Anglican Watch

Conflict kills churches: on the importance of not ignoring conflict and tips for solving it

Conflict in the church

There are many studies on family systems and church conflict.

All of them reach one conclusion: unresolved conflict is deadly to churches.

That’s sad because the Episcopal church is a master at ignoring conflict, sweeping it under the rug, or hiding it behind quasi-Elizabethan liturgy.

Signs of unresolved conflict

So how can we spot unresolved conflict?

Many times, it’s sitting there, like the elephant in the living room:

  • The altar guild member who gives someone the silent treatment.
  • The priest who regularly bullies people.
  • The clique that spreads ugly rumors about others in the church. 

In these cases, trained to be, in the words of one friend of mine, “all churchy-nice,” we pretend we don’t see the conflict.

In other cases, look for excuses. “He’s just that way,” or “Don’t worry, it will be someone else’s turn next week.” 

When we hear these and similar excuses, by definition, we have a problem.

Another sign of unresolved conflict is the silent treatment. We ask the rector (or bishop) a question, and they ignore us.

That’s a fave in the Episcopal church—so much so that it sometimes seems like they must teach a course on it in seminary.

And while not every email requires a response, if it’s about a wedding, funeral, church event, or money, the clergyperson in question shows profound disrespect when they can’t be bothered to reply.

Of course, that trick’s not confined to clergy—vestry members also like to play passive-aggressive.

Yet another sign of unresolved conflict is when what we see doesn’t match what we hear. 

One of the things that never fails to amaze us at Anglican Watch are churches that say they’re doing great and everything is back to normal post-pandemic — but their revenue is $80K behind projections. 

Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for these issues, like the death of a significant donor. But more often than not, they are a sign that someone’s painted over things with a layer of Jesus-babble, while ignoring the underlying problem. 

And for the record, where your heart is indeed is where your money can be found. 

Still another sign of ignored conflict: The minor dispute that suddenly escalates beyond anything one might have imagined. Those sorts of over-the-top reactions suggest that the real issue isn’t the one at hand, but rather something hidden behind the scenes.

Long-term consequences of unresolved conflict

Speaking of issues behind the scenes, The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman wrote a great piece in 2005, “Skeletons in the Sascristy.” 

The article is about how unresolved conflict can linger for generations, only to emerge like a ghost in the night, come to revisit the living.

For the record, every church has its skeletons. Most are figurative. (We know of one that’s literal, but that’s a story for another day.) And when those skeletons are ignored, they influence family systems for decades to come.

This issue arises in the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban’s excellent book, “Wholeness After Betrayal.” (It’s no secret we are fans of the book and Robin’s approach to misconduct, with one exception, which we will touch on in a second.) 

On the matter of failing to disclose misconduct, Robin says:

some of the consequences of failing to disclose misconduct are wide ranging and long lasting. Unacceptable behavior continues and is concealed or condoned by silence; trust is not restored and continues to erode; energy is spent ignoring and hiding the truth rather than engaging in mission and ministry; formation of disciples is curtailed as members become reluctant to speak of their individual brokenness because the community does not have the capacity to speak of the brokenness within itself; and primary victims are blamed due to a lack of understanding of the power dynamics in ministerial relationships-they feel unheard.

Moreover, failing to disclose misconduct in a congregation denies others an opportunity to recognize their victimization (in the church or in other settings) and heal from such victimization. It denies the congregation an opportunity to be educated and establish healthy boundaries and systems of checks and accountability. It also creates a power differential between those with knowledge and those without: some members know what is going on; others know something is going on, but do not have accurate information.

That said, Robin does miss one crucial point: spiritual abuse is usually part of a continuum. Specifically, she notes that judicatories often dismiss initial complaints of spiritual abuse.

That pattern of brushing off spiritual abuse does congregations a great disservice, for these complaints usually indicate more significant problems lurking right beneath the surface.

Abusers are abusers and rarely confine their abuse to spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, or financial abuse.

And while we all recognize that no one wants a Title IV case every time a priest looks at someone cross-eyed, dismissing complaints out of hand does a grave disservice to those with the courage to come forward.

