Parish Consultants: Coping with conflict

General Conference Secretary Rev. Gary Graves at the 2019 special session. Photo by UMNS.

June 25, 2019

This is the third story in a series about the Parish Consultants Read the first two:  Parish Consultants: Coaching pastors and Parish Consultants: Helping churches 'right-size'

In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference and the uncertainty created across the connection, the New England Parish Consultants (NEPC) have a couple questions for churches:
  • Does you/your church need help to navigate the current turmoil in The United Methodist Church?
  • Does you/your congregation need to have an honest conversation on a hard topic, but you’re unsure how to do it well?
 If the answer is yes, the consultants are here to help, and they are offering special pricing to make their services more readily available to local churches.
The Parish Consultants are a team of clergy and laity with expertise to come alongside churches and help them with things like leadership development and church revitalization. Consultants may also be called in to help churches have difficult conversations and cope with conflict.
The NEPC is offering three 45-minute coaching sessions for clergy and/or lay leadership by phone or video for $75 total. That’s about half of the standard rate. The Conference Office of Congregational Development is providing funds to subsidize the other half. Read more about the offer
We want to remind people we are a resource, said the Rev. Barbara Lemmel, who is the NEPC coordinator.
“One of the things that the Parish Consultants are skilled at is helping folks who are in conflict have conversations – have fruitful conversations,” Rev. Lemmel said. “If there are people who are struggling with how to process the special session of General Conference in their churches, we can help them to do that.”
The NEPC is available to tailor a healthy, productive conversation process for your church in order to help your congregation delve into difficult topics.
Margaret Keyser
Parish Consultant Margaret Keyser is a trained pastor and theologian from South Africa where she helped communities embrace the Truth and Reconciliation process after the end of apartheid. She often works with churches that are in conflict.
One “basic tool” that the consultants can bring to churches is listening skills, Keyser said, and listening well can make a tremendous difference.
“So the listening skills – I say that whether I mediate, whether I train, whether I facilitate sessions – listening skills are the most important gift that we can have,” Keyser said, “because it de-escalates any difficult situation – up to, say, 50 percent; I'm not a numbers person, but I have begun to say that, because I see that that.”
She defined deep listening this way: “listening to understand; listening not to judge; listening not to give my own answer to a problem – not to advise – but to understand where somebody is coming from.”
It’s important to look for areas of common concern, Keyser said, whether the issue be mundane – like painting the church kitchen or more significant like a lack of church growth or the future of the denomination.
Keyser encourages churches that want to have deep, meaningful discussions to “find those common-ground elements … instead of focusing just on ‘oh, this is what you think,’ ‘this is what you believe,’ ‘this is what happened’ – try and understand where that comes from and what people's concerns are instead of just what they believe,” she said.
When we feel strongly about something, she said, we can “always find ways to defend and to push back; those are not the areas where one would find common ground.”
Rather, we need to go deeper – like peeling an onion – to get to the points of commonality with questions such as: 
  • What are you really concerned about?
  • What is hurtful for you?
  • What would you like us see us do to bring about changes?
“So you go underneath that onion, underneath the layers, instead of just looking at how angry somebody is,” she said.
Keyser, who has been helping people negotiate conflict for 26 years, said churches should not be discouraged if they are struggling post-General Conference.
“I think, first of all, it's really [regrettable] that now local churches have to deal with the aftermath … it is at the local level where people are feeling the brunt, feeling the pain,” she said.
Conflicts that have to do with “what I believe, what you believe” are among the hardest to deal with, she said. That’s why Keyser believes the Parish Consultants can bring meaningful support to churches.
“Say somebody somewhere here in New England says, ‘You know, this decision has been made, but as a congregation we have everybody here: we have those who feel this way and others feel that way. Would you be willing to come in and help us through this, to come to some kind of consensus or understanding and respectful [way of] being together, living together, worshipping together?’”
“I would say yes, I think that's valuable; I think it's important for churches to find healing and understanding and a way forward,” Keyser said. “Because it is possible to find a different understanding, a different way, and not just to hold onto what you think is the right way.”
It is hard work, Keyser said, but it is critically important “especially in light of the fact that many may say, ‘well, you know, I guess I don't belong here,’” at a time when congregations are shrinking.  
“So that's almost an imperative that on the local level things need to be done,” she said.
And Keyser believes there is a hopeful path if we know where to focus.
“We can argue and build our positions constantly, but can we move beyond that and explore our common humanity, which is tied up with this covenantal love that God has given us?” she said. “Let’s look for the Ubuntu – that’s an African philosophy that says you and I are tied together no matter what the issues are. How does that Ubuntu, or humanity, tie up with what Christ has come to do?”

Initial consultation with the NEPC is free.
To explore hiring a consultant, contact Rev. Lemmel
at or (802) 881-3267