12 ways to break an impasse in your group

What’s an Impasse?

 

An impasse can prevent your leaders from making an important decision in a timely way. Therefore being frozen – stuck in an impasse – can be detrimental to the very future of your organization.

In preparation for discerning the matter, presentations have been made outlining the situation and proposing a specific direction forward. Just when you think your organization is ready to decide the issue, the unfortunate occurs:  an impasse is reached. Another option has gathered support and the group is now split between the choices.  We call this situation an impasse.

An impasse is when there are two or more choices on the table and people are unable to choose one.  Yogi Bera once said when you come to a fork in the road:  take it.  This is disastrous advice!

Impasses can paralyze a group and prevent them from making decisions in a timely manner.  Sometimes this happens because two different options seem equally good.  An impasse may also occur because people have lobbied for support outside the meeting and people feel a sense of loyalty to key leaders and their ideas.  Miscommunication can also result in an impasse. When people are stuck and unable to embrace change, an impasse seems like standing still in a fork in the road.

Nevertheless, a decision is not going to be made unless you deal with the issues and feelings causing the impasse.

Basic Steps Forward

Here is a list of specific things that you can do to help your group move beyond an impasse to make a good decision.  Consider these steps the next time you find yourself in your organizational “fork in the road”:

  1. Break the key issue down into smaller parts. Flag the most difficult matters and reserve them for later.
  2. Ask the parties to share why a specific alternative is unacceptable to them.  Draw the conversation to the big picture – the goals and away from the detail – strategy / methods. Then, ask people what they like about an idea before them.
  3. Look for creative options that may arise. When people focus on a goal they can see many ways to achieve them. Creative ideas come from looking first at the main goal.
  4. Listen carefully for assumptions not based on fact and point them out.
  5. Once ideas and accurate information are out in the open be prepared to take a break. Ask the parties to use the break to think about the various alternatives presented.
  6. Reconvene and review the parties’ priorities and common interests. List them on newsprint for the group to refer to as they make their final decision.
  7. Recognising common ground really helps bring people together when they might otherwise see each other as opponents.
  8. Encourage the parties to recognize and acknowledge each other’s points of view.
  9. Ask the parties for their help to move forward. What would make it possible for them to make a decision? What are they willing to give up for the good of the entire community?  Look at the impact of various solutions on all involved.
  10. Ask the parties to indicate what would change or happen if they reached a solution.  This is an opportunity for people to share their feelings.  Make sure this is a safe experience. Encourage people to use “I” statements and be respectful.
  11. In serious stalemates, offer the parties mediation, as opposed to letting the conflict fester and grow.  Use a trained facilitator.  Help people to not take the matter personally.
  12. Choose a way forward.  Be sure to thank people for their hard work and diligence.  Let them know that they have modeled the very best witness to others in facing their differences.

What to do when you break an impasse?

Remember that there are people who are affected by the decision that did not make it. So make sure that you promptly, clearly and pastorally communicate the decision to the wider community. Be quick and try to keep ahead of the rumour mill!

Not everyone who was stuck in the impasse has had the benefit of the process that made it possible for others to move. Think about how it is possible to share that journey with others. This can make  it possible for them to take the emotional and intellectual steps through the impasse.

Celebrate. People have worked hard, respected their community and sought to be faithful. Give thanks.

Conclusion

An impasse does not have to divide your faith community!  With proper leadership and a clear process, it can be a situation that reminds your group of their values and help them reclaim them. Groups can emerge from an impasse stronger and in the future be better equiped to make good decisions in a timely manner.

Uniting The Church – Is it Possible?

Partisanship in the church is not an obstacle to uniting the church. Closed mindedness to the other person and enmity is what is fatal if we are interested in uniting the church.

United Methodist Church (USA) – A Case Study

For many years the United Methodist Church (USA), hereafter the UMC, has been tearing itself apart over a range of issues. The most polarising issue at the moment is the one that it shares with many other churches – the place of LGBTIQ people in the life of the church. In some churches the issue is about whether LGBTIQ people can be members, or even Christians. For other churches it is about ordination or whether the church should conduct marriages or blessings of their love for one another.

