By Barney Wells
To live above
With the saints we love,
Ah, that will be glory.
To live below
With the ones we know,
That’s a different story.
Many preachers have quoted that little poem over the years, and most of us understand its sentiment. While it certainly is pleasant for brothers to “live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1), it seems inevitable they will sometimes live in conflict. This article shares some of what one smaller rural church has learned about preventing, intervening in, and resolving conflict.
Since 1889, the Walnut Grove Christian Church has met in a traditional white-frame building at a country crossroads about five miles southeast of Arcola, Illinois. The flat prairie surrounding the church house for miles is some of the most productive farmland in the nation. Sitting on the eastern edge of Illinois’ largest Amish settlement, the community has a living link to its past. Its ever-growing Hispanic population, interstate highway exit, and industrial park point to its future. For most of its history, Arcola has existed to serve the needs of the area farmers, and the community’s churches, including Walnut Grove, have been made up of those same farmers.
In the last 20 years, however, Arcola has changed. As the size of farms has increased, the number of resident farmers has declined. More of the residents are professionals, factory workers, and folk who commute to office jobs a half-hour or more away.
Over the decades the Walnut Grove congregation has seen many changes, including the complete demolition and reconstruction of its building and a merger with an a cappella church of Christ. The pace of change accelerated as the 21st century approached, and the congregation added first part-time and then full-time staff, completed two building additions, added a second worship service, and changed its system of governance, completely rewriting its bylaws.
In a 15-year period from 1990-2005, the congregation made just about every kind of change a church can make. In that same period, some changes came to the congregation that were neither intended nor desired. Two major area employers closed, some key church leaders moved away due to job relocations, and a couple of wise and faithful elders passed away. Throughout this period the church was growing, and that meant change.
Change Can Bring Conflict
The leadership at Walnut Grove learned much about managing conflict during a decade and a half of almost constant change. The potential for conflict is always present in a church and can be triggered either by change or by a failure to change when change is needed. For the smaller church to release its power, it must implement deliberate changes and respond to unexpected changes in its context. To safely navigate the waters of change, you can’t rock the boat too much.
“I’m all for progress; it’s change I don’t like.” That statement points to one of the reasons change can bring conflict—some members may not see its purpose. Everyone makes change. We change the car we drive every few years, we change the clothes we wear, and we change the restaurants where we like to eat. When we see how a change will benefit us, we call it progress and we embrace it. It is when we don’t see the potential benefit in a change or see that it may bring difficulties for us even if it benefits the church as a whole that we may resist change.
No one wants to see his church make a change that isn’t progress, so it is not unexpected that good Christian folks will resist changes in which they see no benefit. That may bring them into conflict with folks in the church who do see benefits to the change. Effective leadership in the smaller church requires we understand this need to see the change as progress.
Just as people may not see the same benefit from a change, they may not accept the change at the same pace. For more than 40 years, Everett M. Rogers has studied the way people accept change.1 Rogers has observed that only about 2.5 percent of people in any group (like a church congregation) ever have a new idea. Once they have it, about 13.5 percent more will see the value in it right away. A third of the people in the group will accept the idea after watching it work for a while, and another third will slowly accept the idea.
That leaves about 16 percent who will never really accept it. A few of those will leave the group rather than make the change. Rogers’s research confirms for the church leader that it will be the rare change that does not produce some conflict.
Sometimes, no matter how hard leaders may try to anticipate all the results of a change, things may happen that no one predicted or planned. This is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. One change Walnut Grove made, in preparation for the larger change of starting a second worship service, was a very simple one—from glass Communion cups to disposable plastic cups. All the groups within the church who had any stake in the change had agreed it was a good one.
On the first Sunday with plastic cups, before the tray had passed six pews, one arthritic old brother had crushed the cup, splashing his Sunday white shirt with grape juice, and another dear old saint had cut her lip on a tiny bit of flash where the cup had come from the mold. At the conclusion of the service the plastic cups disappeared and have never since been used. The congregation hoped to accomplish several worthwhile goals in the change, but none of them involved the embarrassment and injury of two senior members. These were good-natured and loving souls who did not complain, but under different circumstances these unintended consequences could have led to conflict.
The experience with change at Walnut Grove and the research done by others confirm that change can bring conflict, and yet the church managed to negotiate most changes with very little conflict.
