In the age of Covid-19, we are learning that even in a pandemic, congregations can be pushed apart, with ministers in the middle trying to figure out the best way to move forward. As I have spoken with ministers around Virginia, I hear of congregants on both sides of the aisle pushing for their voices to be heard. For some, they believe the church should stay closed until there is a vaccine. On the other side of the aisle there are congregants pushing pastors to open the church immediately because they believe the severity of the virus is overblown. In between these extremes, we have people on every point of the spectrum.
How can churches navigate these changes gracefully, in a way that reflects God’s love for all? Here are a few of my thoughts:
Admit Conflict Exists
The first step toward finding healthy ways to deal with conflict is admitting that the conflict exists. Ministers that admit that there are pressure points pushing the congregation apart gives that minister, and the leadership of the church, time to plan and deal with issues before things explode. This valuable lead time can help congregations find the right resources to help navigate these difficult conversations.
Ignoring conflict, or waiting to long to admit they exist, is dangerous. Most of us know, you can push aside conflict and act as if all is well for a season, but eventually this tactic will backfire. Conflict can only be pushed under the surface for so long. Once it is does emerge, it will be explosive.
Don’t ignore it
In my experience, conflict in church needs to be explored in open forums that allow safe space for people to be express their opinions, to be heard and be challenged to listen to differing voices. If we can strike this balance, my hunch is that we may find that our opinions are not as polar opposite as we assume that they are.
If churches become proactive about discussing conflict, the more leadership can guide the discussion in positive and help the church create guidelines that help everyone be fair, honest and healthy. Proactive churches create healthy spaces for conversations to happen. Pent up conflict often explodes in unhealthy ways in the parking lot of the church or in church business meetings. Proactive conversations let that frustration come out in safer spaces that allow for a slow simmer rather than a violent eruption.
When churches stop ignoring conflict, healthy conversations become part of their DNA. So, when a major conflict arises, these churches already have models in place for what these conversations look like. What would it look like for your church to openly discuss differences of opinion on reopening? On requiring facemasks? Do we ignore the friction hoping it goes away, or do we try to create places of understanding within our congregations? Perhaps this is the moment where we can begin to create good models for hard conversations.
Prioritize what we need to agree on to be Church together
This pandemic reminds me of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Two warring factions divided over whether new Gentile converts would have to follow Jewish traditions. There were strong, passionate voices on both sides. This was an issue that could have easily split the early church In the end, the council decided that if this new movement was to grow and prosper, both sides would have to give something up for the greater gospel good.
What would this look like for your congregation? What would it look like to recognize differences, understand all sides, then decide what the non-negotiables are? Where is compromise possible for the greater good?
I go to church with people that I agree with theologically and politically and people I disagree on almost every level. While there is often tension, we have learned to be church together because we have built a foundation of trust through healthy conversations and dialogs in the past. . Even if we disagree more than we agree, we believe that church is important, and that Jesus is lord. In the end, that is enough for us to move ahead together.
This pandemic will change the way we do church in ways we cannot imagine right now. Yet in this moment, we must avoid the fear of our divided congregations and embrace the tension instead, using it to foster healthy conversations.
My guess that conversations more complicated and layered than reopening and face masks will present themselves in the coming years. Will we be prepared?