In 2016 the UMC General Conference in Portland had the opportunity to talk together about this issue in a new, respectful and collaborative way. The meeting refused to use a new process. There were many reasons for this decision. However a major reason the new rule was not used was because people preferred to fight rather than co-operate. People wanted a fight so that they could defeat their opponents and vanquish them.  They cared less about each other than getting the votes. “To the victor the spoils” was the driving agenda of too many at that meeting.

Later in the meeting the General Conference established a Special Commission on the Way Forward. The aim of the Commission is to bring a plan to a special “called Conference” about how the church can overcome its incessant conflict, splits and the destructive effects on its mission. Tragically the Commission seems to have used the contemporary political approach of bringing the opposing parties together to cut a deal. Inevitably this approach will not succeed in uniting the church. Rather it will entrench the differences as side each jockeys for its agenda to succeed.

Uniting the church is not going to happen through encouraging partisanship and political game playing.  However, it is still not too late for the UMC to deploy an alternative method of respect and collaboration.

Uniting the church – a cynics view

There are many in the UMC, and other churches, who feel that the divide is too great and the enmity too strong to make respect and collaboration possible.

The argument runs

  • trust has been broken
  • with all the power in the opposing camps there is no middle ground
  • leaders get positions of power because they are hyper-partisan
  • bias in communications is so strong there is no room for a middle voice
  • with opposing world views clashing, it’s impossible to respect the other
  • every discussion is framed as a binary “yes” / “no” choice
  • don’t be so naive to think we can respect each other – you’ll get used

This cynicism is rife in many churches. So, in the face of divisions the idea of uniting Christians again seems like searching for the prospector’s lost reef of gold.

Let’s get realistic!

In the American context the churches face a particular challenge. Their political leaders have become more and more disrespectful of each other. The once encouraging ability to work “across the aisle” seems to have disappeared. Hyperbole, denigration and demonising of those with different views is standard discourse in politics and the media. Christians operating in this environment are at great risk of being infected with this poison. That’s a real problem and it needs to be taken seriously.

Fighting each other in the church is destructive of the church’s witness. People can see a political fight anywhere at any time. When they see Christians doing it then they will not hang around. When Christians tell me that it’s important to destroy their opponents so that the true Christian message can be preached I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. People are desperate to see love, experience community, and to receive respect. People are desperate to encounter in their experience of others the love, community and respect that God has shown humanity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God through the church is undermined when Christians prefer fighting to loving one another.

To fight each other in order to gain the spoils of victory will result in a pyrrhic victory. The cost of a victory delivered through lies, power plays and political deals costs the victor so much that it is really a loss. So often we forget that the way we reach a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

Finding a way past hyper-partisanship is the only hope for the church.  Uniting and peace are possible for the church. The alternative of division and discord is depressing and defeatist.

Being realistic includes:

  • resisting the power of local culture as it seeks to shape the character of Christian communities
  • grieving over the way that Christians fighting pushes people away from the Christian faith
  • recognising that the way we win can cause more harm than good
  • continuing on the hyper-partisan route is hopeless
  • Christians are a people of hope who have the promises of God about what our future can look like
  • we have the Holy Spirit with us so that we do not lose the way

What are the options

1.   Treat each other as sisters and brothers

See each other first as sisters and brothers in Christ. Avoid the temptation to demonise each other. Yes that is a real act of will. Actually it is an act of faith too! Do you have faith that God has made us family? If so what are you going to do about that when you disagree with someone?

2.   Talk to each other about your faith

In the last 20 years one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in uniting Christians has been the Global Christian Forum. Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic Christians were not members of established national and international ecumenical bodies. In the case of Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians it was because they saw ecumenical Christians as theologically liberal and politically “progressive”.

Catholics and the other groups have had significant levels of enmity. Catholics considered that these churches were proselytising their members. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals did not regard Catholics as Christians. Their leaders attacked each other and distrusted them.

In the face of these harsh realities uniting these groups seemed impossible. The Global Christian Forum was established to address these issues. It’s methodology is very simple – meet each other as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. The structure of their fellowship is for people to share the stories of their faith – how they came to it, what nurtures it, what they hope for because of their faith.

3.   Learn from groups that are uniting their communities

I have just started reading the latest book by Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. Mark is a mediator and an expert on political bridge building.

