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Discerning the dynamics

03 March 2017

Nicky von Fraunhofer explores how group work can be used to manage disagreements within congregations


CHURCH life is full of groups that are work­ing together to bring in the Kingdom. For most people, one would hope that life is har­monious; but, when it is not, solutions are often sought at an individual, interpersonal level. I would like to explore how conflict may be understood at a wider group or congrega­tional level, and consider how group dy­­namics can be used to facilitate conflict-resolution.

The following hypothetical story illustrates some common dynamics that may be observed when groups are in conflict.

St Mildred’s is a church where relationships have been strained by recent events. Resolu­tions A and B, indicating the church’s unwill­ingness in conscience to accept women priests, were passed years ago, but then later were revoked. A previous parish priest, Arnold, attempted to bring a woman priest on to the team. He left suddenly, owing to serious ill health. Peter, the new priest, arrived to dis­cover that the decision to revoke the resolu­tions had been far from unanimous.

In the early days, Peter experiences a pro­longed “honeymoon” effect with his friendly and welcoming congregation. But when he suggests that a woman priest join the team, despite a lack of obvious opposition, he is un­­able to make any progress. No one names the problem, and everyone quietly steers away from it.

Peter begins to feel controlled by a cloying atmosphere of false harmony. All strive to agree, to reassure themselves that all is well. Anyone who challenges the status quo is made to feel selfish or disloyal to the love and unity of the congregation.

Feeling unaccountably thwarted, Peter challenges the situation in a staff meeting. Alarmed by his direct approach, the staff pas­sively accept his comments, and suggest that he decide the way forward. When Peter tries to address the situation, he quickly finds that support seeps away. The weight of trying to carry the congregation with him saps Peter of energy and enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, small groups approach Peter to tell him where the problem “really” lies. The congregation splinters into factions, who struggle for dominance. The once-united church family deteriorates into one with an acrimonious and bullying atmosphere.

The PCC becomes mired in disagreements, and sidetracked into pointless trivia. Two members, in particular, are often locked in combat, and then withdraw feeling hurt, only to resume fighting at the earliest opportunity. The rest of the PCC look on helplessly. Peter’s plan for a woman priest now feels too toxic even to consider.


SEVERAL different group dynamics can be observed at St Mildred’s. At first, the con­gregation adopts behaviour that the American psychiatrist Professor J. P. Gustafson terms “pseudomutuality”. An atmosphere of super­ficial “niceness” hides a controlling dynamic, which is predicated on harmony at all costs. Conflict is eliminated by denying it, and by blurring any distinctiveness, or difference, between people.

In the staff group, people manoeuvre Peter into taking all the risks and providing all the solutions. W. R. Bion, a late-20th-century British psychoanalyst, describes this group behaviour as “dependency”. It is an un­­con­scious attempt to preserve the status quo, and avoid development or change in the group, by creating an overactive leadership and underactive followership. This is a dynamic that Bion particularly associates with church life.

The split into factions illustrates another of Bion’s group functions: fight-flight. Repeated cycles of fighting and running away, par­ticularly between the two warring members of the PCC, distract and distance everyone from the real source of the conflict, which is located in a much wider context (see below).

An alternative group defence (also observed by Bion) might be seen in pairing, where the group evades problems by creating a “fantasy pair” who are expected to provide the solution. This could be a pair of people (”If only the churchwardens, or Mr Jones and Mrs Smith on the fabric advisory team, or who­ever, could. . .”); or the pairing of a current dilemma with a fantasised future solution, which never materialises (”We can’t start this until X has happened. . .”).


THE story of St Mildred’s demonstrates that protracted conflicts may hide difficulties that extend far beyond any surface disagreements.

In this scenario, for example, if some step is taken so that the two troublesome PCC mem­bers stand down or are not-re-elected, the superficial problem has been addressed, but not underlying issues. The risk is of creating a vacancy for another two combatants simply to take the first members’ places.

S. H. Foulkes, a late-20th-century group analyst, states that understanding group conflict requires searching for the location of disturbance. For Peter, this is likely to be found in the circumstances of his appoint­ment, and in unresolved issues regarding the ordination of women.

For some at St Mildred’s, ordaining women to the priesthood may feel as if it overturns 2000 years of church history, or requires them to re-examine their understanding of Christ’s ministry, biblical teaching on the priesthood, and the place of women. Differences might be usefully addressed, therefore, by creating a forum where the topic is explored and dis­cussed from a variety of theological view­points.

For others, the disagreement may evoke emotional resonances with their family of origin, their experience of people in authority, or previous conflicts. The current situation may stir up past memories of feeling threatened, vulnerable, or coerced, which feed into their feelings about the present situation.

For some, the situation may have been compounded by Arnold’s sudden and un­­expected departure on health grounds, which may cause additional anxiety about loss and abandonment, or even a feared break-up of the church family.

In this situation, parts of the congregation, such as the PCC or staff group, may benefit from additional space and time to explore issues. This could be through an event that is facilitated by someone outside the con­gregation, who keeps the discussion focused on exploration and gaining understanding of the other’s point of view rather than con­frontation or blame.

The primary goal is to re-establish a culture of collaborative working rather than a specific outcome, so as to build resilience and con­fidence in working with disagreements rather than avoiding them.


WHILE groups can be a source of conflict, they can also be a force for positive change. In another hypothetical example, the church music group at All Saints’ is locked in conflict. The organist prefers traditional hymns and a robed choir. A new bandleader arrives as part of an ongoing mission project, and wants a band at the main Sunday service.

The minister, Sheila, feels caught between the choir members (whom she is fond of, and who pay the majority of the parish share), and the need to increase the size of the con­gregation. Disagreements come to a head after a heated row between the organist and the bandleader. A stalemate develops as people gradually take sides, and no one can agree on the way forward.

After trying all the conventional routes to conflict resolution, Sheila decides to form a problem-solving group. She defines the prob­lem (how the choir and band work together) and sets a specific and realistic goal for the group (agreeing the music format for the Sunday service).

She decides to invite eight people to attend. This way, the group is small enough to be manageable, but can be diverse enough to avoid a bias in any particular direction. Sheila balances the group to ensure that no one is isolated in his or her views. She suggests that the group meet a couple of times and then conduct a review, before making any commit­ment to further meet­ings.

At the start, Sheila states the purpose of the meeting in non-judgemental terms. She models re­spectful dialogue by avoiding per­sonalisation of issues. Sheila encourages the creation of a safe space for communica­tion by asking people to talk from their own point of view (”I” statements, not “you” or “they” statements).

She emphasises listening, asking questions, and exploring pos­sib­ilities rather than rushing to answers. By setting the norms for how people conduct themselves rather than a specific outcome, Sheila seeks to establish group dy­­namics that encourage collaborative working.


IN THIS scenario, what emerges, perhaps, is unhappiness over the impact of the mission project on the existing congregation. Once the “symptom” of the musical conflict is reframed as part of a wider context, work can begin on the real issue, which is how to gain better support for, and participation in, the mis­sion project, from the con­gre­gation.

Congregational life is conducted in community. This can be a source of difficulty when we struggle to accept or resolve differences. An understanding of group dynamics may be helpful for managing the complexities of congregational con­flict.

Group dynamics may also be usefully harnessed in the service of conflict-resolution, by using norms to establish a group culture that encourages collaboration and problem-solving, working through, instead of avoiding, disagreements. In this way, we are able to grow in trust as we learn how to build up our common life in Christ.


The Revd Dr Nicky von Fraunhofer is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, a group analyst, and an Assistant Curate at St Paul’s, Wimbledon Parkside, in south London. www.groupanalysis.org

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