Intergenerational conflict

Generational differences in the local congregation and suggested ways of handling them

Abby Mendelson is a consultant for the Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A century-old Midwest congregation was told that its basement social hall was woefully inadequate; younger members wanted a larger, brighter facility. When the elders said that the cost was too high, younger members argued that increased rentals would more than foot the bill.

  • When a Keystone State congregation hired a highly touted youth director, he created more innovative programming and attracted more young people than the congregation had ever seen. The result was that the youth director met opposition from older congregants, who felt that an inordinate amount of time, space, and funds were being lavished on a segment of the population unable to contribute financially.
  • One lay-led congregation had no minister; instead, it featured a collective approach to services and religious teaching. What worked in the 1960s, however, didn't work in the 1990s: congregants had little time or patience to do the work themselves. After intense lobbying for both a paid teacher and minister, the members split so badly no one wanted to risk leading the church as its president.
  • When a rural Pennsylvania congregation wanted to grow, they felt they should move from a part-time to a new, full-time minister. The new minister did attract many new families but crossed a line when she nominated some new church members to the board. Infuriated, some congregants mounted a terror campaign, including anonymous phone calls, verbal abuse, and threats to blow up the new parsonage they themselves had built.
  • When the bishop wanted to close a venerable river town church and replace it with a new facility elsewhere, where newer, younger families were located, the older and more traditional parishioners objected to the point of filing suit in church and civil courts.
  • An Ohio Valley congregation recruited a family whose 19-year-old son was asked to be youth director. Responding splendidly, the young man created many weekday events, including both worship and Bible study, as well as a strategy to develop teen leaders. Within six months the church was hosting 80 teenagers on an activity night which is when the complaints began: The building wasn't kept clean, amplified music was not appropriate for the neighbors, too many children milled about on the sidewalk.

(For the resolutions, see end of article.)

Any of these situations sound familiar? Of course. In fact, intracongregational intergenerational conflicts are the rule, not the exception and resolving them requires skills that pastors don't all always possess, yet must learn.

Ten helpful tips

1. Admit that you need each other. Far too many congregations splinter, with elders saying it's our way or the highway. Yet for congregations to grow, youth needs the wisdom and stability of age, and age needs the energy and future of youth.

2. Identify and articulate the conflict. Congregations often ignore conflicts or assume (or pray) that they will miraculously disappear. Though the latter is a possibility, conflict generally takes human agency to be resolved.

3. Listen. Listen to what is being said, try to see it as a valid opinion, one that you yourself might make if that age. In other words, just because the nursery worked for your children 20 (or 50) years ago does not mean that it shouldn't be modified now.

4. Remember what group you're addressing. As Alban Institute's Reverend Gilbert Rendle says, different cultural lessons are learned at different times. After 20 years, congregations develop a group identity. Yet newer congregants have a consumer identity: How will something help me? "If consumers find it," Reverend Rendle says, "they stay. If not, they leave." Do you want the future of your congregation walking out the door?

5. Recognize impact. Consider how change would affect your congregation. If, for example, you want to bring in young people, calculate beforehand what changes they might demand before their presence unwittingly rends your congregation. "Generations resonate differently," Reverend Tracy Keenan says. "Do you have the tolerance to expand the congregation?"

6. Be aware when you are emotionally involved. When you are, delegate your authority to someone who isn't. As Rabbi Yisroel Miller, spiritual leader of Pittsburgh's Congregation Poale Zedeck, puts it: "When people say 'it's only the principle of the thing,' generally it's their ego at stake." Just as no parent or child would perform surgery on a family member, appoint surrogates when emotions run too high.

7. Separate issues. Often when people are troubled by one thing, they confuse it with something else, and it can be hard to know what is really bothering them. If a new youth leader raises numbers, what may be troubling is not the morning-after scrub-up but a perceived shift in the congregation's power center.

8. Empower all parties in the conflict. As Speed Leas points out in his semnal Moving Your Church Through Conflict "it is a truism that for people to 'buy into' a decision, they need to be part of the decision-making process. If they feel they have been manipulated by others, that others don't understand the facts of the situation . . . there will be resistance to whatever decision is made." While it can be difficult sharing real power with a child (or a parent), it must be done to resolve conflict.

9. Search for common ground. Cursing or cajoling will not make another point of view go away. At worst, your intransigence could tear the congregation apart. Remember, these are your children, your parents, your new neighbors, and to be a family means never having to leave home.

10. Don't be afraid to mediate or seek higher counsel. Mediation works when both parties are to accept the process, and the agreement brokered by the mediator. Mennonite minister John Stahl-Wert says, "If it is not a mediated situation, youth cannot win. Why not? Who votes in council meetings? Who pays the light bill?"

"Understand," Minister Stahl-Wert says, "it is not possible to grow a congregation and simultaneously maintain control of it. Indeed, growth always involves giving up control if it's going to work. So be prepared: When a new generation comes into a congregation, it will require change in the way business is done."

Consider your own congregation and its intergenerational conflict: How often have you tried these techniques? Could they have helped? Here's how the above conflicts were "resolved."

Century-old Midwest: The older members simply voted down the new social hall. Instead, the basement space was renovated.

Keystone State: To head off the youth pastor's ouster, the minister personally raised money to support the new programs.

Lay-led: Realizing they had a serious problem, the congregation called in a professional mediator. After a series of meetings to set priorities and create a preliminary plan, the congregation finally hired a teacher but no minister.

Rural Pennsylvania: Choosing safety, the new minister resigned.

River Town: Both courts found that because the Catholic Church is essentially a closed corporation, with such decisions residing exclusively with the bishop, his decision stood. Although some held out, a majority of parishioners moved to the new facility.

Ohio Valley: The youth leader was decommissioned and the program stopped.

* For further information about this subject, please contact Conflict Resolution Center International, 204 37th Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201-1859.



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Abby Mendelson is a consultant for the Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

November 2003

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