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Mediation gains popularity to save churches in conflict

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Mediation, long used to solve business disagreements between management and labor, is gaining popularity as a tool to remedy church conflicts, according to a national consultant.

A biblical model for conflict resolution has led many congregations to use mediation when disagreements become severe, according to Norris Smith, a consultant in the Baptist Sunday School Board’s pastor-staff leadership department.

Smith cited Matthew 18:15-17’s overview of Jesus’ formula for redemptive resolution of conflict. Four steps of face-to-face confrontation — one-on-one, three-on-one, “tell it to the church” and, failing that, “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” — make up the scriptural model of “due process” for Christians.

Smith said when situations reach the point of “tell it unto the church,” mediation is a redemptive way for the members to resolve conflict, compatible and consistent with Paul’s admonition, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

Biblical accounts of mediation, from conflict over neglect of the Grecian widows to dissension over circumcision of Gentiles, are among examples Smith gives.
And he knows numerous contemporary stories of dysfunctional decision-making systems in churches corrected through mediation.

While bodies of research differ in the numbers of church staff persons terminated each year, Smith said in nine of 10 churches experiencing severe conflict, the pastor resigns or is asked to leave.

“Pastors and other church staff can get caught in a dysfunctional church system that has been in place for years,” he observed. “This is the way the particular church is wired together to make its decisions. Those kinds of churches repeat the same problems. They never resolve their conflict. They just run off the leadership.”

Smith, who has served as on-site mediator for more than 20 congregations and has advised countless others by telephone, has trained approximately 200 other persons in the last six years to mediate conflict. While the numbers of Southern Baptist churches dealing with conflict cannot be determined, Smith’s help is requested regularly in addition to the annual week-long seminar he leads at the Sunday School Board. He has trained groups at the request of church-minister relations directors in a dozen state Baptist conventions. This year, four state Baptist conventions have asked him to schedule training sessions. Church-minister relations directors in many state conventions refer churches to mediators or to Smith for help.

During this year’s BSSB seminar, March 10-14, Smith trained 18 persons, among them pastors, directors of missions, deacons and other lay leaders.

Vic Peetoom, director of missions for Macoupin Baptist Association, Carlinville, Ill., was one of 10 from his state who attended the seminar.

“We want to form a team so we can be available to churches experiencing conflict,” Peetoom said. “So many of our churches are hurting — not just the pastors, but church members, too. And people are seeing they just can’t sweep problems under the rug anymore. You have to bring out the problems and deal with them, or they just get worse. If I can develop some skills that can help churches with this, I want to do it.”

Ralph Mashburn, a deacon at Caney Creek Baptist Church near England, Ark., said he senses “a change in the culture of our churches. There is more of a willingness to seek outside help when there are problems. People are beginning to see that a mediator can come in and take an objective look at things, and that can help the church determine God’s will.”

Richard Babeu, a layman and Total Quality Management specialist from Port Matilda, Pa., said he believes more laypersons need conflict management training.

“If more laypeople understand the process of mediating conflicts, we might be able to avoid minor problems that escalate into major ones.”

For Smith, the image of a church in conflict is one of a family in conflict, rather than an institution in conflict. One distinctive in this family approach, he said, is that 70 percent of mediation success lies with the personality of the mediator. Institutional mediation is not generally influenced so much by personality.

“If they don’t trust you, or if you appear to be biased toward one side or the other, you have become ineffective,” he warns those he trains. “You are dealing with a spiritual family called ‘church,’ and you are trying to give the church back to itself to make better decisions.”

Through successful mediation, Smith has seen persons apologize to each other, members with opposing positions embrace and pastors find the strength to admit mistakes and seek forgiveness. And he said he has seen some persons agree to leave the church if a particular direction for the congregation is decided. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree peaceably is a positive outcome.

Before churches turn to a mediator, Smith suggests persons in structured positions determine if the church has processes already in place for decision-making to address or resolve problems.

“They may have a process to deal with the situation, but they haven’t used the process,” he said. “If that does not work, then go outside the system for help to ‘take it to the church.'”

Mediation is one of a variety of services offered through LeaderCare, the Sunday School Board’s strategy to provide personal development help for pastors and other professional church staff. Resources and a network for help in personal crisis prevention, intervention and restoration are provided through the LeaderCare section of the board’s pastor-staff leadership department. Persons interested in mediation help or in training to become a mediator may contact their state Baptist convention church-minister relations director.

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  • Charles Willis & Chip Alford