Resources - Conflict, Conversation, Discernment, and Mission…
An Introduction to a Congregational Discernment Annotated Bibliography
Prepared by Scott Hagley

  Conflict, Conversation, Discernment, and Mission. Increasingly, these four terms are being considered together in thinking about congregational leadership. This is due, at least in part, to an ongoing re-assessment of the way in which congregations use parliamentary procedure and majority-rule voting for making decisions about the shape of congregational mission, purpose, and identity. There are, of course, certain merits to procedures given to us by our democratic institutions, but also clear limitations. Can we assume that the Spirit always speaks with the majority? Can issues of congregational mission, purpose, and identity be reduced into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote? Moreover, we all know that a vote rarely reduces the tensions and divisions aroused by the debate and voting procedure.    
  ...practice open-ended
  In Scripture and Discernment, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson offers a concise critique of voting and majority-rule decision-making in the church by asking how the shape of the church’s government and decision-making reflects what it claims to be—a community of faith. Danny Morris and Charles Olsen, in Discerning God’s Will Together, echo this concern by stating that parliamentary procedures tend to limit discussion on available options while managing adversarial positions. They gently suggest that if church leadership is to operate as intentionally responsive to the Spirit, leadership teams need more open-ended, dialogical, and consensus-based processes for decision-making.  
  But this is not the only way in which parliamentary procedure has been challenged. Another group of pastors and scholars have seized upon philosophical, political, and organizational theories to suggest that congregations need to practice open-ended, truth-seeking conversation when facing difficult issues. Conversation models differ from both argumentation and discussion by drawing important elements from each. Argumentation, by definition, is focused on the persuasive movement from one position to another whereas Discussion is the open flow and sharing of ideas and positions. Conversation, as a kind of dialogue, facilitates the open flow and sharing of ideas while also making room (and encouraging) moments of argumentation, where persons present their case as persuasively as they can. The initial hope for conversation as dialogue is to understand—that groups learn to listen to one another—so that new responses to the issue under consideration might be opened up. In conversation, the forward engagement and momentum of argumentation is combined with the back-and-forth open-endedness of discussion.  

In conversation...
argumentation is
combined with

    However, both conversation and discernment models can be guilty of assuming a kind of romantic ideal that only papers over the real conflicts and power struggles that sometimes constitute congregational life. Consultants such as Speed Leas have—for decades—helped congregations both identify and ‘move through’ the conflict. More recent books on conflict have tended to recognize conflict as possibly problematic and yet hopeful; for these theorists see a fluid connection between conflict and mission. That is, sometimes conflict emerges in the midst of the new and boundary-breaking mission of God. Sometimes conflict should be an invitation for asking ‘what future is God calling us?’ rather than simply ‘moving through’ it. But in order to move to the dialogue and discernment question, trust must be built so that the congregation can speak truthfully and listen faithfully. For this reason, such conflict management models are important resources that can help congregations to identify hope in conflict. These models also create space for building trust so that conversation and discernment can take place.  
  Church Innovations has attempted to bring these four terms together—conflict, conversation, discernment, and mission—in a conversation model we call Growing Healthier Congregations. The conversation model draws from the open-ended, back-and-forth ethos of conversation as dialogue while orienting the discussion toward consensus-based discernment of God’s leading. We find that when congregations practice such a conversation model, they will have the courage and social trust to take on difficult issues, to act hopefully in the midst of conflict for the sake of discerning God’s mission.  

...a fluid
conflict and

  What would
you add to the
  CI is—increasingly—not alone in this kind of work. Attached to this article is a working, annotated bibliography on congregational discernment, conversation, and conflict with some appropriate theoretical resources. It is, admittedly, a fragmented and limited bibliography. But it is a snap-shot of an exciting time when conflict, conversation, discernment, and mission are considered together in a hopeful way. It is perhaps best to think of this as a conversation-starter.  

What would you add to the bibliography? How have you used or innovated with Growing Healthier Congregations? What other models and processes have been helpful for thinking about conversation, discernment, conflict, and mission?

I am currently researching how congregations think about decision making and conflict, as well as how the GHC process is used in congregations. If you want to contribute to the research, please take this 10-15 minute survey. Your answers will be kept confidential. The survey can be found here: We value you as a conversation partner. Your participation would be greatly appreciated.



Resources: Annotated Bibliography

Click here to access Scott's annotated bibliography.