Leadership Means Managing Dissent

On 9 June 2007 I wrote a post entitled Leadership Means Conflict Resolution. This article is intended as a followup to its predecessor. I specifically wish to highlight the need to “focus on issues rather than personalities.” Leadership means managing dissent pertaining to issues which face us daily in life and ministry. It is a given that others will disagree with us at least occasionally. As a leader, I would not have it any other way. Honest, prayerful, humble dissent on real issues forms the basis for dialogue which refines our character and sharpens our leadership focus. We need to manage that dissent in such a way that all parties in a specific discussion have a fair hearing, providing a segueway into wise, prayerful decision making. It is not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it can seem quite impossible. But why?

I maintain that the number one problem obscuring honest dialogue about real dissent and affecting interpersonal relationships — whether it be in marriage, work, community or church — is selfishness. We often prefer a certain tradition, distinctive, style, theological nuance, ministry emphasis, a need to be in control, a distrust of leadership, a condescending view of parishioners and even clergy who are not seminary trained or who have training different than our own, a disdain for people who are seminary trained, etc. Basically, we want it our way or we will not be satisfied. This sort of intractable stance naturally causes friction in faith communities due to the intensity which serious volunteers and professionals bring to their roles in ministry. We are serious about our roles but we might have very different views on how to carry them out. Often the differences are honest views, having nothing to do with selfishness. Sometimes selfishness is at the core of the disagreement.

For our purposes in this article, I wish to focus on honest dissent, rather than the variety motivated by selfishness. Dissent is simply a disagreement on an issue which pertains to church life. Let me provide one example from my own past ministry experience from several years ago.
Case Study

Statement of dissent: Sunday school teacher 1 believes that we should establish educational benchmarks similar to the public school system with a view toward implementing biblical knowledge expectations which are age-appropriate and regularly tested from preschool through 6th grade. Further, curriculum should be chosen which meets the criteria for the aforementioned benchmarks. If no such curriculum can be found, then we must create it or adapt existing curriculum to meet the need. I should add that this teacher is a public school teacher and a type A personality.

This view is in contrast to my perspective that while Sunday School classes play an important role in forming children as disciples, the primary role is in the home. Thus, we make every effort to provide a rounded education experience in the church, but we are seeking all the more to strengthen families to take on that responsibility by equipping parents and also collaborating with them creatively in helping their children learn how to read the Bible for themselves and apply it practically to their lives. I am not against a certain level of expectation for kids, but I feel that the extent of the “benchmarks” advocated by my esteemed colleague go a bit beyond the realistic capabilities and mission of the children’s ministry in our specific church. Also, I am not persuaded that we need to throw out our very fine curriculum which we all worked together just the previous year to choose. Although I am trained to write curriculum, I have no interest in spending all of my free time writing it for four sunday school classes, in addition to what I already write for mid-week.

The fact is, age-level characteristics are a bit of a misnomer these days, since many kids function academically and emotionally at levels much lower than their peers. Others are far beyond their peers. The reasons for this are legion. My point is that extensive “benchmarks” based on specific age levels simply are not realistic, given that we only have one hour (actually about 30 minutes of real teaching time) per week with them, not including those days which students may be absent or class might be cancelled due to holidays, snow days, etc. It also doesn’t take into account kids who commute between divorced parents and thus make it only one third to one half of the time.

Having said that, I would add that we do attempt to help our kids, by the time they leave the 6th grade, learn a certain quantity of key Bible verses, the books of the Bible, the major themes of each book, the major stories and characters of redemptive history, and how to conduct a basic inductive personal Bible study.

I appreciate Sunday School Teacher 1’s passion and desire to educate children in the faith. I appreciate the desire to increase the level of effectiveness in our Sunday School classes. I affirm the need to hold children and parents accountable to real measures of learning, but I correspondingly point out that simply developing a measuring tool and requiring students to meet its expectations is not going to work well for most kids in that context, given the limitations. Additionally, I am all for biblical literacy. However, I hesitate to emphasis knowledge acquisition at the expense of practical application.

End Case Study

So you see, we have a very real disagreement which is heart-felt and based on our differing perspectives. The dissent came to light in a staff meeting and my colleague, with her type A style of interaction pretty forcefully advocated her view and appeared to disregard my stance. I expressed my appreciation for her passion and her ideas, but I also clearly stated my perspective. Because this was an item which was not on the agenda to address at greater depth, I referred it to future discussion, once again expressing appreciation, but also pointing out that more thought, prayer and discussion was needed before making any major paradigm shifts in how we conduct ministry with the children. Our meeting concluded a bit uneasily as I felt she was not satisfied with my response. I again expressed appreciation for her input and promised to work with her and the others to come to conclusions which will satisfy all of our input but that also put the needs of the kids and their families first.

In essense, I tried to manage dissent by focusing on the issue rather than the personality. I will add that it was not easy. Yet, it was necessary. By modeling the behavior, I am hopefully influencing my colleagues to learn how to interact with others who disagree without taking personal offense or turning it into unnecessary conflict.

What are your best ideas for managing dissent?

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