Story Magazine - Fourth Quarter, 2004

How Congregations Can Engage in Respectful Conversation

The more the church seeks to be missional to God's call, the more it's going to see conflict, says Anita Bradshaw, director of conflict and mission at Church Innovations. Church Innovations, founded by Luther Professor of Systematic Theology Pat Keifert, is a non-profit organization that assists congregations with renewal, transformation and conflict resolution. Bradshaw is also a Ph.D candidate at Luther Seminary studying conflict in congregations.

"The prevailing opinion is that there should not be conflict or risk [in the church]. Yet, Jesus' ministry was full of conflict and disturbing people, particularly the religious folk. It was a ministry that led to a cross," Bradshaw says, adding that it is the cross that is at the heart of our faith.

Being a missional community means talking together to discern God's call, she continues. But when members don't agree on that call, it takes a lot of work to determine how a congregation as a whole is called and sent.

She explains how many conflict resolution processes hinder more than help. They may be forums with speakers from extreme ends of the issue who end up screaming at each other; or perhaps two separate events where the speakers only pitch their points of view. What is needed, Bradshaw says, is a safe place where questions can rise up and be discussed openly before moving on to the decision-making process. "None of us has all of the truth, but God has given us the ability to think and pray together. At Church Innovations we believe God has given people the gifts needed to deal with the issue."

Church Innovations uses a process called "Growing Healthier Congregations." The staff has found this three-pronged method helpful for sounding out just about any kind of congregational issue.

1.Dwell in God's word
Bradshaw always begins with a reading of Philippians 2:5-11 ("The Christ Hymn"), and then encourages those present to share their thoughts on the meaning of the text. "This isn't a Bible study," she says. "The focus is how the word is speaking to each of us."

2. Discuss why the issue is so difficult to talk about.
Bradshaw finds that people have great difficulty discussing their faith, let alone some of the burning issues of the church and our culture.

3. Look at the issue from three perspectives Bradshaw has the participants brainstorm about the topic from three perspectives:
a. The traditional viewpoints such as Scripture, church stance and teaching, hymns and family.
b. Society and culture's viewpoints.
c. Experiences "of the faithful."

"What this does is take what has been a flat understanding of a subject and makes it richer and deeper," Bradshaw says of the process. "This isn't just a yes-or-no issue, any more." Once finished, only then can a congregation enter into conversation. "It creates a safer environment for each individual to voice his or her thoughts," she explains. She recommends several sessions of no more than 90 minutes each.

For more information visit www.churchinnovations.org or call 651-644-3653.