Leading Divided Groups: Wisdom from Nonprofits

Practices from the non-profit world that can help your congregation navigate division

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Two people seated in chairs seen from the back; one has their hands up.

During the first 18 months of COVID, I listened as too many of my personal friends and church leader colleagues chose to leave their current congregation without a new call. My friends felt powerless to change the unhealthy ways that people were acting.

During my own first call in a congregation, I struggled with the same reality. I eventually learned that the lack of guidelines or policies (or even a covenant about how we would treat each other and talk to each other) led to a feeling of powerlessness. 

All congregations face division. So, what do we do? In later years, as I gained experience in the non-profit sector, I realized that their best practices would have benefited me in the congregational setting. 

A story about division

As the brand-new director for funds development at a large faith-based children’s home, I spent 6 months trying to get a single volunteer to follow the rules. (Let’s call this person “Sue”.) She was a major donor, volunteered countless hours, and I thought the goal was to fix her because we needed her.

I tried being nice and steering Sue in the right direction. I tried to listen and relate to her, but Sue pushed back by whispering in the ears of other staff and causing division. I spent so much time managing this single person and the mess she was creating that it distracted me from the work of raising money from multiple donors and building relationships with other volunteers. 

I didn’t sense that I had the perceived authority to affect a change in her. So the CEO invited Sue to his office for a chat. “I can put you on the payroll for a dollar and then you will have to follow the rules.” His words conveyed that our employees had to follow the rules but volunteers did not. The message was wrong. 

Sound familiar? Stories like this play out in congregations every day.

The risk of division

In our setting at the children’s home we faced two significant risks. 

First, “who we are” was at risk. We provided for the individual therapeutic needs of abused and neglected children, to facilitate healing and wholeness. We did not “spoil them” or “buy their love,” which is what Sue was doing. Her behavior undermined the critical trauma-informed work of all the cottage parents, case managers, therapists, and volunteers. 

Second, the division she was sowing among the staff was making it harder for them to trust each other. Trust is critical in a crisis. In a children’s home full of children with pain-based behaviors, crises can stem from something as simple as a child not finding his shoes. The staff needed to be united and work well as a team to deescalate the crisis. She undermined that, and I needed to see her behavior as a risk. 

I really needed to use our mission, purpose, and core values as a guardrail to keep her on the right track and to “call it what it was” when she stepped outside the rails. I needed to hold her accountable to the policies and procedures set in place to protect the ministry. 

5 best practices for navigating division

Congregations are nonprofits by nature and can use nonprofit best practices to help keep everyone within the guardrails. People tend to appreciate and thrive inside boundaries. Where there are no boundaries or expectations, they will fill in the gaps with their own ideas. This may have malicious intent, or it may simply be the best they can do. The healthy nonprofit practices listed here will also help congregations navigate division. 

  1. Healthy nonprofits know who they are. Knowing your mission is more than lip service or something printed on your bulletin. If a nonprofit is not advancing the mission, they should stop doing that work. Knowing your core values is critical. If your core values include things like welcome, growing faith, or accessibility, and division is causing the congregation to make decisions that aren’t in line with these, then the congregation needs to be reminded who they are. If you are in a congregation with no real mission, vision, or core values, then that is the place to start. These critical guardrails are the top level of a current and relevant strategic plan. 
  2. Healthy nonprofits know where they are going. It is not enough to simply know who you are; you must also know where you are going. If you envision a world where everyone knows they are fully and completely loved by God, then what steps must you take for that vision to be realized? Nonprofits often refer to these as tactics or action steps. They consistently evaluate their space, their procedures, their programs, and their responses to ensure that at each of those levels they are setting a pace to accomplish their important vision of the world. Where they need to improve, they add tactics or action steps to redirect their efforts toward work that will help them live into their vision.  
  3. Healthy nonprofits set clear expectations and communicate them. Policies and procedures for conducting the work of the congregation are vital to preventing and then if necessary, navigating division. We cannot, nor should we ever, assume that any parishioner understands what it means to be a Sunday School teacher or communion assistant—or the big one, a council or board member. Before we can simply expect that they succeed, we must first share a description of the role. 
  4. Healthy nonprofits train everyone, on a regular basis, about who they are as a nonprofit and where they are going. We can’t stop after we hand them a job description. We must train staff and volunteers. We must give them the tools and resources to be successful. Often a divisive person is inserting their own beliefs about what the church should be doing because there is a gap in their understanding. 
  5. Healthy nonprofits hold people accountable. This feels hard and scary, I know. But this is equally important. If you have been faithful in implementing the first four best practices, and people still sow division, it is time to hold them accountable. It is helpful to know why someone is behaving the way they are to address the behavior well. Perhaps it is a mismatch of gifts? Perhaps it is an issue of stress in their own life that is bleeding into the congregation? To honor the relationship, adjust the accountability conversation to be mindful of their reality and ensure the solution matches the cause. Regardless of the reason though, addressing divisive behavior requires an open and honest conversation. It is appropriate to say, “your behavior is out of line with who we are and our shared work together.”

The freedom from division

One of the greatest gifts that using these best practices gave me was the realization that the division wasn’t “about me.” It wasn’t happening “to me.” It was stressful and I certainly needed to navigate it, but I was freed from trying to manage the division from a place of my feelings. I was able to manage it within the guardrails that gave me direction, expectations, and voice. 

With all this in mind, what happened to Sue, the volunteer? Our experience with her caused us to completely revamp our volunteer program. We established short but meaty job descriptions and implemented an intentional recruitment and training process designed to weed out problems. We also required volunteers to complete 3 different training sessions to be certified. During training we spoke in length about the expectations and boundaries. 

I was discouraged by a number of colleagues from adding this level of “work” for volunteers. They shared, “It is hard enough to get volunteers already!” I will admit, in my gut, I felt their words, but I knew something had to change. I knew we could be better. 

The results? We moved the organization from 25, hard to manage and sporadic volunteers to more than 60 volunteers in consistent mentoring roles and more than 1500 workday or event volunteers. I had to add an entirely new staff position to manage them. The position was funded because volunteering is an entry point to donating and giving increased. The staff reported feeling less “stuck in the middle” and knew where to come when a volunteer veered off path. We were able to accomplish more of the mission and ministry together as a team with clear expectations and a shared direction.   

Next steps

Invite your council to do a self-evaluation. 

  • How are you doing as a congregation? 
  • Are you living out your actual mission? 
  • Is your mission still your mission? 
  • What ministry are you providing to help accomplish your vision and core values? 
  • Do you know where you are going? Do you know how to get there? 

If you’d like to discuss this article and more about division, join us on November 18 at 1 PM CST in the Faith+Lead Lab for a live office hour.

  • Mitzie Schafer

    Mitzie Schafer, ELCA Deacon, CFRE is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. She is the host of the Center for Generosity Podcast and consults full-time with GSB Fundraising. She is the creator of the CAGA Impact Storytelling Model for Engagement and helps clients with impact storytelling, communication, annual fund, strategic planning, board development, and planned giving programs. Schedule a free consult or learn more at www.mitzieschafer.com or www.gsbfundraising.com.

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