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Navigating conflict and building resilient churches

Community members standing in a circle

In this op-ed, three Michigan Conference laity offer their Calm approach as a practical roadmap for church leaders to pivot after disaffiliation toward a future of renewed vitality.

Laity, Michigan Conference

In an era of division and uncertainty inside and outside the Church, the need for effective conflict resolution and intentional community building has never been more pressing. Faced with the compounding challenges of recent years, culminating in the turmoil of disaffiliation, local churches are left grappling with division, grief, and the quest for a positive way forward.

Amid these deep schisms, can such an encumbered church be a beacon of unity, offering a safe space for individuals from diverse backgrounds to come together, share their experiences, and work collaboratively toward a common God-centered purpose?

We believe it can. Through healthy conflict transformation and by building intentional community, we believe churches can pivot after this crisis and move forward in mission with purpose and unity.

Intentional community building is the first step of conflict transformation. Through building intentional community, church members share meaningful experiences, forge strong bonds, and develop deep trust. Building trust is key, enabling congregations to feel safe engaging in meaningful dialogue, addressing potentially tough conversations, and expressing hard feelings such as grief or fear. Intentional community building is a process that takes both time and effort but one that ultimately leads to stronger relationships and a better understanding of shared values, laying the foundation for the conflict-transforming work to follow.

Recent studies indicate that handling conflict is a top concern for many pastors and congregational leaders, with 40% of pastors wishing they had been better prepared to address this challenge. As lifelong United Methodists deeply committed to the Church’s future, we recognize the urgency of equipping pastors, conference staff, and lay leaders with the tools they need to lead through these transformative times. 

So, with Abingdon Press, we have just released a book titled Calm: How to End Destructive Conflict in Your Church, offering a guide for Christian communities and church leaders as they navigate conflict and make crucial decisions during times of tension. To develop this curriculum, we drew upon our combined backgrounds and expertise in conflict resolution, therapy, and theology. While applicable to any conflict, big or small, our curriculum was designed especially with the critical issues of disaffiliation and the aftereffects of disaffiliation votes in mind.

As a practical curriculum, Calm provides detailed instructions, reflections, and worship resources. Those following our curriculum will learn how to identify core issues within their congregations and foster a healthier, more inclusive process for navigating conflicts.

With support from Abingdon and Ministry Matters, we are also offering two-part interactive, online workshops in August to equip clergy and conference staff with the skills to navigate the complexities of the current disaffiliation rift. These workshops will leverage meaningful discussions, insightful exchanges of ideas, and real-world solutions. Participants will engage in purposeful work that can be applied immediately within their congregations, leaving them with a heightened capacity for effective implementation. Through dynamic discussions, team-building exercises, and facilitated exchanges, our sessions will empower leaders to become catalysts for positive change, guiding their communities toward reconciliation and renewal. The sessions will be held on August 21 and 28, 2023, though repeat sessions may be offered. If you are interested, contact [email protected] for more information.

The challenges facing the Michigan Conference — from disaffiliation to declining religious affiliations — are complex and multifaceted. However, we can pivot after this crisis through intentional community building and healthy conflict transformation and move forward with purpose and unity. We firmly believe that now is the moment to create new patterns around conflict that can last generations. Our Calm curriculum offers a practical roadmap for leaders to navigate conflict, build resilient congregations, and guide the Church toward a future of renewed vitality. We hope that the Michigan Conference can seize the opportunity that conflict presents and lead The United Methodist Church forward through the challenges of our times.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9, ESV).

Mary Gladstone-Highland, Katy Stokes, and Christina Wichert worked together to author Calm: How to End Destructive Conflict in Your Church. All three are Michigan United Methodists who have held various roles in the local and general church. Mary Gladstone-Highland and Christina Wichert own Spark Group Consulting, a strategy and fundraising firm focused on organizational health. Katy Stokes is a child and family therapist supervising a behavioral health consultant team at Star Fish Family Services.

Mary Gladstone-Highland will be a featured speaker at Leadership Institute at Resurrection in Leawood, KS, to be held on September 27-29. 2023. She will present elements from the Calm approach from the new book on Thursday. Online participation is available.

Last Updated on August 23, 2023

The Michigan Conference