The Rev. Douglas J. Bixby was just out of seminary and in his first few months of pastoral ministry when the "stove issue" hit.
A member of the church had unilaterally decided to replace the electric stove in the church's kitchen with a gas stove. "Little did he realize this could create a major rift within our congregation," Bixby said.
Bixby used the "stove issue" as the backdrop of a book on church conflict published by the UCC's Pilgrim Press, to illumine the "anxiety monster," as he calls it, that affects so many churches - conflict.
"Imagine if you were to take all the time and energy wasted on conflicts in your church and use it for mission and ministry," Bixby writes. "God does no want us to waste our time and energy feeding the 'anxiety monster.' Neither do our people."
In his book, "Challenging the Church Monster: From Conflict to Community," he offers several suggestions: downsizing and centralizing church decision making; honoring how decisions are made, not just the outcome of the decisions; and fewer meetings, thus allowing for more trust-building occasions. One of Bixby's core beliefs is that people would rather participate in church ministry than church administration.
"Too much bureaucracy or too many administrative boards end up isolating people into particular areas of involvement," Bixby writes. "People end up narrowing their focus to a single area of concern. Not only are people split up and divided between different areas of responsibility, but also competing agendas develop, and they fight over resources."
George B. Thompson, Jr., in his book "How to Get Along With Your Pastor," uses the metaphor of "swamp" to explore church life.
"If we only glance quickly at the swamp, we might conclude that it has only two layers - the shore and the water," Thompson writes. "It is easy to overlook the third layer, the deepest layer beneath."
The stuff on the shore, Thompson says, is obvious - worship services, educational programs, fellowship activities. The stuff in the water are sayings the church uses to describe itself - "the world's friendliest church," "an open and affirming church," "a family church."
In the "mud," however, are the "submerged beliefs" of the congregation that are learned over time, perhaps even rooted in a congregation's lived experience, over many generations. Sometimes a church's "submerged beliefs" don't reflect what it actually claims to be about.
"You might think that what 'makes' your church is something like its beautiful sanctuary, its preaching, the quality of the music," Thompson writes. "However, unless you identify the connections between that stuff and what is in your mud, you will mislead yourself and others."
Learn more about dealing with church conflict with these titles.
Challenging the Church Monster: From Conflict to Community
How to Get Along With Your Pastor: Creative Partnerships for Doing Ministry
How to Get Along With Your Church: Creating Cultural Capital for Doing Ministry
A Spiritual Companion to 'How to Get Along with Your Church'
Order these and other books from The Pilgrim Press at 800/537-3394 or online at thepilgrimpress.com.
Founded in 1608, The Pilgrim Press, the UCC's publishing arm, is the oldest publisher of books in North America.