In the book he takes a realistic view of the obstacles to co-operation that exist in the American political context. He tells exciting stories about grass roots action for change. Mark Gerzon has biases. He prefers one candidate over another. One set of policies are viewed as better than others. However he has chosen not to be hyper-partisan in support for them. One key insight that makes this possible for him is that he has owned that he both liberal and conservative. Recognising that we are not monochrome, but are diverse in ourself, makes it possible to be comfortable with difference in others. The self talk we do as we explore our internal differences can be applied to the dialogue we have with others.

His four core strategies for uniting American citizens again across the partisan divide are:

  • reinventing citizenship
  • leading from across the borders that divide
  • championing the whole truth
  • serving the people

I highly commend The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. You can access a copy here. If you purchase anything through this link within 24 hours we receive a small commission. This helps us to cover the costs of this website.

4.   Apply consensus building resources in your church

Don’t just think about the problems – work on the solutions in your context. There are many simple things that you can do to change the culture and practices of your church. Use the tools that have been proven to be effective in uniting Christians.

This website is devoted to making resources available to people who want to do consensus building in their church. If you are newlease browse and find more support. For a comprehensive resource we recommend our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. You can purchase a copy  from Cokebury here or from Amazon.

Conclusion

There are many conflicts in the church. Many seem intractable. However relationships can be turned around – uniting divided people is possible. The good news is that God is committed to the goal of uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, faith to live out of, and many resources from inside and outside the church to resource us. Don’t give up!

Enough! It’s time to show some courage.

Where are the leaders who are ready to show some courage? Where are those who will risk losing everything for the sake of the reign of God?

People are tired of the fighting

I talk with a lot of people from around the world. Many come from churches where there are major disputes. Most Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive, disrespectful way in which debates happen. So, they want leaders who will find a way to resolve problems in the church without trying to control and remove their opponents.

Framing debates as “yes” or “no”; “left” or “right”; “liberal” or “conservative” is not helping. Forcing people to argue from the extremes is proving to be ineffective in resolving conflict. Yet people in many churches seem to be rewarded for being warriors for their extreme position. However this is alienating for people inside and outside the church.

People are looking for leaders who have courage. The church needs people who have the courage to take the risk of not fighting! People in the pews are tired of the paralysis that afflicts their church when disagreements go on and on.

What does courage look like?

Courage is being prepared to

  • give up my desire to control others
  • value relationships over power
  • trust that God knows best and so be open to change
  • believe that God desires the unity of his family
  • acknowledge that I have made God in my own image when God hates all the same people that I do
  • do unto others as I would have them do to me
  • love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me

Please add to this list from your own heart. What is hard for you to do in support of fostering a faithful, loving, quality Christian community?

Seek relationships instead of control

The only way to get past the paralysis that comes from hyper partisanship is by seeing the other person as a fellow human being.

There are many examples of where constructive and life giving options have been generated as people stop seeking control and work on the relationship. Perhaps the most powerful and common example is in divorces and setting up parenting plans. When a couple have a toxic relationship it harms the children; makes them bitter for longer; it is destructive and costly; makes later adaptations to the plan difficult;  and limits the number of options. As couples focus on the children and take time to understand the needs of the other person, they generate better solutions that are easier to live with.

It’s the same for disputes in the wider society and the church. Of course it is not easy for people to just switch off their desire for control – that’s why mediators are needed. It isn’t easy for some Christians to stop wanting to demonise their opponents and to get their way -that’s why facilitators are needed. Taking up the alternative of showing respect, de-escalating the tension and looking for alternative solutions does not come easy.

Seek relationships over control. You don’t have to change your mind on the issues in dispute. But you should change your attitude to the other person and the issue.

Will people seek relationships over control?

I like to think that the Holy Spirit will make it possible! But faith is an act of will, as much as it is a gift of grace. People have to choose to be obedient to Christ.

God has created a community through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are incorporated into that community through trusting (faith) in what God has done in Jesus. Our responsibility as disciples is to live in this community that gathers around Christ. This community is our primary identity. It is God’s will that we be one for the sake of the witness of Christ in the world.