On the importance of written rules

Speaking of knowing when to come forward and not to come forward is interesting.

On the one hand, the Episcopal church loves paperwork, yet numerous dioceses, including Vermont and Virginia, still have not adopted the Model Policies required by General Convention 79.

Not good.

But even more critical is understanding Episcopal polity, something at which even many bishops fail.

In line with our tradition of the via media, church canons provide guardrails that hopefully keep vehicles from skidding off the road. But they don’t provide the details needed to drive safely, like which side of the road to use or who has the right of way.

Thus, Anglican Watch encourages full implementation of the GC79 policies, which are not even fully implemented at the national church level.

Even more importantly, we encourage dioceses and parishes to go beyond these requirements and address in writing issues like bullying, check signing, boundary violations, grooming, domestic abuse, and more.

Many Catholic dioceses now have such rules of the road, and often go to great lengths to spell out what is permitted and what is forbidden — and how to respond if something doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Another way to think about it: just as laws typically require implementing regulations, so too does canon law require rules behind it. And that is particularly the case with the peculiar polity of TEC, which has both hierarchical and congregational components, as well as deliberate ambiguities.

In other words, without written policies, the ambiguities of church canons leave all involved at the mercy of differing interpretations. That, by definition, means a certain amount of conflict inevitably falls through the cracks or is mishandled, often with devastating results.

How to heal

So what does it take to heal? After reviewing lots of family systems material and talking with experts, we have a few suggestions.

1. Accept conflict — Much though churchgoers and Episcopalians in particular hate conflict, it’s an inevitable part of life and has no intrinsic ethical component. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

2. How we handle conflict matters — The ethical aspect comes in how we deal with conflict. Sweeping it under the rug, passive-aggressive silence, lying about it (a surprisingly common response in the Episcopal church), or blaming the messenger only make things worse. Even worse: fauxpologies, a favorite trick of many Episcopal clergy.

Nor does a layer of happy-clappy do the trick: conflict has to be addressed openly. Neither does the “we’re moving past this” thing work.

And forget about the old tricks of crossing the street or looking into the air and pretending you don’t see the primary victim — these antics never work. (Not to mention the surprising number of church members who flip these people off or urge them to commit suicide. If that’s you, you are toxic and your church is toxic. Feel free to quote us.)

3. Understand who holds power — It is axiomatic that clergy are always responsible for maintaining boundaries, no exceptions. But many intake officers and judicatories conveniently forget that Title IV only applies to clergy and start playing the “you do too” game.

Sorry, but that went out in second grade. And forget issuing “directives” to victims. Not only are many victims no longer church members, but with one exception, Title IV only applies to clergy. 

4. Understand what people need — Resolving church conflict isn’t like being a counselor at summer camp: you can’t just yell, “Knock it off!,” and expect results. And many times, the warring parties don’t know themselves. So take the time to understand what’s behind the conflict.

5. Recognize some things can’t be fixed — Especially if a church conflict has been badly handled, there will be third parties, family members, and community members who have opinions, take sides, or are otherwise part of the larger conflict. Truthtelling can go a long way in defusing these situations, but there will always be loose ends, things we can’t fix, and things we can’t control.

6. Don’t triangulate — Concerns should be shared directly whenever possible. In one situation we followed, the bishop asked a parishioner to intervene with a troublesome family member. But given the latter’s history of substance abuse and mental illness, fulfilling this request wasn’t even arguably possible, so it quickly became a case of trying to teach a pig to sing. 

7. Recognize manipulation — Many narcissistic clergy are master manipulators, liars, and sociopaths, and experts at avoiding accountability. Skilled mediators will spot these behaviors and insist that they stop. If they don’t, forget mediation and move directly to assessing the clergyperson professionally, then moving to disciplinary consequences. 

8. Don’t increase the trauma or insist on reconciliation — In some cases, parties may struggle to discuss the matter, let alone meet face-to-face with an abuser. And particularly in the case of narcissists, insisting on reconciliation may even be dangerous to the victim. Simply put, there are some people with whom we should not keep in touch.

