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Changing The Culture of a Congregation

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Even though it happened over 20 years ago I often find myself turning over in my mind a conflict resolution process I was part of when I lived with my family in Lesotho. Suffice it to say that there was a difficult problem with a friend, and it was resolved without me ever speaking to my friend about the problem. The entire conflict was handled by people in our relational networks.

Since then I have spent much time reflecting on my home culture. Read any literature on culture and conflict and somewhere you will see this description of mainstream, white, North American culture:

  • It values direct discussion of the conflict by the parties to the conflict.
  • It values doing this with little overt expression of strong emotion

Supposedly, the pattern is that, when in conflict, the parties speak directly to each other in calm voices and find a resolution.

Fast forward. I have observed a pattern in many congregations I work in:  while the broader culture the church sits within is one where the stated norms are direct communication between people in conflict, congregations operate in a culture where indirectness reigns. After all, disagreement and conflict are not nice. And church needs to be nice. While refusing to “speak to,” they spend a lot of time “speaking about.”

Superficially, this may seem similar to my experience in Lesotho where direct communication doesn’t happen. Except that in Lesotho there are long-existing and well-structured systems in place for addressing conflicts. Except when circumstances make it impossible, the eldest brother of the father of a party to the conflict will speak to the corresponding relative of the other. They will decide what needs to happen to protect long standing family connections and tell the actual parties of the conflict what to do. And, it is done.

Churches that avoid directly addressing conflict don’t have such systems. And, I find it hard to imagine that those who speak to me about what I should say to the other person would be particularly open to my instructions about their behaviour, let alone from their father’s eldest brother.

My colleagues and I at ARC Ministries, as well as other congregational consultants and writers on congregational conflict, spend a lot of time helping, encouraging, teaching people to shift from their whispering ways toward speaking directly with their partners in conflict. And we spend a great deal of time observing that behaviours don’t change.

I am more and more suspecting that this is because, rather than calling for individual changes of behaviour, we are calling for a culture shift. The culture shift is from the fear of engaging with those we disagree with, to a culture that values difference, that expects disagreement, and that expects learning from those differences and disagreements.

I have been thinking much about Romans 14 and 15, which deals with the question of living together in the community of faith in the midst of serious differences over what constitutes proper practices of life in light of the Gospel. At the end of this discussion about appropriate ethical behaviour, we are told to welcome each other. In the depths of our disagreements, welcome each other. In the midst of our disagreements, do not despise the one who thinks we are wrong.

This is a culture shift that takes us well past dealing directly in disagreement.  This is a culture shift that involves welcoming the one who to us seems to be “other”.

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Keith works in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice. As well as delivering conflict and communication training, Keith leads processes to re-shape congregational identity, mission and direction, and provides congregational assessments and mediation for leaders, leadership teams and congregations.

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