Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

14. Community, change, conflict, and mission

As living communities, congregations are involved in change, experience conflict, and find themselves needing to re-evaluate their mission.

Conflict itself is not always bad, though it can be seriously destructive. Heresy trials and polarised debates over ethical issues and leadership carry considerable risk to unity and mission, but even they can be sources of growth, and an opportunity to connect at a deeper level with the Christian message and its values. It is when things go wrong that we really test what the Gospel means to us. While conflict badly handled can wreck a congregation or destroy a denomination, it is not necessarily the antithesis of the sort of unity that leads to growth. People can be attracted to a church that handles its differences well. Although conflict management is not an infallible tool, it is a very useful skill for congregations to be able to draw on. Congregations that own their differences and connect with a greater goal have a sense of reality which strengthens their capacity for mission. It is not just migrant churches such as the Pacific Island Congregations discussed by Jemaima Tiatia, where it is important to move past denial and deal with the genuine issues raised by generational differences. Too many congregations have resolved this problem by not having more than one generation, or if there is more than one it is clear whose culture is in control.

In the 1970s church union was a driver for structural change, which was threatening to many, yet parish councils in many Presbyterian congregations are a legacy of more flexible ministry-focussed leadership structures envisaged in the Plan for Union. Churches like the Uniting Church of Australia are representative of the pain of change and the unwisdom of doing it badly, but they also indicate the opportunity for renewal that the amalgamation of related but distinct Christian traditions brings. Cooperating Ventures in New Zealand still experience the frustration of hope where new models were anticipated yet not fully implemented, and yet the development of local shared ministry in CVs provides lessons for the wider church on managed change, the affirmation of the gifts of the whole people of God, and a fresh engagement in mission that makes better use of available resources.

These are national and regional as well as local issues. At the start of the 21st century, stimuli for structural change include cultural and social changes in society, the tiredness of traditional decision-making models and worship patterns, and a widely accepted emphasis on the ministry of the whole people of God.

Many churches are seeking to take this seriously. In the late 1990s the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand went through restructuring at a national level while seeking a model which would serve parishes more effectively. This included adopting the concepts of "Healthy Congregations" and "Servant Mission Leadership" as policy goals. Further restructuring is now contemplated and an ongoing challenge is how to apply this to presbyteries. The Church of Scotland has adopted a report "Church without Walls" and is processing the implications of a different kind of thinking about what it means to be church at local, regional and national levels.

Nobody likes restructuring, especially when they are affected by decisions they feel they had little hand in. The promise of organisational change and its benefits does not always take seriously failures in human nature which don't change. Nevertheless where structures are consistent with Christian values and help people make decisions in ways they respect good structures make a significant difference to the ability of the church to get on with its life. If we get it right, and do it well, it can be well worth doing.

A “Competency Framework” for ministry training developed by a policy group of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand included the category of “Change Agent”. Except in the sense of calling people to the change of repentance or a better aligned Christian life, it may surprise us to think of change management as a desirable skill for parish leadership. Yet in churches of all theological stripes a source of unnecessary conflict is change that is managed badly, and whether it is setting up a sound system and data-projector or reorganising pastoral care in the parish, leading a community through change is a skill Christian leaders need to value.

Theological education is that intentional process of preparing church leadership to take us through both what we know and what we don't know about the future as a church. Old theologians, like old generals, have a tendency to be always fighting the last war, yet both know stuff which can prepare us to face challenges impossible to visualise. For some this uncertainty may drive us back to proven spiritual disciplines and skills for faith and endurance. However the skills we need as a church are also about our capacity for managing change.

To make the effort worthwhile it is important to have a sense of what is essential to the identity and theological and ethical integrity of the church, and what expressions, behaviour and structures can responsibly be changed in different circumstances. It is also important to have some clues about how people can work together to determine the changes that are appropriate for them. Effective change is about prayer and about people. It is a spiritual issue and a practical one. It requires a commitment to hard thinking and detailed planning, not just bold visions.

Structural change and spiritual renewal can be related. At a common sense level spiritual renewal would seem to have little to do with how we organize the church, it only has to do with people’s relationship with God. Yet theoretically as well as practically there is much more to it. A bad structure makes life difficult for the best of people. An appropriate and well-understood organization may not make people good, but it can make a huge difference to how effective good people can be. The health of a congregation, as of a presbytery and the national church is affected by how we process decisions and allocate responsibilities. Some time attending to these issues can make a positive difference. Too much time attending to them can be worse than doing nothing.

There is a mixture of faith and pragmatism widely at work in the church which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes in church history it has been more spiritual to pray than to do anything else to lead people to faith in Christ. Church Growth theory may have also intensely believed in prayer, but it was very much about doing things – including changing structures – to make it more likely that people would respond and grow in Christian faith. Schemes like Natural Church Development may take some of their imagery from nature, but are actually carefully designed structural schemes intended to produce wanted outcomes. We may need to be careful about structural changes which are described only in spiritual terms as some of the other important dimensions about what is going on may be fudged.

Some of us will have experienced the pain of restructuring in our work place as well as in churches. In any setting there is need for pastoral care as well as better communication. We need to provide help for people hurt by change as well as those who do not understand what is going on, and who may never get it.  Even those sympathetic to change may wonder  whether it is all really necessary and all for the best. One of the lessons from the history of communism is that idealistic ends do not justify violent means. Some church change is implemented with inadequate concern for staff and members, but it can also be done well.

Reformed Christianity and Change

It is so obvious that it is easy to forget that Reformed Christianity was about changes in the church, and the failure to manage those changes in ways which both renewed the church and kept the church together. Our history is about both inspiration and warning. The oft-unheeded call to "Semper reformanda" is not a requirement to keep stirring things up when they should be allowed to work in their time, but it is an ongoing challenge to renewal and change as on-going processes which theologically and practically were intended to be part of the Presbyterian tradition.

Where is mission in all of this?

Of course mission itself may be a source of conflict — for instance, not all would agree with the decisions of Littlefield Church in the paper by Ronald Stockton in the reader, even though their faith in facing difficult options and their determination to live their mission in relation to their actual context is undeniable. A proposal to do mission differently, or to do it at all, is a change in the life of a community which needs to be led and managed if it is to take root in the life of the congregation.

Sometimes a call to mission is used as a cover for issues of conflict locally which really need to be addressed. The Crusades are a classic and tragic example of an attempt to bury internal division by mounting a militant mission directed at an external threat.

Yet it is possible to grow our mission while we are honest about issues which challenge our identity and sense of community. Some of us feel that the church needs to be more agreed on a range of issues if it is to do mission, others see its diversity as a gift to that mission provided we are honest about what is actually going on.

What this may also tell us is that, wherever the church is facing change, missiology is needed as a servant of the church, but that is another story.