“Mediating Conflict in Congregations” featuring Charles Pillsbury

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“Mediating Conflict in Congregations” featuring Charles Pillsbury
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Podcast Episode 116

How can church leaders address conflicts? We speak with attorney and mediator Charlie Pillsbury about mediating conflicts in congregations.

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Charles Pillsbury

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How can church leaders address conflicts? In this episode, we speak with attorney and mediator Charlie Pillsbury about mediating conflicts in congregations.

Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, Assistant Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talk. Joining me is Charlie Pillsbury, attorney, mediator, and co-director of the Center on Dispute Resolution at Quinnipiac University School of Law. Welcome, Charlie, I’m grateful for your willingness to share some of your conflict mediation wisdom with our listeners. I look forward to our conversation today. I want to start off by inviting you to share a little bit about your background in conflict mediation.

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, sure. First of all, I graduated from law school in 1975. The law is certainly a form of dispute resolution, and I practiced law for a dozen years and I was a good lawyer, but it didn’t feed me. I went through kind of a what I call vocational nervous breakdown. In that process, I had also joined an organization called the Christian Legal Society. It’s a very evangelical conservative Christian organization. I don’t agree with it on everything, but I am always impressed with people who take their faith seriously seven days a week, not just one day a week. It was actually through that that I discovered this symposium called the Ministry of Reconciliation. It was in Lombard, Illinois, at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham. I was curious because it was inviting lawyers and mediators to come out and just look at it through a scriptural lens, and I had never really thought of it that way. So, I went, and of course there were maybe another two or three other people from mainline churches. It was all Evangelicals, or a lot of Mennonites, Brethren, and Peace churches. It was really kind of an Alice in Wonderland experience for me.

I go back to New Haven, and literally within a week I learned about this community mediation program. At that point I’d lived in New Haven for a dozen years and was very well tuned in. I’d chaired the Columbus House homeless shelter, I was very active in my church, and I’d never heard of this little, sleepy mediation program in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven. They had a training, and I couldn’t make it that summer. That was the summer of ‘87. The following year, I did a 15-hour training in those days and became a mediator, a volunteer mediator. At the same time, I had gone back to the Yale Divinity School as a special student to get not an MDIV but an MAR. And I was part way through that and had created this internship with this mediation program because the director of the program at the time was a UCC pastor. So, it was easy to set up as an internship site, field placement, and I hadn’t been there more than a month or two when my placement director, my supervisor, announced that she was retiring. And I’m saying, “God, what am I going to do now?” Then I said, “Oh, I know. I could apply for her job.” So, that’s what I did. I was hired, and for the next 20 years it was really the best job I ever had and probably will ever have — the executive director of a community mediation center in New Haven. And we did more than mediation. We actually created a dialogue program with churches actually around kind of the Rodney King incident of New Haven when a young black man was slammed by an East Haven police officer.

For the last 13 years — I figure 20 years is a good run. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I started teaching as an adjunct at Quinnipiac, and now they call me a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence. I love talking about the scriptural foundations of my journey, my vocational journey, because I think it is spirit led. And here I am talking to you now about some of it.

Jessica Anschutz: Wonderful. What an incredible background you have in our topic area. I feel like we’re not going to have enough time today to cover all of the possibilities that we could talk about. But going back to your point about scripture informing what you do, how does scripture inform your approach to dispute resolution?

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, first of all, I was drawn to the ministry of reconciliation, and you probably remember one of my professors at the Yale Divinity School and the School of Religious Studies, Wayne Meeks, a New Testament scholar, not one for small talk, came up to me after a service at Battell Chapel and asked me, knowing what I did, “Charlie, is there some tension between the ministry of reconciliation and the ministry of justice?” I said, “Absolutely. You know, I feel like I live on that tight wire.” I mean that’s what this is. It’s the ministry of reconciliation, but it’s also a ministry of justice. There are other people who do justice better than I do, and I think I do reconciliation better than most. So, that’s my path.

When I went to this symposium. I learned that it actually was being organized by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, so of course it was a Mennonite. Mennonites are everywhere in this ministry of reconciliation, and Richard Blackburn was then the director, and [one of]the two pieces of scripture that they drew on was, first, that passage from Matthew 18 — what you do when a brother sins against you. You go talk to your brother. And if they don’t listen to you, then you take one or two people as witnesses to talk. And if that doesn’t work then you take it to the whole church. I think that many scholars’ view is that it led to shunning, the expelling of a person, to treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile. They got kicked out of their community. But I was struck the way that it was used because I looked at that passage enough and that pericope is framed by two amazing passages of forgiveness on either side including how many times I should forgive my brother, Seven times? No, seven times 77 times.