When we are convinced that the quality of our discipleship as Christians is more important to God than our opinions on theological and ethical issues then we will choose relationships over control. The early observers of Christians did not say “Look at those Christians – see how they agree with one another.” Rather it was said “Look at those Christians – see how they love one another.”

People will seek relationships over control when they have the courage to believe the Gospel that we are one in Jesus Christ. However, this unity is not achieved by what we do, but by what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Does it happen in real life?

It is somewhat sad, but perhaps encouraging, that most of the examples of success come from outside the church. It is encouraging because if fighting spouses, political enemies, and hostile opponents on moral issues in society can do it then Christians should find it easier.

People move from control to relationships when they:

  • know that the present way of working is destructive
  • have a hope that things can work better
  • have a unifying principle, eg being citizens, family, fellow believers, etc
  • show courage by giving up power
  • habit disrupting rules are put in place
  • firm structures are put in place
  • thoughtful questions are offered

Mark Gerzon in The Reunited States of America, offers numerous examples of community organisations that are helping people to make the move from hyper partisan and aggressive approaches to healthy and respectful discussions. I recommend that you buy the book.

You can also look up some previous posts on this site for how change can happen, for example here. Or find examples of where and how change has happened in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Be of good courage, keep the faith, hold strong to the calling that you have in Jesus Christ.

Finding a creative solution in conflict

 

A creative solution to conflict is rarely found by living at the extremes. Usually the solution to a conflict needs the center – the “middle voices”. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein.

The “middle voices” – a creative center

Mark Gerzon in his book The Reunited States of America notes, at p. 19, that the largest political cohort in the US is neither Republican or Democrat. Rather it is Independents, and those who refuse to vote, that make up the largest groups.

In churches it is often the same situation. Whenever an issue becomes so contested that the extreme voices dominate the conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking that they form the majority views in the church. However that is rarely the case. Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.

It is among these “middle voices” that it is possible to find a creative way through a conflict. The non partisan members of a church are the key to a deeper insight into how to respond to a conflict.

Conflict – what keeps it going?

It is only natural that we want to have our views confirmed. Our opinions and values are key elements in how we define ourselves. For people of faith our convictions can carry the extra weight of being associated with what God wants. If we sincerely believe that something is the will of God then we will hold to it very dearly. The first thing that keeps a conflict going is that to change may mean changing our understanding of ourselves and God. That can be very hard to do!

Validating our identity and faith by having our views reinforced by others is a comforting place to be. “Confirmation bias” is seeking and valuing information that confirms our opinions and reinforces our preconceived ideas, while avoiding and dismissing information that challenges us.

Conflict often keeps going because people only listen to like minded people. This consolidates the rightness of their point of view. It hardens their resistance to receiving, and taking seriously, alternative views.

Conflict – what can diffuse it?

Gerzon (p.29) tells the story of people going on a 30 media fast. During the fast they stop listening to, and reading, their normal diet of news. They stay away from the information that confirms their bias. Instead they pay attention to the alternative news sources that they usually reject because they speak the “enemy’s” point of view.

He is offering advice for people wrestling with the problem of being hyper partisan around politics. But could Christians in conflict benefit from a 30 day media fast? What would it be like to attend carefully, respectfully to the people who have the opposite view to you on critical issues in the life of the church? The issues are many that have the potential to divide Christians around the world: abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQI ordination or marriage; what evangelism means; justice advocacy; etc.

This is not an encouragement to get educated, but to get empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another without having to make them your own. Empathy is about trying to understand the other person and their point of view – to walk in their shoes for a moment.

Conflict – be part of the problem or the solution

If you are in conflict with people then you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. One way to contribute to resolving conflict is to genuinely understand the people who think differently to you.

  • Stop listening only to those who think like you
  • Listen to the “other side” – not to critique them but to understand
  • Try to discover the grey parts of an issue and not just the black and white
  • Respectfully express in your own words what the other side is saying
  • Talk to people who are not at the extremes – why are they in the middle?

Conflict continues because we don’t value the other person or their point of view. Respect one another. Show respect by listening to those who have a different perspective. As this listening happens more people will understand that issues can be complex and solutions are not so simple. When this insight comes then more people will move from the extremes to the middle. In the realistic middle the issues are properly understood and the solutions can be found.

