One of the things that pushes people away from the church is our inability to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Handling conflict well does not come naturally. We don’t learn how to do it accidentally. In fact, the way that we handle conflict is learned from family history, school-place and workplace conflicts, and fights with spouses and friends. There are precious few of us who can look back on those conflicts with a feeling of pride and affection.
Pastors will get called in to mediate between two people. Or leadership teams and staffs will catch wind of a disgruntled person’s complaints. But secondhand, at best.
“People are saying,” has to be one of the most common phrases muttered to a pastor.
At Good News Community Church we often say that, “Conflict is neutral.” Conflict is the natural, expected result of two or more people interacting over time. However, how we handle conflict isn’t neutral. We have the ability to either harm or to heal through conflict.
In her Pursuing God’s Will Together, Ruth Haley Barton offers several helpful suggestions for how to handle conflict in a healthy way. I want to look at her suggestions and comment briefly on each of them.
- Remember that Jesus is with us in the midst of conflict.
/“Where two are three are gathered, there Jesus will be with them.”/
We quote this passage often during worship services, small groups, or times of prayer. But the passage is actually about people in conflict! Jesus isn’t just in our midst when things are going dandy, when we’ve got on our happy faces, our hands in the air, enjoying the ecstasy of worship. Jesus is also there when we are red in the face, angry as hell, and succumbing to our basest instincts of protecting ourselves.
- We affirm that conflict can be the catalyst for needed growth and transformation for everyone involved.
Conflict becomes a lot less scary if we approach it with the idea that it can (and should) have a positive outcome. Conflicts don’t have to end as though a grenade has gone off, with shrapnel and blood and a massive crater in the middle. Rather, they can be seen as a place where we get better, grow up, and improve.
- We commit to direct, face-to-face communication rather than resorting to triangulation and speaking behind each other’s backs.
This is perhaps one of the hardest things for people to commit to. But it is so necessary! When we feel as though we’ve been wronged, we try to get others on our side. We try to get our side of the story out first. Our egos are stroked when others agree with us, and we feel that much more convinced that they other person must be crazy—and we’ve never even talked to them about it!
As a pastor, I would prefer to never hear the phrase “People are saying,” ever again. If you have something you need to say, say it directly to the person who needs to hear it—or don’t say it at all. If I hear second- or third-hand about someone’s complaints or concerns, then their credibility (and my capacity to care about those concerns) has shot down directly to 0%.
- We are committed to increasing self-awareness through the practice of self-examination in relation to the conflict.
This part is also difficult. Naturally, it’s hard not to enter into a conflict with our minds already made up. Examining our own motives and perspective is nearly impossible when we’re already convinced we’re right. It gets even harder when we’re convinced someone else is wrong. But conflict can only become a place of growth if we’re really to engage in self-examination.
- We are committed to discerning and doing God’s will in the midst of conflict.
Again, like numbers 2 and 4, if we go into a disagreement determined to win, then we might very well miss out on the will of God. Our first priority in a fight cannot be “Prove that I’m right,” but rather, “What is going trying to reveal us?”
- We will be proactive in developing skills and practices related to conflict transformation.
If I never practice piano, I had better not expect to be able to play beautifully each time I sit at the bench. If I don’t actively, intentionally grow in my ability to stay calm during tense moments, then I better not be surprised when I lose my temper once again in a fight. If we want our conflicts to grow us and not tear us down, then we need to take steps while we’re calm and collected to pursue God’s will; and not just wait for the oh-crap-panic moments to do so.