The other passage they used was the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 6:1-8. I remember that well because that’s where Paul is totally exasperated with the Corinthian Church. If any church has conflict, I don’t think any church compares to the conflict that the early Christians had at the Corinthian Church. They were fighting over everything — what to eat, what to wear on their heads, who to believe in. Anyway, I guess what happens is that somebody sues another. Actually two members of the church are suing each other, and of course it’s now going to the Greek courts, and these are pagan courts. And Paul is saying, what are you doing airing your dirty laundry in pagan courts? Isn’t there anybody wise enough among you to settle this matter? Basically, it was a call for churches to take seriously how churches resolve their own conflicts, whether it’s a congregation-wide conflict, or individual conflict.

So, I would say that’s where it begins, but then, of course, I have a whole series of Sacred Stories. I haven’t done one yet on the Matthew passage. I’ve done one on the Paul passage and on other passages. My favorite is probably the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob after Jacob crosses the Jabbok River.

Jessica Anschutz: We will link to your sacred stories in your bio on our podcast page, so our listeners can check those out. In thinking about your approach to dispute resolution, Charlie, when a conflict occurs in a church, what strategies can church leaders use to address it?

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, Matthew 18 is a guide. I mean the first step in any conflict is direct communications. What happens at churches, what happens everywhere, is people triangulate. They start talking about, you know, this person did that.

If you’re upset, talk to that person. That’s the first principle of conflict resolution. The second, really people forget, is that people are not the problem. We turn people into the problem, but that’s again not a fundamental principle of conflict solution. The problem is the problem. So how do you separate a person? Maybe the person was having a bad day. You know, let’s deal with the problem. Give the person a chance to explain what happened. And I think those are the two. Yeah, that’s where you begin.

What I would like to say about churches — maybe answering another question — is there are two types of conflicts: there are conflicts among individuals. One of the most common you see of course is a male senior pastor and a female junior/associate pastor. It might be between the pastor and the board. That’s a bigger conflict. But it could also be something that’s engulfed the whole church, and then there’s a limit to what mediation could do. Mediation is very good at seeking agreements, helping people reach an agreement about a specific issue, a specific problem. But when you have a broader problem, you may want to turn to dialogue and approach it with a neutral facilitator. I really can’t say how important it is when you go to that level not to get somebody within the church who thinks they can be neutral in the middle of a congregation-wide conflict. I mean, that’s just a fundamental error.

Even when you’re doing a long-range plan, you should get an outside somebody who’s neutral and can help guide you through a long-range planning process and even to deal with the conflict because what that person can do is they can go talk to the people before they bring everybody together. They’re going to do their homework and they’re going to talk to the people who are most involved in that conflict, who know the most about it, before they bring people together. So, use a neutral. I think pastors make mistakes, even if they’re trained mediators, if they do disputes. No, you could just go to the church next door to solve a dispute. But in your own church, you know there is no way you could be neutral and impartial. There just simply isn’t. That’s my little sermon on conflict resolution.


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Jessica Anschutz: I think it’s very important wisdom for people to keep in mind especially when they’re addressing conflicts in their context. One of the things I experienced as a pastor was that often conflicts would arise in the context of a meeting, and I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on how church leaders can sort of mitigate and interrupt those moments, experiences, and move through them in an effective way.

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, the foundation for any dispute, whether it’s a mediation or a dialogue in the meeting you’re talking about facilitated dialogue, there’s a moderator. There’s somebody there that is chairing the meeting. The group has to have a set of ground rules. In a church setting, we call it a covenant, an agreement, of how we’re going to interact with each other and how we’re going to talk to each other. We’re going to talk about ourselves. We’re not going to talk about other people. We’re not going to interrupt each other. We’re not going to call each other names. Unless you have those ground rules that everyone has agreed to …. at one point, you know, I am doing this dialogue training and I realized that at community mediation we did not have ground rules. And I realized we have to practice what we preach. It actually took us — mediators can have arguments, too — I think it took us four or five months to agree on a set of ground rules. But once you have that foundation, then whoever’s facilitating the meeting can remind people. In fact, it’s useful to remind people at the beginning of the meeting: here are ground rules. So, that is a meeting facilitator’s best friend.