How to Deal Effectively with Interpersonal Conflict

 

In every church that I have belonged to or worked with there has been conflict.  It’s a normal part of life. It happens. More times than not, the conflict was between 2 people but quickly got out of control by people getting involved and taking sides.

A group cannot work together if there is conflict between the individuals who make up the group. So group based consensus must take seriously processes that seek to restore broken relationships between members.

Hurt feelings, a failure to resolve differences directly, and an inability to listen to one another all prevented these conflicts from being dealt with in a timely manner. Conflict not resolved festers and gets out of control in a congregation.

What causes conflict?

Simply put, conflict is when 2 people or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time. There is a story about a Pastor and Organist who were not getting along. Eventually their tension found its way into a worship service. After a sermon on commitment, the organist played “I Shall Not Be Moved.” After a sermon on gossip, the organist played “I Love To Tell The Story!” Finally, the Pastor announced his resignation; the organist played “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Sounds silly, yet most conflict starts as a small fire and grows into a bush fire if not resolved properly.

Where have you experienced conflict in church life?

Perhaps some of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • A church in Pennsylvania voted to discontinue rather than to deal with a bully that liked to dominate decisions. His controlling behavior caused people to leave the church over the years but no one knew how to deal with situation.
  • Two brothers farmed a piece of property together. When the wife of one was diagnosed with cancer, he went to his brother trying to raise money for her care by selling his share. The brother did not have the money and refused to obtain a loan. Lawyers got involved and eventually the entire farm was sold. The brothers never spoke to one another again, which was difficult for their local church as one was the Chair of Finance and the other was the Chair of the Church Council.
  • A Pastor believed that members of the Church Council should attend every meeting without excuse. The Director of Education missed a meeting without notice, which was unusual. The Pastor moved for his dismissal without talking to the man first. Turns out his young daughter had had a serious accident and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

So what to do?

Christians are called to handle disputes with love for one another and with a goal of restoration of their relationship – see Matthew 15-20. This passage gives us a process for dealing with interpersonal conflict.

  1. As soon as possible, acknowledge the conflict. Go speak with the other person in private to reach an understanding. Under no circumstances are we to go to a third party and pour our hearts out. This first step is about listening – it is not about spreading gossip, rumors, or stories about another. A situation can get out of control quickly and escalate when one fails to go directly to the person involved. This step involves:
    1. Be sincere and trying to work out the disagreement directly with the other person involved. Call them and request a meeting.
    2. Be sensitive and open. You may not have all the facts right. Listen.
    3. Use direct communication when speaking to another person. Use “I” statements (I feel…, I observed this …, I was hurt…)
    4. Aim at reconciliation not scoring points. Paraphrase what you hear them say and ask if they feel understood.
  2. Most times, the situation resolves with the first step. If not, get help. Take 1-2 witnesses with you to keep the listening honest. These witnesses should be the only ones who know about the problem.
    1. These individuals should be neutral and want the best for both people. They are not there to take sides or judge the matter. They are there to help communication to be direct and open.
    2. The witnesses should be respected by both parties
  3. If after the last step the situation is not better, take it to your local church for resolution. (The Staff-Parish Relations Committee if the conflict involves staff; The Church Council or Elders if the dispute is between two members.)
    1. The church group should hear the situation from both individuals.
    2. If possible, get the people to agree on mediation as a way to negotiate their differences.
    3. If this does not work, a determination should be made on how best to resolve the matter. Perhaps they cannot serve on a committee together for 3 years. In extreme cases, the offender or negative influence may be asked to step away from membership in the church for a period of time or even for good. You still can love them but realize the conflict is negatively affecting your ministry and must end.

Does it work?

This is hard work yet essential. Most (95%) interpersonal conflict ends with step one when done well. Step 2 may end another 3%. Rarely does the situation get to the Church for resolution. When it does, the church should be prepared. It is very helpful for a congregation to have a written policy on dealing with conflict. Members should be aware of the policy and know how to use it.

Martina McBride, a country singer known for her deep spirituality, recorded a song entitled: “Anyway”. It talks about how when people are illogical and unreasonable – love them anyway. When you do good, people may be suspicious – do good anyway. People may attack you when you try to help – help them anyway. Why? Because it was never about you and them. It’s between you and God anyway.