When, in July, Lifeway Research asked pastors what was causing them the most stress, the number one answer was not what you might expect.
It was not congregation members’ safety and well-being (that was named by 13 percent).
It was not personal exhaustion (that was named by 12 percent).
It was not church finances (that was named by only 8 percent).
It was conflict.
“Maintaining unity/conflict/complaints” was named as the number one stressor by 27 percent of those surveyed—up nearly 20 percent from a similar poll in April.
Clearly, tensions have been building in congregations for the past several months. But nothing is springing forth ex nihilo in the midst of this pandemic. If conflict is on the rise in your congregation, it was probably present in the congregational system for some time pre-Covid. (We have talked before, in this space, about personal anger being disproportionally displaced onto pastors and teachers. Schools and churches appear to be “soft targets” for working out the general frustration and unease people feel about the state of their life and the condition of society.)
If there is conflict in your congregation, that conflict most certainly affects your church board. How will you work on it? What tools will you use?
In times of stress, quick fixes are so alluring. Surely there is a quick fix for this time of conflict, people in the congregation will say, “if only . . .”
If only we sent a survey to the congregation and then followed what they said.
If only we worked harder.
If only our pastor worked harder.
If only they (“they” being everyone who doesn’t agree with me) could find another church.
If only we had more money.
If only we could hire an expert to solve this.
If only we found the perfect solution or the magic key that will solve this.
Let’s start with that last “if only.” There is no perfect solution. There will never be a magic key. All the time and energy we spend on that search will drain us from working together addressing our conflicts and moving our congregations forward.
Anne Lamott suggests some more promising tools in this brief passage from Traveling Mercies:
It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty, bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds they’re enough.
We are all in deep need right now of a humble, gentle, and generous approach to working together. Moving congregations forward in service of Jesus Christ faces powerful headwinds. But this is our calling and it is our number one task.
There are no short-cuts, no simple solutions. There is just the generous invitation for us to do real work together. The spirit of this invitation suffuses the early church, as recorded in scripture. It also suffuses the following poem by American poet Marge Piercy.
To be of use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
What are the qualities of the people in Piercy’s poem? Can you think of people in your life or congregation who have embodied these qualities?
When have you known you were doing work that is real? What were you doing? How did it feel?
What is the “real work” your church board is crying out for in this time?
What tools do you have at hand to get started on that work? What tools do you need, together, to find and use?