Doing church conflict well: Q&A with Janet Schmidt

March 28, 2024 | News | Volume 28 Issue 06
Will Braun |
Photo by Katie Moum.

Janet Schmidt has worked in mediation, facilitation, coaching and training for 35-plus years. She also taught related university courses from 1994 to 2009. Schmidt attends River East Church in Winnipeg. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Q. What unique dynamics come into play when conflict occurs in the church context? 


A. Two things come to mind. One of them is a real fear of conflict because people are afraid to hurt each other, or afraid to experience the negative side of conflict. They don’t know how to do it and have experienced the negative consequences of conflict done badly.  


So there’s a fear of engagement, maybe more so in religious settings.


The other thing that’s unique is how we use scripture to justify our positions. We want to get it right, which is a good thing. We want to be on the right side of following Christ, so we look to justify our positions by proof-texting or using scripture that, in many cases, was not intended to be used in that way. This has the effect of silencing people.  


What guidelines would you recommend for church groups experiencing conflict?  


Number one: identify the thing that needs to be examined and talked about. What do people see differently?


Number two: give the conversation time. Depending on what the issue is, it could be months, it could be years.


The process needs to give people time to examine the issue over time, and change their minds as they hear other people’s arguments—and I’m saying both sides change their minds.  


It requires an absolute, honest, safe conversation so people can ask questions, share their thoughts, share where they are at and do it without communicating that, “if you think differently than me you are not following God.”  


When a group is dealing with a contentious issue, one of the things I often do between meetings is to challenge people to have coffee with someone they disagree with, instead of talking with like-minded people and building their case. Make coffee appointments with one or two people you disagree with and spend equal time sharing what you believe and listening.  


You design a process that allows movement. Everybody gets to talk. If you just do open meetings, where people stand up and talk in a group, certain people will dominate those conversations, and it tends not to work.  


So more time needs to be spent in small groups with people bringing information back and making sure everybody has the opportunity to speak.  


And then in that context, people need some skills in order to be able to argue well. If the moderator does not make it safe, and people are allowed to question others’ belief or integrity, and don’t get called out on that, then it begins to shut down conversation.  


Many of us don’t have a lot of skills. And we see peace as the absence of conflict, which is our only definition of conflict—versus seeing conflict as exploration of disagreement.      


How do Anabaptist values inform your views on conflict? 


The Anabaptists very much talked about everybody having the right to have a voice and to be part of a process of decision-making and to struggle with issues together.  


For me, Anabaptism includes the willingness to take the time, which is hard in this world, to actually talk about things that matter and to move forward together. When we’re arguing about something or see something differently, that is completely normal. It happens all the time.  


I would say we are called to be Christlike in the midst of dialogue and conflict, and we should learn how to live with that and be with that in a good way, in a peaceful way.  


Often people in conflict situations say, “I just want to get it over, let’s just decide, and then we can just get on with church. Then we’ll be where God wants us to be.” But talking about differences and different perspectives is being the church, and maybe it is the greatest test of being the church.  


On a surface level it would often seem that the safest thing to do is to avoid conflict. How do we work past that?  


One of the things that shocks me about the Mennonite church is that we claim that we are peacemakers but we don’t teach how to be peaceful in the midst of disagreement. It is simply a skill.  


We might have a Sunday school class once every five years on how to talk about difficult things. But that does not change our embedded belief that conflict is risky and scary.  


We should teach people how to disagree and to practice it—to build the capacity to not react when you hear something you think is dangerous, to stay with someone in a conversation where you deeply disagree.  


And if you can keep it safe for both people it actually builds connection.


What I see in some churches that do it well, is that, let’s say 80 or 90 percent of the people say [a particular decision] makes sense and they want to move in [a particular] direction—and there’s still the 10 percent of people who either chose to stay because they have been treated with respect and dignity, and/or they leave but stay in relationship with that community.  


If churches made good use of the skills you speak of, could we avoid divisions? 




People in our field have lots of ideas of concrete ways of doing conflict that could help moderators or chairs to lead better processes and meetings. I don’t know why people don’t reach out. I think they think, “I’m the chair, so I’ve got the skills, and I don’t need help—anybody can lead a meeting.”  

Yet history would tell us a different story, with all the church splits.


Dialogue never killed anybody. Honest, open dialogue, in which I listen and learn from you and your experience and you do the same thing back for me—that doesn’t hurt. That makes me wiser.  


One of the things we say in our business is that understanding does not equal agreement.  


It seems to me that people are afraid to talk to people who think differently than them because then they [feel they] have to agree with them or something like that.

I think we’re called to understand each other, and I can understand you and still absolutely disagree. When I know where you’re coming from, and you feel heard, it creates a bond.

A longer version of this article, under the title "Mediating Wapiti" appears in the March 29, 2024 print issue of Canadian Mennonite. 


Photo by Katie Moum.

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Our personal and group ideas, beliefs and practices often need thoughtful reflection, and should be open to adjustment. Likewise, many of life's issues require careful analysis and balanced approaches, not ideal ones. Truth is simple, eternal and universal, but it can also be complicated and relative to time, place and circumstances. So, churches should not only be steadfast and consistent, but also flexible and progressive, and they should be places of good dialog on important topics.

Janet gives us a wealth of advice about how to initiate and improve dialog, or "do conflict well", since conflict is often what raises important issues, or brings them to the forefront. Yes, we shouldn't fear all conflict or potential conflict. Yes, we should engage with those who have alternate perspectives. Yes, understanding doesn't equal agreement. Yes to so many points she makes. Great article.

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