A Healthy Way to Address Conflict
By Annie Reilly and Janice Lee Fitzgerald
Not every denomination has a dedicated mediation process, but the Regional Synod of Albany does. In Albany Synod, mediation is used as a practical tool to lower anxiety, enable people to listen more carefully to one another, and discover workable solutions to their shared challenges.
“Most people think of conflict as something negative,” says Paige Convis, pastor of the Reformed Church of Schodack at Muitzeskill in Schodack Landing, New York, and a member of Albany Synod’s mediation team. “My hope is that the mediation team can help those we come in contact with see their conflicts as a chance for growth and deeper understanding of those with whom we live and work. … To have the needed tools to come to understanding with people we don’t see eye to eye with, and to be able to help others have the tools, is such a gift.”
The mediation team, led by the Rev. Dr. Janice Lee Fitzgerald, is available to help facilitate difficult conversations or conflicts between individuals or groups of people. Such conversations have often long been avoided or have been approached previously in a way that has caused distress. A trained mediator supports the process so that all parties have the opportunity to listen and to be heard. Above all, the mediation team wants to invite the Spirit of peace and the love of Christ into these tense situations so that a compromise can be reached. Mediations are initiated by the people in conflict, and the mediation team is never sent to a community in order to “fix” it.
The mediation team has offered a regional synod–wide training event about conflict and healthy communication, provided mini training sessions, and facilitated difficult conversations between individuals, within consistories and classes, and between pastors and consistories. As a part of the RCA Listening Together process, formed in response to former general secretary Tom De Vries’s 2017 General Synod proposal, the mediation team led three different online Listening Together events, breaking out into small online groups at each event. This allowed Albany Synod to participate in the process more broadly and with more theological diversity than any individual classis could. When surveyed, participants said they were grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation with people they didn’t know well or didn’t know at all and felt safer opening up than they might have at a classis meeting or event.
“Our classis engaged the mediation team when we were stuck trying to have conversation around recommended changes to the RCA Book of Church Order,” says one classis clerk. “We recognized the tension around this conversation and asked the mediation team to facilitate it. The team provided some education as well as facilitated a conversation among us that helped us listen to one another in a way that would not have been possible on our own. While we continue to struggle as a classis because of our differing theological perspectives, we are now able to communicate in a healthier way.”
The mediation team is planning a joint midwinter retreat with the Regional Synod of New York’s mediation team to deepen their ability to facilitate difficult conversations in a variety of situations that may be encountered in our congregations or classes. To learn more or to consult with the mediation team coordinator, visit albanysynod.org/mediation-team.
Annie Reilly is communication coordinator for the Regional Synod of Albany. Janice Lee Fitzgerald, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is the Regional Synod of Albany’s mediation coordinator.