By Charles H. Chandler
John F. Kennedy, Jr., was killed on July 16, 1999, when the Piper Saratoga he was piloting plunged into the ocean near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. His wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were killed also. Some speculate that he became disoriented in the midst of the fog.
It was reported that Kennedy checked the weather conditions before takeoff and climbed above the turbulent fog and haze for smooth flying. The problem appears to have developed when he lost his point of reference — the horizon — during his descent. The plane flew full speed toward the ocean. A catastrophe usually results when a proper sense of direction is missing.
What happened to Kennedy while piloting a Pipe Saratoga often happens to ministers as they attempt to pilot their lives through the turbulence of a church conflict. Navigating in the fog and haze of conflict without guidance from trusted friends and professionals is a flight plan destined for a crash.
Based on my experience working with several hundred ministers in the midst of conflict, I’m convinced four support team members/groups are essential if the minister is to emerge from the fog still in his or her ministry position and without sustaining crippling wounds. The support team includes (1) a feedback group, (2) a ministers support group, (3) an attorney, and (4) a therapist.
The minister cannot get complete and accurate information alone. Some people have a tendency to say what they think the minister wants to hear. Many have already become cut off from the minister through triangulation. Others withdraw because they cannot deal with conflict.
Within a congregation, however, there are usually a few individuals to whom most all factions talk. If the minister can quietly and informally periodically bring these trusted individuals together as a feedback group, valuable information can be gained. They can provide a fairly good picture of what is happening and why. They must, however, be brutally honest and the minister must take them seriously.
A formal ministers support group can be a valuable asset to a minister. Tunnel vision becomes the norm when under severe pressure. So do feelings of isolation and inadequacy, denial, lack of trust, withdrawal, and a desire to run. A ministers support group can address many of these issues with a participant in a safe setting.
A friend was under heavy attack by some of the leaders within the congregation he served as pastor. He confessed to his ministers support group that he no longer trusted his judgment or ability to lead. The support group members asked him to covenant with them that he would make no major decisions, including resigning, without first discussing it with them.
By bouncing his ideas off the group, he was able to better process his thoughts and better see the far-reaching implications of various actions – including the perceptions of his actions. The group was able to affirm him as a person and as a minister. They were also able to confront some of his shortsighted plans as well as his denial tendencies. He later credited the ministers support group for his survival of the attempted forced resignation.
An attorney is also a vital member of the support team. Attorneys have more training and experience in dispute resolution than most other professions. Attorneys are also one of the most self-differentiated professions in society. The attorney’s role on the support team is to coach the minister – usually from the background.
The attorney is the minister’s advocate and should be engaged early in the process for the minister’s protection from illegal acts and to prevent the minister from libeling himself or herself. The attorney’s advocacy helps to level the playing field and helps remove from the minister the sense of urgency to make hasty decisions that might later be regretted. Sometimes, just slowing down the process is a major accomplishment.
The role of the therapist is to deal with the minister’s emotional and mental health – both as a precaution and for processing feelings. The therapist can also monitor the minister’s depression level and prescribe medication if needed or refer to someone who can assess the medical need. This may prevent or at least control clinical depression and considerable heartache later. Learning to handle anger maturely is a significant aspect of a healthy life.
Trusted friends and professionals can help you find the horizon in the midst of the fog and haze of conflict. I highly recommend it over the alternative.
Charles H. Chandler founded Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1994 after experiencing a forced termination. He spent the next 23 years caring for ministers in all faith groups who also experienced conflict and/or forced termination. We owe a debt a gratitude for Charles’ devotion to ministers and their spouses.