The Advantage: Mastering Conflict

We’re working our way through Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.

Lencioni consults with businesses, nonprofits, and churches, and he frequently explains how the lessons apply especially to churches, because the work churches do is so much more important than the work done by anyone else.

Churches are notorious conflict avoiders. We suppress disagreement — until it becomes unbearable, and then we sometimes explode. In fact, it’s entirely typical for an elder or staff meeting to finish with most of the elders or staff members disagreeing with the decision made but having said nothing. After all, is it really worth the unpleasantness?

Well, yes, it is. This is church. This is Kingdom business! It’s the most important thing in the universe! So, yes, it’s important enough to suffer through a little disagreement. After all, if you’re opinion isn’t important and valued, why are you at the meeting? Why give the church the impression you agree? Why not be somewhere else where you can do something profitable? Why show up just to silently disagree?

Now, for the leadership to fairly ask the team members to honestly voice their opinions, the group has to be vulnerable and trusting, as we’ve previously considered. If the chairman doesn’t want anyone else’s opinion and if he’s only looking for validation, then it’s an unhealthy team that will produce an unhealthy church. And so, if you love the congregation enough to see it become healthy, express your opinion.

Yes, someone may disagree with you. In fact, they probably will. In fact, you may be shown to be mistaken. You may be outvoted. But if you think the idea on the table is bad, there are probably others at the table who do as well. And you just might be right. Remember: you’re on the team for a reason.

Once you voice your disagreement, then it’s possible for the group to mull over the two opposing views. They may find an ever better, third course of action. They may realize that many in the church will have the same concern, and so they need to explain the decision they make more completely. They might realize their error and be persuaded. Lots of good things can happen — all better for the church.

If the elders take a couple of hours from their week to meet with the staff and ask their opinions, well, they likely really do want their opinions. Of course, they expect to be treated with respect, but true respect doesn’t mean refusing to say what you really think — courteously.

Disagreeing with an elder or the preacher is so contrary to our culture that the chair of the meeting has to “mine” for conflict. Here are some helpful techniques —

* Insist that no decision is made until everyone verbally agrees or disagrees. No one is allowed to sit by in silent disagreement. It takes time (especially if the team is too large), but you really don’t know what someone is thinking until they speak.

* Treat silence as disagreement. No proposal is passed just because the two dominant personalities have agreed.

* When people disagree, interrupt — to affirm the rightness of voicing disagreement. Positively reinforce disagreement — especially when the disagreement is with you, the chair.

* Look at body language. If someone agrees verbally while physically disagreeing, ask why they look uncomfortable. Ask them to express whatever reservation they’re holding back.

* Insist that discussion be about the pursuit of truth and wisdom, not a cover for personal attacks. Absolutely no personal attacks allowed under any circumstances at all. Call anyone down who makes a personal comment — immediately. It’s just not allowed, because it destroys trust. In fact, the first few meetings may need to begin with a reminder that personal comments and attacks will not be allowed.

* Make it fun. Have everyone put ten $1.00 bills in a bowl. Each team member gets to pull out a dollar everytime she speaks voluntarily to a particular proposal. If she has to be called on by the chair, no dollar. (Overly harsh comments trigger a $1.00 (or larger) fine — however expensive it has to be for the members to be courteous. Maybe the penalty doubles with each harsh comment.)

* Insist on apologies at appropriate moments. Hopefully, the members will apologize spontaneously (and this is a great trust builder), but if they don’t, remind them. The culture of the team should be that apologies flow easily and sincerely.

Imagine a church led by very human, very flawed elders, staff, and others. Imagine that when they disagree, they express their disagreements honestly, share their differing views, and then take the time and energy to find common ground — every single time.

Imagine that they make a bone-headed mistake. It’ll happen to the best leadership in the best churches. If they do, someone will speak up and point out the error, the error will be recognized as such, and the team will work to correct their error.

Instead, imagine a church where the leadership is all about pride and posture and position. Imagine that mistakes are ignored — buried — because the key leaders are too thin-skinned, too insecure to accept any criticism, even when their errors are leading the church to disaster.

Why would anyone voluntarily prefer the second scenario to the first? Why? But we all do. We prefer the second because it involves less personal risk — although the risk to the organization is thousands of times greater!

And, of course, not all team members have the maturity and commitment necessary to allow for healthy conflict. And that means that all elders must (a) set the example by being especially committed to the process and (b) remove or retrain people they put on teams who aren’t trustworthy and vulnerable or who refuse to engage in healthy conflict.

In fact, it’s a good idea to do some serious training of the elders, staff, and other key leadership teams on just how to be a team. And the elders have to lead the charge. They might delegate some of the teaching, but the initiative needs to come from the elders, because in Churches of Christ, they are the hardest members for anyone to disagree with.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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