9. Don’t reveal confidences — If there is one theme we hear consistently at Anglican Watch, it’s complaints that someone, usually a bishop, shared information expressly provided in confidence with the mediator in a dispute. Besides violating Title IV, this sort of behavior usually ends all hope of a ceasefire.

10. Recognize some situations are not amenable to mediation — In one case we followed in New Jersey, the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LMPC) (which we highly recommend), met with each side individually. The result? The LMPC walked away, and rightly so.

Why? Because one side of the conflict didn’t want mediation — it wanted all-out victory. Such situations are a waste of time and money and an honest mediator will quickly pull the plug.

11. Beware the flying monkeys — A favorite trick we have seen among abusive clergy is reverse shuttle diplomacy via their flying monkeys.

What does that look like? It looks like creating an artificial worldview in which one lie reinforces another.

So, for example, the abusive priest may tell her spouse, “Everyone at church is afraid that Martha is going to have a breakdown, come in with an AK-47, and shoot up the place.”

The next step is for the abusive priest to tell parishioners, “My wife is terrified of Martha and worries she’s going to show up with an AK-47 and shoot up the place.”

And lo and behold, when the inevitable church gossip makes the rounds, everyone suddenly believes Martha has an AK47 and will shoot up the place.

Nor should that come as a suprise—narcissists in particular build worlds of illusion around them. But poke a hole in the so-called veil of illusion and we face a lifetime of contempt, hatred and lies.

12. Don’t forget the parish — Many a ceasefire between warring church factions has fallen apart when a judicatory forgets to provide a pastoral response to all parties, as required by Title IV. 

That includes the parish itself.

Family systems being what they are, all it takes is a few ugly comments from within a parish to cause a ceasefire to collapse. And a pastoral response is not the same as pastoral care; the latter may be part of it, but a pastoral response is usually more extensive. Nor should judicatories be afraid to ask what’s needed. In our experience, the answer often is very different than what is assumed.

While we’re on the topic, don’t forget church staff. Not caring for a parish administrator or assistant rector sends a powerful message, and it’s one not likely to be forgotten.

13. The devil is in the details — In one prominent case we follow, a diocesan-brokered ceasefire was going along great until one key party went on sabbatical. His commitment was that if anything came up while he was away, the assistant bishop would help. But when something came up and the assistant bishop was contacted, she took a pass, resulting in WWIII. 

14. Keep your commitments — As illustrated by the real-life example above, all it takes is one risk-averse bishop to break her promise to create a renewed conflict. Many times, the damage caused is irreparable. Just don’t do it.

15. Treat survivors with respect — A survivor isn’t only someone who’s experienced sexual abuse. Just ask a battered spouse, someone who’s married a narcissist, or the family member of an alcoholic.

All of these persons deserve respect, yet the single biggest complaint we hear at Anglican Watch — far and away — is anger at the church’s response when a complaint is made about possible misconduct. From making up Title IV policies on the fly, to lying to survivors, to ignoring their emails and phone calls, the church is its own worst enemy.

And if you are an intake officer or judicatory and receive a Title IV complaint, we implore you: Read Title IV. Every single word. Then, do it again. If you’re not into legalese and governance issues, doing so may be profoundly boring. But it is well worth the time if you are serious about your faith.

Indeed, anger at the church’s response to allegations of abuse often far exceeds the reaction to the abuse itself.

16. Don’t assume — Many conflicts have shifted from minor skirmishes to internecine warfare when a judicatory assumes that he knows the answer. That includes drawing inferences from the withdrawal of a Title IV complaint. Or the fact that a victim has moved back in with an alleged abuser. Women and others in positions that may lack power will do whatever they need to survive, including dropping protective orders, moving back in to protect their children, or otherwise making difficult choices. But without context, one cannot draw valid conclusions from these situations.

Of course, many more issues exist in the complex world of church conflict. But hopefully, these observations will be helpful as people and parishes navigate change and conflict.

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