Conference Table participants wrestle with conflict

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table participants wrestle with conflict

Feb. 17, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
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NOTE: To submit a comment related to conflict in the church — strategies for dealing with conflict, causes of conflict, challenges — click here. To view reader comments click here.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

TAMPA — The Rev. Newton Williams, left, pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, and the Rev. Robert Harding, pastor of Grace Community at Fish Hawk United Methodist Church in Valrico, discuss conflict at the 12th Conference Table, titled “Church Confrontation, Conflict and Crisis.” The first portion of the meeting focused on groups answering a series of questions about conflict. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-312.

TAMPA — Conflict. It's a word many people, especially within the church, try to avoid, but the Florida Conference's 12th Conference Table Feb. 1 addressed it head on.

A group of about 80 people gathered at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, with another 136 people participating in real time via an Internet webcast, to tackle dealing with conflict in the church.

Titled "Church Confrontation, Conflict and Crisis," the session featured discussion between participants and a panel of clergy and lay professionals. The goal was to define issues related to conflict in the church and identify possible steps to begin healing and healthy conflict resolution. Small group discussions focused on building community, consensus making, behavioral covenants and active listening skills.

"We need to repent over how we have handled conflict in the past and rejoice over the fact we're here to deal with how to better handle it," said the Rev. Paul Butler, Florida Conference Chancellor and a member of the task force that planned the day's agenda.

Following a time of worship the Rev. Dr. William Larrison, a pastoral counselor, led attendees in group discussions, first asking them to pair up with someone they didn't know to share their name and church affiliation. The pairs then merged with other groups and began to answer questions about the cause of conflict at the church level.

Group members cited disagreement over how finances and resources should be allocated, race, leadership within the church, lack of local church identity and vision, and the ever-popular wars over they style of worship churches should offer, particularly the struggle over whether to provide a contemporary service, as causes of conflict.

"Conflict is inevitable - even in churches," said the Rev. Tom Bridges, pastor of Riverview United Methodist Church, during discussion over lunch. "I wanted to come today to learn from my colleagues what has been successful and helpful to them."

Following lunch attendees shared their experiences in dealing with conflict.

After arriving at Cason United Methodist Church in Delray Beach, a predominately Caucasian church, the Rev. Sharon Austin, an African-American pastor, said she sensed an undercurrent in the church that people weren't happy with her appointment there.

Austin said she went to the staff pastor parish relations committee and shared her concerns. She asked them to be in prayer as she made plans to verbalize the racism and sexism being exemplified within the church.

"I wanted to have the discussion people were having among themselves," Austin said, adding the "Holy Spirit was in attendance and there were tears and the spirit of repentance" during the discussions that took place.

One pastor said his church created a policy manual on how to treat one another while in the midst of conflict. One of the panelists suggested churches and their staff members institute a Matthew 18:15 policy. The scripture, which the Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller referenced during the session's opening worship, provides an example of how to handle conflict.

The Rev. Jeff Stiggins, superintendent of the East Central District, said prayer can't be underestimated in resolving conflict. He relayed the story of one church grappling with its own worship war, trying to determine if it should make one of its services contemporary. He said the church examined itself in terms of what it is called to do to reach people, instead of focusing on their own personal likes and dislikes. The church prayed about it for several months and made the decision to make the 11 a.m. service contemporary. Only one family left the church because of the decision.

Fogle-Miller, an ordained elder on voluntary leave of absence and a member of the Conference Table's planning team, ended the discussion by urging everyone to listen to each other and the issues facing their churches, but to also take responsibility for the issues that are solely their own and separate from whatever the church is facing.

"We need to determine what is a church issue, me issue and mama issue," she said.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker closed the meeting with brief comments and a prayer.

"One of the things that really impressed me about our conversation is that you understand the primary issue is not conflict per se, but ... community," he said. "The question for those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ is how do we become the community that we are called to be."

Whitaker said the Florida Conference is attempting to live as a Christian community in a dynamic social situation. Many people from many different places move to Florida and try to coexist, creating the potential for conflict. He said those who relocate to the state have been conditioned to think and do things a certain way and often bump heads with others who have been conditioned to think and act differently.

"There is also a breaking down of social inhibitions and people are sometimes more self-indulgent than they would be if they lived in other places," Whitaker said. "That doesn't mean Florida is a bad place. It just means it's a place of social diversity, and, therefore, the challenge of becoming the church as a community is more difficult."

After the meeting Larrison said the discussion was one the church has needed to have for many years.

"From my perspective the message that was communicated about how to handle conflict in the church was to hide your head in the sand, and that didn't mean the problem went away," he said. "This was the initial phase to put the problem on the table."

The Rev. Wayne Curry, superintendent of the Gulf Central District and member of the planning team, said he was delighted with the diversity of small and large churches at the meeting.

"I'm pleased with people being open about conflict," he said. "Now, hopefully, people will begin to talk about how we live in community. This is really a starting point because the task force will continue to meet. We are open to suggestions that people will have."

To submit a comment related to conflict in the church — strategies for dealing with conflict, causes of conflict, challenges — go to Comments submitted by readers will be posted at


This article relates to Conference Table/Conflict Resolution.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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