“The Challenge We Face, Part II”

Continuing in the series of posts that began with the previous post, I continue to offer reflections as I read and reread Anthony B. Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture.

Robinson’s second chapter lays the groundwork for how difficult cultural change can be.  He brings Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky into the conversation with their vocabulary of “technical work” or “technical changes” and “adaptive changes.” Its within this understanding that he makes a couple of points that I whole heartedly agree with.  Robinson writes,

“But sometimes, when facing adaptive change, it is the role of the leader not only to orient but to disorient people, to challenge the accustomed roles and expectations, and to dislodge people from their well known roles.” (21)

In the midst of change and transition that comes during adaptive change or are examples of adaptive changes, it is the leaders’ responsibility (and I say leaders’, recognizing that there are multiple leaders within an organization or congregation) to be willing to raise and lower the temperature given people’s anxiety and stress level and tolerance.  With new situations and contexts, an old way of doing something may no longer be as effective.  Of course, the level of change or transition depends on the actual situation, and perhaps the amount of conflict that may arise as a result.

Leaders deal with conflict.  It comes with the territory.  One of the biggest mistakes though is to try and avoid conflict.  Conflict can be a very healthy thing as it brings things, assumptions, ideas, emotions, challenges, etc., to the surface.  Without bringing them to the surface past mistakes and problems may continue to be perpetuated as the status quo preventing growth, healing, or at the very least the best chance of success or improvement to be realized.  Robinson writes regarding a church where conflict is hardly ever seen or experienced,

“It just so happens that, if you ever find a church where this is true all the time, chances are very good that lots of stuff is being swept under the rug, and illusion of harmony is just that.  Human groups, even churches- perhaps especially churches- have conflict.” (21)

To use language some of you regular church goers might find familiar, “if we say that there is no conflict, we deceive ourselves.” I believe its best to admit this and to face the conflict head on.  You do not need to always have an answer as a leader for conflict, but by allowing it to come out, you allow people to express their fear, anxiety, and concern, and hopefully by doing so a constructive conversation can happen or begin which might help open eyes and possibilities for the future-  immediate, on-going, and far off.

“Getting a particular conflict out on the table can help people air important issues.  Rather than panicking at the first sign of conflict, an effective leader will help people take it out, look at it, and see it for what it’s worth.” (22)

Often what is perceived to be the conflict or problem is just one little piece.  In a church it is often reflective or points to some other change or changes which can be understood better through an appreciation of “systems theory.”  I will say more about this in upcoming posts.

For now, let me close this by saying unequivocally, conflict is not a bad thing.  What makes it good or bad is the way its dealt with, communicated, and worked through.  It’s an adventure, and that’s part of the fun of being a leader in an organization and or congregation (24).  What do you think?


*Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).

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