The New Testament calls for us to be of one mind (Romans 12:5; 15:5, 6; 1 Corinthians 12:11; Philippians 1:27; 2:2; 1 Peter 3:8) and insists we be united on issues that touch salvation. Yet even in the early church we see evidence that not everyone, even good Christians, thought alike about everything.
Just as our tastes in food or our style of shoes may differ because of the way we are raised, so there are some things about how we view the world that may vary with our upbringing and environment. These are not things that are right or wrong; they are simply different ways of doing the same thing.
One of the changes Walnut Grove experienced was a shift in occupation base. The farm crisis of the 1980s left the community and the church with fewer farmers, yet the church continued to grow, attracting newcomers to the community who lacked the agrarian roots of the longtime members. In order to prevent conflict, the church had to learn that some folks thought differently about things, and that was not a bad thing. Here are some examples.
In the last 15 years the Walnut Grove congregation has been involved in two building programs, one of them in two phases. One of the first issues that comes up in a smaller church, especially a rural one, is volunteer labor. Agrarians, folks raised with the rhythms of the land, tend to be do-it-yourself folks. Being their own boss, they typically feel they have more time to give than money.
They try not to hire anything done if they can do it, and that mind-set is often applied to church building projects. They also have a view of time that is conditioned by their work. Time is based more on events than on clocks or calendars, so they will plan a project for “after planting,” or “when the tourist season is over.”
On the other hand, there are those folks coming to the church who grew up in a suburban culture, work in offices, factories, or schools, and plan their schedules very tightly. They view work as a specialization: you do what you are good at and outsource the rest to specialists in other areas. Neither way of looking at time and work is wrong, and neither is more biblical than the other; but each can seem foreign and foolish to those who do not hold them.
This became evident in a big way when the church started her second building project. During the first project church members had done everything they could with volunteer labor, paying only for work that required a license or a skill no one in the church possessed. When the decision was made on the second project, the makeup of the church had changed considerably and the board voted unanimously to make this addition a turnkey operation, hiring a contractor to do the entire job.
The first day the contractor came to start work, several volunteers also showed up, asking how they could help. They came back the next day, and finally the contractor suggested he just do the parts that required special skills and tools and leave the rest to the volunteers. Some of those volunteers were the same people who voted to hire out the whole job. They just couldn’t shake the mind-set, even though they realized the value in doing it a different way.
Another area of differing mind-sets involves “margins.” Agrarians, especially farmers, live with a great deal of risk, always investing most of their profits (sometimes more than all their profit) in next year’s crop. They live with the possibility that the growing season can be too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold, there can be wind and hail and insects and . . . suffice it to say they always see a high degree of risk and a low amount of liquid assets in their business. This makes them very sensitive to having their church take risks as well.
On the other hand, those whose business resources are supplied by the home office and whose assets are more liquid do not feel the same degree of risk and therefore are more comfortable with their church taking a bigger “step of faith.” Neither of these groups lacks faith, but one sees faith in God focused in what their business undertakes, while the other sees it focused in what their church undertakes. Again, this difference can result in accusations of “little faith” or “foolhardiness,” which in turn can lead to conflict, if leaders do not realize the validity of both positions.
Relationships and Roles
Church members can also hold different mind-sets in the way they view other people. Smaller churches, especially rural ones, tend to view people in terms of relationships, while relative newcomers may view people by their roles. The latter may identify a person as “one of our elders, an attorney, and on the county planning commission,” while the former may identify the same man as “Bob, Doc and Vera’s boy; lives on the old Helms place.” The first group may tend to ignore the role of a church leader because of the person’s relationships, and the second may overlook how relationships affect how one carries out his role. Either can lead to conflict, yet neither is inherently wrong.
To sum this up, the Walnut Grove church members learned that while they may be of one mind about what to do, they may have differing ideas about how to do it, and all of those ideas may be good ones. To help prevent conflict, church leaders must recognize that their mind-set may not represent the only, or even the best way to accomplish a project. Having recognized this, they need to help others see the value of doing a task in a different way, valuing what a different mind-set may bring to the project. This task of helping each group see the validity of the other’s thinking and helping them work together to bring out the best of both will help prevent conflicts.
1Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1995), passim.
Barney Wells ministers with the Walnut Grove Christian Church in Arcola, Illinois, and serves as adjunct professor with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. His articles in this issue are adapted from a chapter in the new book Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church. Order number 40035 from Standard Publishing or your local supplier.
RELATED ARTICLES by Barney Wells
Also: “Books for Christian Peacemakers” by Joe L. Cope
and “Four Seconds One Saturday” by an anonymous writer