Susan Nienaber: Leading through conflict

Flexibility, persistence, humility and calm. These are the practices and traits leaders use to navigate conflict successfully, says Susan Nienaber.

Updated: Susan Nienaber provides consulting services for congregations in the U.S. and Canada.

In her 2005 Resilient Congregations Study, Susan Nienaber, a senior consultant at The Alban Institute, studied 12 congregations that had successfully recovered from serious conflicts and reported her findings in the article “Leading into the Promised Land: Lessons Learned From Resilient Congregations,” published on The Alban Institute website.

Nienaber identified the following practices and traits exemplified by both ordained and lay church leaders:

Face the pain. They learned that they had to confront the brutal facts of what was happening and find appropriate ways to name the issues.

Focus on God. Many engaged in a regular practice of prayer or other spiritual disciplines, both individually and corporately, in order to stay grounded amid the turmoil and to seek God’s guidance.

Keep at it. It took a great deal of persistence on the part of the leadership to allow the congregation to take whatever time it needed to recover.

Exude calm. This ability to remain steady and to not take a reactive posture helped others in the congregational system maintain a sense of hope.

Inform others. Except for information protected by confidentiality standards, they kept the congregation informed as to what was happening … and even let the congregation know when there was no new information.

Put the congregation first. The congregation’s well-being, purpose and call were most important to them. This ability to stay focused on the congregation enhanced the credibility and trustworthiness of these leaders.

Hold a vision. Perhaps most important, the lay leaders of resilient congregations were able to provide hope through their vision.

Ask for help. They knew that they didn’t need to trust solely in their own abilities and willingly took advantage of outside resources.

Be flexible. They were willing to try new things and to be creative. They also were able to find ways to carry on with business as usual during the crisis.

Make tough decisions. [Leaders] proved themselves up to the task, despite how wrenching the decision-making process was at times.

Learn humility. The Resilient Congregations Study shows us again the importance of rising above our own perceptions about what we think is happening and what might be causing the struggles.