[an error occurred while processing this directive] This article is from the EMU News Archive. The approximate date of publication was in November 2006. Current EMU news is available at www.emu.edu/news

Seminary Offers Training in Congregational Conflict Mediation

by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Dave Brubaker David Brubaker

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Many dynamics are at work when a church experiences major conflict - leadership is undermined, people take sides and become polarized, and in a worst case scenario, the congregation can split apart. However, conflict is inevitable in most churches.

But what if instead of divisiveness, these conflicts lead congregations toward better, healthier communication and understanding? Eastern Mennonite Seminary hopes that a new course to be offered next spring will provide congregational leaders with the tools they need for that transformation.

"Congregational Conflict Consulting" will be taught by David R. Brubaker of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, and Alastair McKay, director of Bridge Builders at the London Mennonite Centre, London, England. The course, to run May 17-18 and May 21-25, will focus on helping church leaders to understand conflict and to work at resolving it.

McKay, a 1999 graduate of EMU's Conflict Transformation program, works with congregational conflict in Great Britain through Bridge Builders, a program that provides training and teaching in conflict mediation, as well as mediation consultancy services for all Christian churches and denominations.

Alastair McKay Alastair McKay

The "hands-on" course will engage students in role-playing conflicts themselves, helping participants to understand group dynamics, analyze the conflict and discover a process for dealing with and resolving it.

"Conflict is inevitable in congregations," said Dr. Brubaker, "just like in families, or any community where people interact. Just because we value harmony and unity in congregations doesn’t mean we won’t experience conflict."

For his dissertation, Brubaker studied 100 congregations in Arizona. Of those 100, at least 45 had experienced significant conflict in the last five years. "If you multiply that out, in 20 years close to 100 percent of those congregations would have experienced significant conflict," he noted.

Anyone who sees or works with church conflict would benefit from this training, Brubaker stated, expressing hope that lay leaders and pastors will consider taking this course along with conference leaders and trained mediators.

"By the end of the course, we expect participants to have the analytical and practical skills to understand conflict and a specific process to walk with a group of people in a congregation, help them analyze the conflict and propose a process to work through the conflict in a way that leads to greater health for the congregation," Brubaker said.

Given the nature of the course, some background in mediation training or communication and counseling skills is necessary. "We prefer that every participant has taken at least a two-day mediation training course where they learn basic communication skills like active listening," said Brubaker.

Brubaker has worked with over 100 organizational clients, about 30 of them congregations, using the technique he and McKay will teach during the course. "This technique is about 80 percent effective in resolving conflicts in congregations," said Brubaker, "And in those congregations where it has not worked, very rarely do things get worse."

"This course is not geared primarily for our own [seminary] students," said Sara Wenger Shenk, associate dean at EMS. "This is the kind of resource that the seminary would like to continue offering to pastors, conference leaders, consultants and people who work with churches to resolve conflict."

Brubaker and McKay have previously taught this course twice, both times at the London Mennonite Centre with Bridge Builders.