by Bob Whitesel, 3/10/15.
The following are notes gleaned from my consultative work, where I have found avoidance of conflict to be one of the main struggles among pastors of churches that are stalled in growth in the medium and large size ranges. Interviewing staff, key volunteers and board members I have noticed the following five (5) results often emerge when leaders avoid conflict.
Outcomes when senior leadership avoids conflict:
1.) Conflict avoidance often leads to burnout in the leader. This is because the repression of stress creates internal turmoil in the leader which does not get resolved. It usually simmers under the surface until an alarm event (Whitesel, 2002, p. 94ff) pushes it to the front. The leader has repressed it so long the leader will often overact and congregants/staff will wonder why the leader is so upset. The level of irritation is often so great that sides will be formed (Whitesel, 2002, p. 109ff).
2.) Conflict avoidance often leads to a great deal of external church planting (you will see shortly that because conflict avoidance is the rationale, these plants aren’t often given a healthy start). The senior leader avoids conflict for so long, that staff who are in conflict with him/her wind up leaving the church to plant another church. The planting of the church is actually a conflict avoidance behavior by the senior leader and planter, for in the name of multiplication this tactic distances discordant and innovative ideas from the mother church. The result is that churches become mono-cultural congregations, while at the same time feeling self-satisfied that they are planting churches (Whitesel, 2011, p. 61ff). But, often the plant becomes mono-cultural too because the avoidance of conflict is a behavior the planted pastor has seen modeled for her/him and often adopts as a coping mechanism as well (Whitesel, 2007).
3) Conflict avoidance often creates an uncomfortable staff relationship with the senior shepherd, because they don’t know how or when to address conflict. Often the senior leader will cancel or postpone meetings with staff, if the leader perceives it might involve conflict. Inside the leader may be thinking, “If I cancel this meeting the conflict will get resolved after the person has had time to think about it.” As a result, the staff will feel at the best disregarded and as the worst detached. The result is turnover among staff who are innovators and entrepreneurs.
4) Conflict avoidance results in the staff who remain in the conflict avoidance environment are often those who are accommodators, usually with a high degree of tactical or operational leadership style. The strategic leaders, who are usually those that help churches grow and help the church diversify by reaching out to varying cultures, will go elsewhere. The result is that churches have only a few strategic thinkers, are more mono-cultural and are not able to diversify by reaching multiple cultures at the same time.
5) Finally conflict avoidance often leads to a less innovative and cohesive personality for the organization. Outsiders get the impression that change proponents leave that church and entrepreneurs are stifled there.
But, in most of the circumstances above the senior leader is well liked. In my case study research, the more a leader is liked, the more apt that leader is to be a conflict-avoider. Subsequently, they may be popular among other leaders and asked to share their insights into church growth. Most of that insight will have to do with planting churches. But, if you talk to the pastors of many of those plants, as I have, you will find that they feel leaving the mother church was the best way to avoid an awkward situation where conflict was avoided.
> His/her avoidance of conflict creates an “uncomfortable” and “awkward” feeling among the staff when they are in conflict with the leader’s ideas.
> So, because the senior shepherd is well liked, the creative person will usually try to graciously distance themselves by going elsewhere.
> And, a new plant is launched – but with a wrong motivation and the wrong coping-mechanisms for handing conflict.
Thus, we can see from such case studies, that conflict avoidance can lead to a proliferation of small/weak daughter churches, less diverse mother churches and less satisfied work environments.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Whitesel, B. (2002). Staying power: Why people leave the church over change and what you can do about it. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
__________ (2007). Preparing for change reaction: How to introduce change in your church. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House.
__________ (2011). ORGANIX: Signs of leadership in a changing church. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
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