealthy ways. Typically conflict manifests as anxiety over seemingly random issues or an insistence that a particular person is the problem. Successful resolution can happen when individuals in the leadership team (Bishop, priest, Vestry, Commission Chairpersons, etc) are able to navigate the situation by monitoring their own feelings, choosing to respond thoughtfully instead of impulsively by separating feelings from action and recognizing their particular role in the conflict. A group of mature leaders, not just the clergy person, need to be willing to seek reconciliation rather than blame, confront, by meeting face to face, the unhealthy behaviors, and strive to create and maintain boundaries for healthy behaviors.

In the parish in which the conflict ended with a forced pastoral exit, the underlying anxiety over congregational and cultural changes in leadership were similar to what other churches face in the world today. However this congregational system exhibited symptoms of unhealthy behavior well documented by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and numerous books written on church conflict. The symptoms included an unwillingness to adapt. This manifested as inflexible and insistent behaviors intended to protect a few and hurt others. The instigators used scare tactics and anger to spread and increase anxiety. There was an expectation that the female Rector would “behave like the obedient daughter and do what she was told,” a typical experience of women in leadership. The Rector’s efforts to hold open conversations among the leadership team in order for the members to grow in understanding of one another failed because certain members would not publicly speak about their feelings and intentions. Instead they circulated emails undermining the leadership with distorted information intended to raise anxiety. Meetings of the Vestry and other groups, without the Rector present, perpetuated a pattern of covert behavior and silencing of the Rector. The ensuing “flight-pattern” of people leaving or threatening to leave the parish added to the anxiety. This was exacerbated by a tendency to look after self-interests and not the good of the whole. There was the presence of demeaning verbal and non-verbal communication. The destructive behavior was marked by domination and subordination patterns. The parish had a history of alcoholism and a long history of conflict with previous Rector’s in which people left the church rather than reconcile. The conflict escalated so quickly that the Rector was unable to establish and maintain trusting relationships with key leaders.

Underlying the behaviors were significant cultural shifts. During the months in which the conflict was elevating the country fell into an economic depression which impacted this congregation of predominantly retired people. Incidents of undocumented people crossing the border increased the tension in local neighborhoods. The first black President of the United States was elected, a challenge for even the most liberal members of this community. And, the parish was experiencing leadership from its first female Rector. These cultural and systemic-wide changes aroused anxiety in people who, as is typical, played out their anxiety through congregational life. Within eighteen months the conflict in this parish had reached an “intractable” level of intensity, the stated objective of at least one person was to humiliate the Rector and punish her by getting her fired. Arbitration was necessary and the end result was a forced pastoral exit. Intervention from professional church mediators may not have salvaged the relationship but it would have enlightened all parties to the unhealthy dynamics at play.

Forced clergy exits have a tendency to focus on “cause and effect” – who did what or what caused the conflict. In church settings the Rector or lead pastor, the most vulnerable person in the system, is usually determined to be at “fault.” (See Lombard Mennonite Peace Center Mediation training.) Focusing on cause and effect fails to recognize that the set of circumstances that force an exit in one congregation will not have the same end result in another. Unhealthy responses to conflict seek places outside the self to lay blame, thus moving the anxiety from self to other. Navigating conflict toward a resolution that retains the clergy-congregation relationship requires each person involved to recognize their role in the conflict.

As human beings grow from infancy to adulthood we learn patterns of behavior that influence how we respond to challenges and differences of opinion, personalities, cultures and societal norms. Because individuals have emotional connections to other people we are all affected by the behavior of others’. Our ability to recognize how we feel as we experience other people informs our options for responding. When we are able to understand that a behavior causes us to respond in a certain way we can intentionally choose to respond in a different way.

When responding to congregational conflict and anxiety, leadership needs to remember that an emotional system has been activated, one that resides beneath the issues being raised. The issues are symptoms of the underlying emotional system. Recognizing the underlying emotional dynamic requires making constructive decisions to separate feelings from actions. Feelings are natural, but nurturing hurt feelings and acting destructively from hurt feelings perpetuates unhealthy conflict. This can be accomplished by: stepping outside of one’s own subjective responses to what one “feels” is happening; actively listening to others, with the intent of learning, rather than reacting to emotions or positions; staying clear about one’s own goals, values, and beliefs while simultaneously being a non-anxious presence; and remaining in relationship with all the people involved. Being willing to change, adjust, and compromise can lead to healthier conflict transformation. Healthy communication practices rely on direct conversation with the individuals involved instead of gossiping about others. No one person holds the whole truth of a situation, it takes enormous effort to honor everyone’s perspective. Compassion, empathy, and a desire to stay in relationship are key factors in reconciling conflict.

Conflict is a normal aspect of human relationships, reminding us that we are vibrant and alive. When our motivation to resolve conflict is toward relationship building instead of self-preservation, bullying, or power and control, conflict can be transformational, building trust and deepening our awareness of ourselves and others. Scripture provides us with examples of how to do this as we grow up in every way into the body of Christ.

(See in particular 1 Corinthians 13Ephesians 4, and Matthew18).

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski serves as the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, MI and as the Convener of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. She holds a dual degree M.Div/MSW with an emphasis in Family Systems for Congregations and is trained in Mediation for Congregations and Healthy Congregations by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and Appreciative Inquiry with Rob Voyle. In addition to serving on the board for the EWC she previously served on the boards of OMNI Youth Services in Chicago and the RevGalBlogPals, as a regional Dean in the Diocese of Chicago, and as a regional liaison for Episcopal Migration Ministries.

The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following  a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying.  This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and  through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and  The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.

If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the  NECA Resource Page



About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
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