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Intergenerational Conflict
by Abby Mendelson

This article is one of a series on Conflict Resolution in the Faith Community published by the Conflict Resolution Center International. For more information about conflict resolution contact:

Conflict Resolution Center International
204 37th Street
Pittsburgh PA 15206-1859
Tel: 412-687-6210 • Fax:412 687-6232

Intergenerational Conflict

Raise your hand if the following sound familiar:

One century-old Midwest congregation discovered that its dreary basement social hall was woefully inadequate when younger members suggested that a larger, brighter facility would better suit their needs. When the congregation's elders objected, saying that the price of expansion was too high, younger members pointed out that increased rentals would more than pay for the new hall. (For the resolution, please see the end of the article.)

When a Keystone State congregation hired a highly-touted youth director, he responded by creating more innovative programming, and bringing in more young people than the congregation had ever seen. The result was that the youth director was met with a firestorm of opposition from older congregants, who felt that an inordinate amount of time, space, and funds were being lavished on a segment of the population who were not able to contribute financially.

One lay-lead congregation had no minister; instead, it featured a collective approach to services and religious teaching. What worked in the 1960s, however, didn't 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 would even run for 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 literal 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 wholly new facility elsewhere, where newer, younger families were located, older, more traditional parishioners objected—to the point of filing suit in church and civil courts.

An Ohio Valley congregation recruited a family with a 19-year-old son 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 a Saturday 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.

All of these intra-congregational intergenerational conflicts are the rule rather than the exception, and resolving them requires a specific set of skills. Unfortunately, because people become polarized, and ministers are generally not skilled mediators, conflicts can be become destructive schisms. Yet as the 204th Presbyterian General Assembly said, while "conflicts can be harmful and even destructive, [causing] individuals a great deal of pain and the community of faith immeasurable damage…at the same time, conflicts can be an opportunity for new insights, learning and individual and corporate growth...The successful resolution of conflict can also bind people together in a powerful way."

How to bind—and not destroy? How to take inevitable intergenerational conflicts and make a congregation greater? Here are 10 helpful tips for conflict resolution:

1. Admit 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. While the latter is a possibility, conflict generally takes human agency to affect resolution. Remember: other people's needs may be valid—even though they are a different age or new to the congregation!

3. Listen.
Listen to what is being said, try to see it as a valid opinion, one that you yourself might make if you were that age—with those needs. Put another way, just because the nursery worked for your children 20—or 50—years ago, does not mean that it does not need a thorough upgrade now.

4. Remember what group you're addressing.
As the Alban Institute's Reverend Gilbert Rendle says, different cultural lessons are learned at different times. After 20 years, congregations develop a group identity: the group can do anything; it's right for the group. 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 before you embark on a new course. If, for example, you want to bring in young people, consider what changes they might demand—before their presence unwittingly rends your congregation asunder. "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 get at what is really bothering them. If a new youth leader raises numbers, what may be troubling is not the need for a thorough morning-after scrub-up—it may be a perceived shift in the congregation's power center.

8. Empower all parties in the conflict.
As the Alban Institute's Speed Leas points out in his seminal monograph Moving Your Church Through Conflict, "It is a truism that for people to 'buy into' a decision, they need to be a part of the decision-making process. If they feel that they have been manipulated by others, that others didn'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 the other guy's point go away. At worst, your intransigence could rend the congregation asunder. Remember, these are your children, or your parents, or 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.
As Larry Stone, a Pittsburgh-based mediator, says, mediation works when both parties are to accept the process—and the impartial mediator's findings. Further, Mennonite Minister John Stahl-Wert adds, "If it is not a mediated situation, youth cannot win. Why not? Who votes in council meetings? Who pays the light bill?"

In more hierarchical situations, such as the Catholic Church, parishioners have a number of options, including seeking the help of their pastor; or, if the pastor is the problem, going to the bishop, who can intervene if he so desires; or going to a tribunal, which will establish a due process panel to investigate and initiate conciliation. Often, such regimented procedures work well; sometimes, they don't. Comments church jurist Father Robert Ahlin, while by definition a final decision must bind all parties, "a lot of times, people just go away mad. In these cases," he adds, "more active collaboration is the direction it needs to go."

Consider your own congregation and its intergenerational conflict: how often how you tried these techniques? Could they have helped? How about in the following examples?

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

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

Lay-lead congregation:
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 congregation:
Choosing safety, the new minister resigned.

River Town congregation:
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 congregation:
The youth leader was decommissioned and the program stopped. "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 changes in the way business is done."

Copyright 1999 Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc.