This is a continuing letter to a friend of my who was recently named as a new District Superintendent in his annual conference. You can read earlier installments, here, here, here, and here.
You know it’s pretty arrogant of me, a simple country pastor, suggesting that I know anything about what is required of a District Superintendent. I understand that you will have to take these suggestions with a grain of salt, for the reality is different than the mental picture. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I believe that much of what I am suggesting is fairly obvious (so obvious in fact that you are probably hitting your forehead and shouting “Doh!” that I would even think to suggest these things). But for some reason, it hasn’t always seemed so obvious to my colleagues in ministry.
My next suggestion is one of those obvious bits of knowledge that often seems to be missing:
5. Understand that dealing with conflict in effective and creative ways IS INDEED your job.
One of the things that seems pretty clear to me from afar is that the D.S. is often having to flit from place to place to put out fires. This can be frustrating for the time it takes to deal with these often petty grievances can hinder one’s ability to proactively cast a vision for a district, and to engage in the more fulfilling aspects of ministry. In many cases, the D.S.’s ends up functioning as a referee of sorts between pastor and congregation, attempting to find a common ground between two forces that seem opposed to one another.
So here’s the deal. You have to do it. You can’t put your head in the sand and pretend that conflict doesn’t exist. You will be forced at times to have the wisdom of Solomon in navigating the waters of disagreement, and any attempts you make to avoid conflict will only lead wounds to grow deeper, and pretty much ensure that the ability to find creative and productive solutions will become impossible.
You would be well advised to find a workshop on conflict resolution . . . the Quakers offer some excellent training. It would probably be good to dust off your copy of Friedman’s Generation to Generation and become familiar again with the language of family systems, for most of the conflict you will face in the church is generally influenced by the congregation’s “family” system. It probably wouldn’t hurt to identify a consultant or two (a mediator, a psychologist, or even a pastor with training) that could be a resource in helping facilitate processes to help groups address conflict.
But in the end, ultimately dealing with conflict in an effective way means that you have to show up, listen intently so that folks feel that their grievance has been heard, and then provide a path to reconciliation, or a path to deal with the conflict through separation. You can’t phone it in. You have to show up.
I have all sorts of horror stories of times when D.S.’s didn’t show up, leaving behind scars that remain, but I don’t think I can share them without revealing too much of the identity of the folks and/or congregations involved. Take is from me, the personal touch is always the best.
I’ve had a sense which may be false that cabinet’s in general reward pastors who keep everything in the family system calm and do what THEY can to avoid conflict. I hope that you won’t fall into the trap of seeing pastors who experience conflict in their congregations as “problems.” Often times they are simply challenging the status quo, or speaking prophetically about issues of discipleship that folks simply don’t want to hear. They need to know that you’ve got their back when they face a storm for preaching their convictions.
Likewise, SPRC’s need to know that you are with them when they are dealing with abusive clergy. You and I both know that there are colleagues of ours who are far from effective in their ministry, and who seem to bounce from place to place every couple of years. There will be times when the appropriate means of addressing a conflict is reprimanding a pastor, and don’t flinch from the responsibility, just as you shouldn’t flinch from the possibility of speaking the truth in love to a congregation when they are being unreasonable.
Conflict is ever before us, and you in particular in your role, however we have to come to understand that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and can often be a means of growth. It isn’t something to be feared. It’s also not something we seek after. It simply is, and your best bet will be to deal with it.