Large Denominational Church: Northern Colorado
Organizational Effectiveness & Team Building
A Northern Colorado church had divided into rival factions over whether the regional district and/or the national church had departed from traditional church beliefs and principles. The congregation wanted help deciding whether and how to separate into two or more smaller groups or stay together. Parties included senior and junior clerics, lay leaders, congregational membership, select prayer/study groups, and church district regional officials.
Issues and Goals
A core issue was whether the national church and the regional district had drifted or departed from traditional principles of faith in this denomination. Specifically, debate centered around whether to allow female and LGBTQ+ ministers and support abortion funding, which would require the local church to separate from the national church. There were also differences over the meaning of the sacrament of communion, the meaning of the Messiah, and whether Christ would return in the end days.
Amid these debates, there was growing concern from some of the subgroups that the senior cleric was out of touch on these issues compared to mainstream views held by most of the congregation. Debate began over whether the divergence of opinions among the local church’s subgroups meant that it might need to separate into two or three new groups.
One group close to the senior minister included language in a church newsletter that advanced their conservative ideological agenda. Others felt the newsletter was not entirely balanced or complete. Another group that assembled prayer books and led social activities was deeply upset about the ill will and differences within the church. A third group was more in favor of progressive, education-based learning and religious practice.
Working with church leaders, our team employed the following processes: Dialogue concerning reconciliation, collaborative learning, and consensus building. The goal was to determine whether these issues warranted separating from the national church and subdividing within the local church or preserving the existing church community in a constructive and healthy way.
1. Reconciliation and Mediation Phase
Co-mediating with a local professor, we organized and facilitated a reconciliation task force known as the Group of 10. The role of this task force, which also served as an initial steering committee, was to reconcile and mediate on behalf of small prayer and service groups. These prayer groups included former members and leaders of the executive committee within the congregation.
Each time we met in this Group of 10, we tackled a specific subject. Meeting over several evenings, we first dealt with repairing relationships related to the executive committee’s prior decisions. Another night, we discussed property management matters, membership issues, and whether a split could mean that some or all members would stay in the regional church district. At another meeting, we talked about theological principles and assumptions about the church that each of these small prayer groups held in tension with the other two groups.
Throughout this process, members shared their hurts, perceptions, omissions, tensions, obstacles, motives, and false polarities. This helped facilitate more clarity and community among the members who participated in these meetings and the groups they represented.
During the reconciliation phase of this mediation, I drafted an agenda before each meeting and circulated it for comment. In a controverted setting like this one, where several parties hold different viewpoints and want to discuss issues of importance to them, my strategy is to draft an agenda addressing three main issues:
- Which issues are up for discussion,
- How to frame those issues for discussion, and
- How to decide on the most productive order in which to address the issues.
Sending an agenda like this out in advance ensures that all or most parties will see their items on the agenda, which motivates them to attend the meeting to talk about them.
While shifting from reconciliation to mediation, members who felt that the reconciliation meetings had resolved their issues naturally dropped out of the steering committee. I then recruited and retained other members of the prayer groups onto a new steering committee tasked with running the mediation and education phase.
During each meeting, I either co-mediated with the local professor or mediated solo. We then debriefed these meetings with the steering committee and discussed which elements to include in the next agenda.
2. Collaborative Learning and Consensus Seeking Phase
From its inception, this reconciliation group also functioned as a steering committee to organize a churchwide three-part educational series called “Denominational Discernment Education.” The series was held twice a day over three Sundays. I worked with the steering committee to define the topics for presentation for each Sunday’s education session. The agreed-upon subjects were the history of the congregation, theology, and practical consequences of moving forward together or separately.
My team and I designed the process for each educational meeting and helped set the guidelines and time limits for each presentation. Each educational unit contained short presentations on these topics, followed by oral and written questions. The written questions option allowed people who felt too shy speaking in front of a large group to submit written questions.
The regional district and the executive committee of the local church each distributed surveys to the congregation. The regional district survey covered administrative, practical, and fiscal issues related to staying or leaving the national church. The local church survey primarily asked about church-related theological issues and perceptions about the local congregation. My co-mediator and I reviewed and commented on the draft surveys and attempted to improve coordination between the two levels of church governance regarding their surveys.
- The steering committee made progress in addressing and reconciling their differences and became more focused on the good of the church than their individual needs.
- The education planning team that grew from that original group worked to organize and implement the educational series, which was viewed as a pressing need for the congregation.
- The regional church district helped design and present at the third educational session, which demonstrated progress in cooperation between the district and the church leadership.
- Results of the survey circulated by the regional church district indicated that the educational sessions were a substantial benefit to many members of the congregation in deciding whether to stay affiliated or leave the national church.
- The regional church district conducted an informal vote shortly after the conclusion of the educational sessions. The voting results showed that the local church decided to remain affiliated with the national church and continue together as a single church without further division.