Conflict resolution workshop resonates with conference attendees

LAKELAND -- A presentation on conflict resolution delivered by Janet Earls, Congregational Vitality specialist for the Florida Conference, drew a standing room only crowd Wednesday, a day of workshops and exhibits leading up to the start of Annual Conference 2013 today.

“Raise your hand if there is no conflict in your church,” Earls asked the crowd, drawing laughs but no visible responders.

She added, “It seems that people, especially some of my secular friends, are horrified that there’s conflict in the church, but it is definitely there.”

Other workshops offered tips for reaching out with social media, telling stories of stewardship and understanding the Florida Conference budget and anticipated changes in benefits. Earls also conducted a workshop on working with volunteers. 

Janet Earls conducts workshop
Janet Earls, Congregational Vitality specialist for the Florida Conference, conducts a workshop for members who will attend Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Dave Walter.

In her conflict resolution workshop, Earls advised that churches try not to avoid conflict but learn how to manage it instead. She said conflict usually stems from the following:

• a desire for control;
• struggling finances;
• cloudy vision;
• clashing values;
• poor communication skills that can lead to turf wars and a lack of trust.

"People will deny [that conflict] is about control, but it is about control,” she added.

She gave the familiar example of a church where the kitchen was considered to be “Suzie’s kitchen,” when in reality, it is God’s kitchen.  Issues such as this bring about conflict, but it is imperative to address the problem, she said.

And if conflict is not addressed, things often only get worse, with people withholding their offerings or simply leaving the church, she said.

Money issues often figure into many situations of conflict, she explained.

“The budget shows the heart of the church, and churches have to become more comfortable talking about money,” she said. 

Janet Earls talks about volunteers at a preconference workshop. Photo by Katie McNichol.

Asked for a show of hands, about a third of the audience identified themselves as coming from churches of 100 or fewer, with another third coming from churches of 100 to 400. Bigger churches made up a significantly smaller portion of the group. 

Heather Stretar from First UMC, New Smyrna Beach, said that over the years there have been conflicts in her small church as in any church. Lee Packer of Forest Hills UMC, DeLand, described his small church as having recently dealt with conflict and moved in the right direction to put leadership in place.

If churches are small and have a limited number of people to fill all the necessary roles that anticipate and deal with conflict, they might seek assistance from the conference or sister churches. Earls said that adherence to UMC guidelines is key to a healthier church, as are faithful checks and balances, contingency plans, self-monitoring and the avoidance of line-item donating rather than offerings made to the church for overall needs.

Careful consideration of the current membership helps avoid what Earls called “cloudy vision.”  That means age, race and length of membership should be factored into leadership choices, and the church needs to realize that its culture may change as the attendees change.

“People who have their IDs wrapped up in some roles may need to go, and rotations are needed even in small churches,” she advised, adding that networking with other churches can be helpful in making changes.  Being flexible is another way to keep things fresh and bring new people to existing jobs by offering short-term assignments or co-chairing positions. 

Jarrett Smith conducts social media workshop
Jarrett Smith, president of Maximize Social Media, shares insights about the Internet Age with United Methodists during a day of workshops preceding the opening of Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Susan Green.

She told the group to plan for growth by caring for buildings, updating technology and caring for staff, but warned not to make a plan beyond five or even three years because things change so quickly these days. 

In closing, she reiterated the fact that “we know that there will always be conflict, because we’re flawed…and that’s why we go to church.”

But she said preventive measures and other leadership foundations will help.

About 45 people turned out for the first social media workshop by Jarrett Smith, president of Maximize Social Media, a former consultant for the Florida Conference.

Interactive online conversations have changed the way people connect with each other, he said.

"Social media represents … a fundamental shift in the way we are thinking about getting our information," Smith said. "It is a big tectonic shift."

The rapid availability of information via the Internet means people don't have to have years of training and memory to enjoy a certain level of expertise. Asked a geography question, for example, and many young people will simply quickly turn to Google or another search engine for the answer.

"We are moving to the situation where information is on demand, and I just have to know how to find it," Smith said.

Social media sites like Facebook connect people through "psychohabits" – the types of hobbies, brands, work or school experiences a person has--more than demographic markers like age or gender, he said.

He suggested that churches "start small" by creating a Facebook page, then keep it fresh by posting brief, eye-catching content on a regular basis. He also offered tips for building an audience.

Cynthia Lee, secretary at First UMC, Bartow, said her congregation of about 400 has found Facebook useful as a tool to find out such information as what member is in the hospital. People don't always call the church with updates anymore, she said.

Ann White, a lay servant with relationships at Welaka and Keystone churches, said she was interested in using social media to help her churches grow.

-- Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.


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