Conflict is especially challenging for churches. But research has shown that churches least likely to experience conflict considered negative are ones that have started some new community outreach within the last five years.
Why might this inoculate a church toward less destructive conflict? The answer is simple. Congregations with an exclusive internal focus will likely find much to quibble about, whereas externally focused congregations experience an internal alignment around a shared purpose.
Congregations are like people. There are times when when an internal focus is both necessary and appropriate. For churches this includes times of leadership transition, experiences of trauma and loss, and periods of wrestling with major theological questions. But as with an individual, when the internal focus stretches into years there is a danger of obsessive introspection at the expense of outward purpose.
A healthy congregation celebrates baptisms, first communions, wedding and commemorates the lives of the departed. Every church must attend to realities of building realistic budgets, maintaining physical plants, enlisting and supporting talented staff. However, a congregation focused only on the needs of its members and the demands of its building and employees is likely a congregation in decline. To paraphrase William Temple, “a congregation is the only association that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Healthy congregations look out the window—and head out the door. Unhealthy congregations, like unhealthy people, are self-absorbed. They worry about worship attendance and offerings rather than engage in service. They develop a “scarcity mentality” and organize turf wars over who will get what share of a steadily shrinking pie. They become oblivious to the community outside the doors of their congregation. Meanwhile, conflict builds as members begin to blame each other for the evident decline.
How then is it possible for a church accustomed to gazing only in the mirror to look instead out the window? Leaders must engage in some essential shifts for the congregation to look out the window and move out the door.
1. Leaders teach that the congregation exists not only to serve its members but also to serve its community.
The scriptures provide numerous stories of faith communities called to serve those outside the boundaries. Clergy who call for people using the beliefs and practices of faith to reaching and serving the needs of the surrounding community are on the right track. Focus on the biblical texts which call members to expand their vision.
2. Leaders themselves serve beyond the congregation.
Encourage your pastor to practice what he/she preaches by supporting their engagement with the community. Professional staff and key lay leaders who model this commitment—will help the congregation understand it exists to serve its community, not just its members.
3. The congregation’s budget demonstrates a commitment to its community.
Often a church’s strategic plan reflects its aspirations, while the annual budget reflects its realities. It is not unusual to look at a congregation’s budget and see “staff salaries” and “building maintenance” consuming the largest share. However, a healthy congregation demonstrates a commitment to giving beyond itself by investing in its community.
What about your congregation? Is it gazing in the mirror (even a rearview mirror) …or looking out the window? Ironically, a congregation that tries to save its life by continual self-focus will lose it, but a congregation that gives its life away by offering itself freely in service to the community thrives.
Our congregations are not intended to serve only their own members. They were designed as instruments of God for service to enable and equip their members to engage in service to their community. Once we look out the window, everything changes.