The process of dissolving a partnership can be wrenching, whether the split is undertaken by a couple, business partners, or an organization. But as many real-life examples of conflict resolution show, there are proven ways to calm the turmoil that often accompanies partnership dissolutions and set parties up for a hopeful future. Among conflict resolution success stories, the mediation process that the United Methodist Church (UMC) followed in navigating its recent split offers a useful case study in effective conflict negotiation skills.
A Growing Divide
For decades, the United Methodist Church (UMC) grappled with internal disagreement over its doctrine on LGBTQ rights, which prohibits same-sex marriage and noncelibate gay clergy. Methodists in the United States, comprising more than half of the church’s 12.5 million members, increasingly found those positions untenable, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. Meanwhile, many Methodists outside the United States, especially within the church’s growing African membership, strongly support the gay marriage and clergy ban, according to Christianity Today.
At a February 2019 conference in St. Louis, representatives of Methodist churches from across the globe voted on these issues. Among the delegates, 53% supported the “Traditional Plan,” which would maintain the status quo and impose new measures to address policy violations; 47% favored the “One Church” plan, which would allow local churches, clergy, and regional bodies to choose whether to allow gay marriage and ordination. In the United States, the traditional plan’s victory was a blow to LGBTQ Methodists and their supporters, and was expected to further erode the church’s aging U.S. membership. Many church leaders on both sides came to believe that to restore harmony, the church would need to split in two.
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Preparing for a Peaceful Split
After their own schisms, the U.S. Presbyterian and Episcopal churches became mired in lengthy legal battles. UMC leaders were determined to make their own church’s split a clean one. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and known widely as the preeminent postcrisis mediator, agreed to lead the mediation and set three ground rules, according to United Methodist News Service:
- No media leaks. Feinberg wanted participants to feel comfortable candidly offering novel solutions without fearing their ideas would appear in the press.
- The right people at the table. Representatives should have credibility, experience, respect, and the ability to persuade their constituencies to accept any agreement reached.
- Thorough representation. Church progressives, centrists, and traditionalists should all have a seat at the table.
Agreeing to Disagree
With these ground rules in place, 16 UMC leaders from across the globe with diverging views on LGBTQ inclusion met over three months in late 2019 for two-day mediation sessions with videoconference calls in between.
Would the traditionalist or progressive wing carry the banner of the UMC? Ready to start over, those representing the traditionalist faction offered to splinter off and form a new denomination. The parties agreed to support a new traditionalist denomination with $25 million in church funds. Regional church bodies and local churches would decide for themselves which faction to join. Churches that left the UMC could take their properties with them. Progressives would be left to craft inclusive positions on LGBTQ issues within the UMC.
Mediation participants credited Feinberg with keeping them at the table and defusing tense moments with “humor and hard truths,” according to Religion News Service. Feinberg returned the compliment: “The group came together at great personal cost, expense, and political exposure to get to ‘yes,’ and they did.”
“When we started, there was a lot of distrust,” UMC bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York told the Post-Gazette. “I won’t say all that distrust has gone away, but there has been this amazing collaboration, this deepened respect for one another.”
3 Key Conflict Negotiation Skills
The UMC’s relatively positive experience was rooted in numerous wise strategies to resolve conflict, including the following:
- Choosing mediation. Mediation is an ideal conflict resolution format for negotiating painful decisions when splintering away from others. A professional mediator can help parties decide whether they can work through their differences. If they can’t, mediators guide negotiators through the task of splitting apart.
- Thorough representation. All factions need to be represented at the negotiating table, or parties who feel excluded may try to sabotage whatever deal emerges. Choose people who are known for building bridges with those who disagree with them.
- Confidentiality. Parties in conflict typically don’t feel comfortable opening up about their concerns. To build trust, they will need to promise to keep their conversations confidential—and follow through.
What other conflict negotiation skills have you found to be effective for peacefully and efficiently ending partnerships?