Whenever and wherever you have community you will have differences—in families, in towns, even in churches. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, Paul uses body language to describe the church, saying that the body needs differences in order to be whole. However, living with differences can be challenging.
“Conflict” comes from a Latin word meaning “to strike together”, an action that causes sparks. Every congregation wrestles with conflict because every congregation is made up of people who differ from one another. The sparks that come from living together can fire community into action; sometimes they threaten a meltdown. Conflict can’t be avoided, but some ways of dealing with it are healthier than others.
It is not unusual for people to assume that the bishop (or synod staff) can—even should—move into a situation of conflict in a congregation and resolve it. Experience has shown that the healthiest ways of working through conflict come from the people most directly involved.
Constitutionally the involvement of the office of bishop is quite limited and, in fact, might not even be helpful.
What the Bishop/Staff can do:
As the synods' pastor, the bishop cares for the health and well-being of the church (congregations and pastors) in the synod. In that role the bishop (and/or a designated synod staff person) can provide counsel and assistance in dealing with conflict.
The primary purpose of such assistance is to bring the parties involved together so that they can deal directly with one another and reach a mutual solution. The bishop and/or staff person serves as a consultant, facilitator, listener, clarifier, etc. The bishop and/or staff person will work within congregational and synod constitutions, trying to lift up a variety of alternatives with their possible implications and results. The parties involved, however, must determine their own course of action. The office of bishop can share information about resources that are available to pastors and congregations. These include a listening process involving congregational interviews, educational events, formal consultation with the bishop, the use of consultants and/or programs such as Healthy Congregations and Bridgebuilder, access to the Ministerial Health System, etc.
For more Information:
Deacon Brenda Tibbetts Assistant to the Bishop 1105 East Superior St., Upper Ste. Duluth, MN 55802-2085 Phone: 218-724-4424 Brenda.Tibbetts@nemnsynod.org
What the Bishop can't do:
The bishop is not responsible for resolving congregational conflict or providing the solution. The bishop is not a judge or a mediator, the “union rep” for the pastor or the sole advocate for the congregation. The bishop cannot be a party to anonymous complaints or secret meetings.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, decisions affecting a congregation rest with the congregation. The congregation expresses its will by vote at a properly called congregational meeting. (For example, the congregation must vote to call a pastor. Although the office of bishop has an important role to play in the call process, the bishop cannot assign a pastor to a congregation, nor can the bishop remove a pastor from the congregation. Again, the congregation must vote to rescind the Latter of Call.)
The bishop can make suggestions or recommendations, but cannot compel either a congregation or a pastor to adopt them except through a formal discipline process which, by the way, always involves more people than just the bishop.
In extreme situations a congregation---usually through the pastor, congregation council or one-third of the voting members—may formally request the involvement of the bishop.
The synod constitution and most congregational constitutions spell this out in more detail. Even in such circumstances it is clear that the bishop has some discretion as to whether the nature of the conflict is substantive enough (essential to the ministry and mission of the synod and/or to the health of the church) warrant the bishop’s involvement. It is also clear that the bishop cannot compel a certain outcome.