Archive: Church staff conflict resolution in circle

by Lane Cotton Winn
October 2010

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This month’s circle tale shows the simple power of listening in conflict resolution. Rev. Lane Cotton Winn comes to us through a long Methodist family lineage and demonstrates that youth can lead powerful conversations with folks of many ages.

Lane is a pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell, Louisiana, where her parents John and Carole Cotton Winn were once pastors. She graduated from Emory University’s master of divinity program in 2007 and began her second pastoral assignment in the church described below in June 2010.

Four weeks after I arrived at Aldersgate United Methodist Church as one of the church’s new pastors, the business administrator, a lead staff member, decided to pursue another job. We were faced with the daunting task of guiding the staff parish relations committee (SPRC) through a hiring process. With a sense of urgency, the SPRC quickly mobilized and posted the announcement for a new business administrator in local newspapers and on every website they could find. 

The SPRC thought they were being efficient and resourceful by quickly filling the vacant position. The staff felt like the committee was completely out of touch with the needs of the church and the office. After hearing the news of the resignation and rehiring efforts, chatter among the staff began. There were impassioned conversations being had over lunch, emails stating their frustration were sent to their “buddy” or liaison on the SPRC, and individual staffers were expressing their dissatisfaction to Gary, the senior pastor and me. Somehow, in their haste to fill the position, the communication between the SPRC and the staff had broken down, and the trust and unity we had been working on as newly appointed pastors to Aldersgate was quickly crumbling. As pastors, we realized we needed a process to mediate a dialogue between the SPRC and staff. Thus, I suggested the circle process.

While I have never attended a training on the circle process, I have been engaged in the process many times through various retreats and ministry opportunities in the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, including The Center for Pastoral Excellence (directed by Dr. W. Craig Gilliam, co-author of PeerSpirit Circling in Congregational Life) and The Academy of Spiritual Leadership (directed by Rev. Carole Cotton Winn another longtime friend of The Circle Way). The circle process has helped me discern my call, deepen relationships with peers, and has revolutionized my understanding of small group spiritual formation. I have become a believer in the circle process! In fact, after having such positive experiences through the circle process, as a new pastor fresh out of seminary, I have incorporated aspects of the circle process, like setting the space, lighting a candle, and passing a talking piece in Bible studies and classes I have taught. However, I had not previously used the circle process as a tool of mediation and conflict transformation.

The SPRC readily agreed to send representatives to a staff meeting for a time of sharing and listening around the circle. After sharing a meal together, we began the circle. The center of our circle included a small potted plant, a candle, a cross, a talking piece, Communion bread (which I had baked), and a chalice of juice. Our intentionality with setting the space helped all, both staff and SPRC members, to be fully present and engaged. I also believe it signaled everyone that something new could come forward. Around the circle were our program staff, office and support staff, our custodian, the facilities manager, four members of the SPRC, and the pastors. I was one of the youngest around the circle, but gave leadership that day to our process.

After a brief introduction, we lit the candle and passed the talking piece, encouraging people to share their hopes and dreams about how the office might be restructured to meet the growing needs of the church. We invited participants to share those things that they want to leave behind as we begin this journey of bringing in new staff, as well as what things are most important to take along for the journey of organization. After intentionally passing the object around several times, we asked if there was anything else that needed to be shared aloud with those gathered. People made a few more remarks, and then we ended by sharing Holy Communion.

We certainly did not finish the conversation around the staff positions that day, but it set a tone of mutuality and nurtured trust between the SPRC and the staff. In fact, the dialogue around the circle that day has completely reshaped the structure for the office staff. Instead of hiring a business administrator, we will first hire a much-needed receptionist. 

Without the circle process, I believe we would still be in a sea of mistrust and disillusionment with the staff. I commend the SPRC for their willingness to take the time to share and listen around the circle, and I appreciate the staff’s willingness to take risks and share their hopes and visions for the church. Impromptu conversations with staff continued beyond that day but unfolded in ways that are trusting and collegial. Everyone is hopeful about what is yet to be for the church office.

I learned much about conflict transformation: the need to be still and listen, and the power of group discernment from using the circle process. I will continue to blend the circle process into my own way of ordering the life of this congregation. It affirms my investment in a style of leadership that is not top-down, but includes the voices of all those involved and it honors all who serve a role on the staff as well as in the circle.