The second thing, aside from ground rules, is that every meeting has to have an agenda. A lot of people try to wing it. You want a timed agenda and, as part of it, you can also use time. Say: now, we’re spending a lot of time on this issue. Maybe we need to talk about it outside the meeting. Maybe we need to talk about it after the meeting. We have other things on our agenda.” That agenda should be shared with everybody. Everybody should know what it is, and then you or whoever’s facilitating can follow the agenda. Sometimes what I do is I give myself a timed agenda as the facilitator of a meeting, and I don’t time it for the people (“we’re already 5 minutes past”), let me as the facilitator kind of manage the time, so I call it a private agenda and a public agenda. But ground rules and agendas help keep the peace in meetings, whether it’s church meetings, office meetings, family meetings.

Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. I can see how they would limit conflict in in a lot of cases. Sometimes, in churches, conflict stems from negativity and push back either from church members or church staff members. What can church leaders do to address that?

Charlie Pillsbury: Again, I think they need to talk to each person individually. People begin with their positions, but the positions are just kind of the first thing that comes out. That’s their first story. I guess even more important than being trained in mediation, if you haven’t had an opportunity to be trained in something called active listening or compassionate listening, there are multiple ways of doing that, but it is really hard to listen well. You can’t listen well all the time. To listen well, you have to be on. It’s in those down moments sometimes that you say things that you didn’t mean to say. If you have that skill, you can first of all reflect back: “Okay, so you’re really upset about this. But why are you upset?” You want to get underneath that position. What does this person need? What’s going on underneath? Why have they staked themselves, why are they anchored to this position? You know, what is it doing for them? What need is it meeting? What’s going on?

And to give you the simplest example, one of my favorite examples of the difference between the position and an interest is an actual case that happened in the New Haven Fire Department in a fire station. The dispute was over whether the light should be on or the light should be off on the second floor where everybody sleeps. There were firefighters in the fire station fighting with each other about whether the light should be on or the light should be off, and it ended up on the chief’s desk. I was talking to him, and he said, “You know these are the kind of things that don’t need to end up on my desk. We have to figure out how to train firefighters.”

So, we did training. And what I learned about training firefighters is that, unlike police (the conflicts they have is with the citizens), firefighters have conflict with each other. That’s where they have the conflict. There they want lights on, lights off. Why do they want the lights on? Well, of course, one side wanted the lights on because they wanted to see where the pole was. They don’t want to get up in the middle of the night and miss the pole. They’ve got to get down the pole. Why do other people want the lights off? Because they want to sleep. They don’t like sleeping with the lights on. You need to get these firefighters talking about it. “How are we going to figure this problem? This is our problem.” This makes them own the problem and makes them figure it out. But it helps them get below their positions to what they need and what they want. So, I think that applies really in any setting.

Jessica Anschutz: I can certainly see that applying in churches. If you get stuck in your position, you may lose sight of possible solutions that would resolve the conflict.

Charlie Pillsbury: I am trying to remember. There’s a wonderful Rabbi [Edwin H.] Friedman, now deceased, who wrote a book about it — Generation to Generation. It goes back many years. He basically was trained as a family therapist, and he was a rabbi and a family therapist. He began to see the disputes inside his congregation mimic some of the disputes he saw in family settings. And so, you know, I recommend that book.

Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about opportunities for education, how can church leaders cultivate conflict mediation skills? Are there other ways in addition to attending trainings or workshops?

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, they can model. They can model what people really want. Anybody wants (and pastors know this better than lawyers), they want to be heard, so I think and model that. And maybe mediation training. There you want to function as a neutral. Most people are not neutral, so they don’t need the mediation training. But I do think sometimes mediation centers but maybe just training in listening skills: How do you listen to people? Those are two-hour workshops. I actually remember doing a workshop that was trying to help a group of pastors understand that there’s a difference between when you say … people will say “I feel that she’s stupid.” I’m saying “No, that’s not what you feel, that’s what you think. That’s a thought. That’s not a feeling.

So, part of active listening is understanding feelings and what they are and trying to surface those feelings, and learning to interact and ask open-ended questions: How did that happen? Or how did we get here? Tell me what happened. An open-ended question and kind of open things up, let people just talk, and separate the facts from the feelings: You know, it sounds like this is the issue, but you know you’re really feeling very sad about this. You’re in grief, you know. You feel like you’ve lost a relationship and that’s hard, you know. People need to be heard at two levels: to be heard at the fact level and at the feeling level. And that’s a skill that I don’t think enough pastors get when they’re in school, frankly. But maybe they do. Maybe seminary education has changed since I was there 30 years ago.

Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s a really important distinction between fact and feeling, and something that we probably need to pay more attention to. Charlie, you’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of involving a third party when a conflict exists. Can you speak more about that, especially how folks can recognize when it is time to engage the third party?

Charlie Pillsbury: I think when it’s time is whatever you’re doing is not working. Sometimes churches make the mistake thinking that they can do their own long-term planning. I think you really need a facilitator there, too. The resource many communities can turn to is our local mediation centers where there are trained mediators and facilitators. And the way that they can connect to that is that there is organization called the National Association for Community Mediation and I think the website is just nafcm.org. You can go to where you live for the center that’s close to you. There are some mediation wastelands.

In churches and synagogues and mosques, everybody thinks that God or Jehovah or Allah is on their side. That’s really tricky, you know, when you think God’s on your side. There’s a famous Mark Twain poem [O Lord, Our Father] about everybody during the Civil War, the North and the South, praying to the same God who, of course, loves everybody. and how ridiculous that was! Even Mark Twain got that hint.

Jessica Anschutz: How can faith leaders address that issue of people thinking God is on their side?

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, I think by pointing out that God is on everybody’s side. I mean the notion that coaches are out praying for their teams, you know. Come on, God’s not taking sides. God’s laughing at you. If you think that God is going to take sides in your football game, you’ve got to look at your theology. I think that, making a point which is so obvious, that’s a position again, you know. “God’s on my side.” That’s your position. What’s really going on? What’s really upsetting you? What can we do because God the Spirit works through all of us? How can we channel that Spirit? Because, really, it’s not God. It’s the Holy Spirit that’s really at work in these matters. At work. And you can feel it sometimes.

I would also begin any setting, maybe even before you have ground rules and an agenda, start with an opening prayer and a closing prayer. You’ve got to frame this. This is a church meeting. We’re calling in the Holy Spirit to work with all of us to help us stick to our ground rules and get through our agenda and love each other even if we don’t like each other. So, prayer is good, too.

Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s an important reminder — to frame our work in the context of our faith. Thank you so much for taking the time, Charlie, to talk with me today. As we conclude, I want to invite you to share one or two or three thoughts for people who are in the midst of conflict right now. What should they look to do as initial steps?

Charlie Pillsbury: Before you try to even get together, you should go talk to somebody. You should talk to somebody. You should talk to the pastor. You should talk to your therapist. You should talk to your social worker. Whoever it is. I think, you know, you need to take care of yourself. Conflict is draining and it’s hurtful, so each party really has to find a way to care for themselves. Sometimes, people going through difficult points in their marriage are told by their therapists or their pastoral counselors, you need to get your own. It’s not enough to just come to see me, the two of you together. You really need to talk to somebody else. This is a really deep issue for you — more than we’re going to be able to handle — and I recommend the other person do the same. You want to be evenhanded. Get help, you know, talk to somebody you trust.

I’ll leave people with this. You know, I’m a Minnesotan, born and bred there. In Minnesota, we say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. The same thing is true to conflict. Conflict is not bad. There’s no such thing as bad conflict. Conflict is good. Conflict gives us an opportunity to learn. Conflict just is. It’s like the weather. And it’s how you handle the weather, how you handle the conflict, that matters. So that’s what I say. Conflicts are opportunities, so look at conflict as an opportunity to learn, to become closer to somebody, to understand somebody. Just look at it positively. Frame it positively.

Jessica Anschutz: The importance of self-care in all aspects of ministry — and thank you for drawing that connection to conflict resolution. Charlie, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a joy to talk with you. I’m sure what you have shared here today will help our listeners as they address the conflicts in their contexts.

Charlie Pillsbury: Well, thank you Jessica. It’s wonderful to see you again and have your email pop up and have this opportunity to connect, at least via Zoom. Yeah, and I’m happy to talk to anybody if they want to talk some more. You have my contact information, and please feel free to share it.

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About Author

Charlie Pillsbury

Charles Pillsbury, who goes by Charlie, is an attorney, mediator and co-director of the Center on Dispute Resolution at Quinnipiac University School of Law. He was a founding Board member of the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM), and a founding member of Mediators Beyond Borders International. He is a graduate of Boston University School of Law and Yale University and is a member of Shalom United Church of Christ in New Haven, CT.  He has authored several “Sacred Stories” about dispute resolution in the Bible.

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy. She is also the co-editor with Doug Powe of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024).