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Third-Party Ministry

“We went into it with conflict. It was masked and it was hidden and we all pretended—and I think that’s a good word—we pretended it wasn’t there because we so badly wanted to have something good happen. And, then when it came up, we could never resolve it because we went into it with it that way in the first place.”

As the capstone project for my masters degree in Conflict Resolution through Antioch University McGregor, I just completed an extensive case study analysis of my former church. Five families began God’s Love Fellowship (a pseudonym) in January 1999. By June 2001, Sunday morning attendance had occasionally exceeded 120 and was close to 100 most Sundays. However, just 18-months later, the leadership of the church voted unanimously to dissolve the fellowship. The last assembly of the church was on February 2, 2003.

While not covered as part of my capstone, I couldn’t help but wonder if third-party intervention could have made a difference in the life of this church. I believe that the answer to that question has to be “yes.” If that is the case, were there specific points in the life of the church when third-party intervention might have made a difference?

Like most new endeavors, God’s Love Fellowship was started with great enthusiasm and optimism. Or was it? The quotation at the beginning of this article was spoken by one of the founding members of God’s Love Fellowship. Thus, despite outward appearances, in fact, the new work started with a hidden undercurrent of conflict. The avoidance is understandable—they were trying to get a new work off the ground and did not want to be distracted from that purpose by bringing up “old news.” As the speaker noted, however, the fact that this conflict had been there all along made it that much harder to raise it at a later date.

Thus, we see the first occasion when third-party intervention might have made a difference. Including a neutral facilitator in the preliminary discussions and certainly in the hard planning sessions might have created an environment in which it was safe to raise matters of concern. Under the hand of a skilled facilitator, the matter could have been addressed safely and completely. Even if this discussion resulted in changing the individuals’ minds about being part of the church start-up or even led to their scrapping the work altogether, that would have been preferable to struggling along for four years adding hurt upon hurt.

Having missed that opportunity for third-party intervention, were there others that might still have been effective in changing the church’s fate? I think so. Within 13 months of the church’s first Sunday service, the minutes from their business meeting note “the need to clarify and disseminate the core beliefs of this church.” A small group was appointed to take first crack at this effort. That would have been another excellent opportunity for the church to use a third-party intervenor/facilitator. Most people are clueless on how to tackle such a project. It seems so amorphous and unwieldy. Consequently, they either put it off—as I believe happened for God’s Fellowship—or they have such an awful time with the task that they settle for less than optimal results and may even come up with a product that is more confusing than what they had to begin with.

The small group never accomplished their task and the vision and core beliefs of God’s Love Fellowship continued to be a matter of much public debate and private discussion. Over time, the members of God’s Love Fellowship lost stamina and lost hope that they would ever be able to resolve their differences. It was still not too late for third-party intervention. At this late date, however, the intervention could not have been a one-shot, one-meeting matter. Rather, the intervenor would have needed to do a cross-church assessment of the members and design what would likely have been a multi-session intervention. The difficulty in bringing about such an intervention, of course, would be the two items that were in shortest supply for this small, volunteer organization—time and money.

At last, the church came to the decision to dissolve the fellowship—to “free” the members to be more effective in other, less conflicted churches. Even at this very latest date, God’s Love Fellowship could have benefited from the services of a neutral third-party. At the dissolution of the church, there were assets to be divided, ongoing responsibilities to be met, staff members to be provided for. All of that needed to be accomplished by a group that was hurt and discouraged. Again, a neutral, compassionate third-party intervenor could have made eased the burden of those tasks.

So, yes indeed, third-party intervention would have been useful. But where to find such resources? Is that a ministry opportunity I hear calling? Could spiritual third-party intervenors in a community form a coalition to provide services to one another’s religious communities on a reciprocal services or sliding fee basis, perhaps? Perchance this article will spur some thoughts and actions along those lines.


Lois Bradford

Upon the acceptance of her capstone project that formed the basis of this article, Lois Bradford will have a masters degree in Conflict Resolution from Antioch University McGregor. Lois does community mediation with the Fulcrum Institute Dispute Resolution Clinic in Spokane, Washington, where she is also a regional human resource… MORE >

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