April 28, 2014


"Mooooommmmmm! CJ hit me!"
"Did you talk to him about it?"
"Well ... no ..."
"Maybe you should go do that first."

It struck me as I watched this little exchange how our kids need to learn how to handle conflict from an early age. My daughter's exclamation was a product of her anxiety - she didn't want to deal with her brother at all, and would rather have some authority figure deal with him, someone who could MAKE him do what she wanted, because she had been made upset.

Mark Sayers writes that,
"In our day, anxiety has reached epidemic proportions in the west. Worry, fear, and stress define the contemporary emotional landscape. Rabbi and psychologist Edwin H. Friedman in his study of leadership argues that contrary to popular opinion, leadership is not in the possession of particular skills, traits, or personal attributes. It is primarily in the ability to command a non-anxious persona in an anxious environment."
(Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan)
All too often, I've seen churches handle their anxiety over conflict this way too. When someone's upset about the music volume, for example, I've seen them go straight to the senior pastor or to influential board members - or even social media - instead of talking with the tech booth or the worship pastor. And what's worse, so many senior pastors enable this same behavior by trying to assuage those members themselves instead of sending those congregants back to the people with whom they actually disagree. They skip a step, as it were, in the name of efficiency. We're very passive-aggressive in the West, and would rather have someone solve our problems for us than deal with the emotional turmoil of engaging conflict directly.

Jesus spoke about conflict as though the relationship was more important than the issue. If you read his words in Matthew 18, he speaks of going directly to the person you're upset with first, not above, below, or around them. Gossip, it would seem, is not a way to handle conflict either. If we engage each other face-to-face, we can see the honest emotions of the other and may experience empathy - we enter in to the pain of the other. Jesus is saying that if we were to understand the other person's perspective, the conflict usually becomes something we work together to resolve rather than a competition to be won. We must take a posture of confession with one another.

The trouble, though, is that engaging a person in conflict face-to-face is scary because of risk; I have to open up myself to the possibility that I might be in the wrong, that the other person's motives were entirely pure and that my anger at them is unjustified. Maybe the worship pastor or tech booth have entirely good reasons to have the volume at that level (with that nice little decibel meter they keep back there), maybe my seat happens to be directly in the path of a speaker and if I'd simply move ten feet sideways, the volume would be fine. But that would mean I was wrong, and in our culture, being wrong is a really, really hard thing to admit - it produces a lot of anxiety. To be clear, it's pretty likely that in every conflict, both parties carry some of the blame (maybe the volume is legitimately too loud sometimes), and this is usually why we go straight to the authority figure or to gossip - we know we're partially responsible for the problem and don't want to be at fault.

Sometimes, people do go to each other first, and it's beautiful when it happens. I remember a conversation once with a lady from one of the churches I pastored. It was the Christmas season, and I had made a slide that said "happy holidays" on it with a cartoon nativity scene. She came into my office with a determined look on her face, and in her nicest "you've pissed me off" voice, she explains why she'd been offended by the term "happy holidays" in a church. After some questions, I discovered that she hadn't seen the nativity scene on the slide because of the old dim projector we were using. Suddenly, it all made sense and I could explain my reasoning - this was not my attempt at secularizing the service, it was merely pointing out that advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are a sequence of holidays we celebrate at that time of year. It was her turn for a lightbulb moment.

She quickly became an amazing friend, but that would never have happened if she'd talked about me behind my back or gone to the senior pastor - I would never have even known about the conflict until suddenly I was in trouble from "authority figures." One little misunderstanding could have gone another way entirely, yet people get unnecessarily dismissed from their jobs regularly from stuff like this, especially people in relational jobs like Pastors and Counsellors and Administrators, not to mention the many relationships ruined over badly-managed conflict.

It does not have to be this way.

Speaking from experience, things don't always get resolved by one conversation. On the chance that a one-on-one heart-to-heart honest conversation does not resolve the conflict (though I've found it usually does), Jesus counsels us to go engage the other party with a few other people, that the testimony of a few trusted people with evidence (not gossip to the whole church) would help convince this person of their bad choice. Don't just "let it go," Jesus says, make sure that you help them to see why this is a mistake. And, since their actions affect everyone (including you), bringing the witness of a few others to the table shows that I'm not crazy telling you this by myself. Remember, the passage in question is in the context of a loving Father who searches out a single lost sheep - clearly, God wishes a united flock, one that sticks together rather than one that is broken by conflict.

If this doesn't work, Jesus says the whole congregation needs to gently help this person see where they are wrong. This would assume the issues is important enough to bring it before a lot of other people (and I've never had or heard of a "volume of a service" issue being brought before a whole congregation). Finally, if none of this works, the congregation is to treat the offending party as a pagan or corrupt tax collector.

It begs the question though: how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?

We get that one wrong a lot too.

Anyway, Jesus says that we ought to do absolutely everything in our power to restore the broken bonds.

But this isn't just an internal matter. How we handle conflict inside the church not just important because of how it hurts brothers and sisters in the congregation (yes, everyone you don't like in your congregation and in others are still family). How we handle things inside the church in our own family directly impacts how we interact with those outside the church; it negatively affects our collective witness. Put another way, badly-handled conflict does not help the Kingdom come on earth. Heaven handles conflict differently than we do. If we behave like Jesus to each other inside the church - honestly, openly, but with dignity, restraint, and mercy - then we will be much more likely to treat those outside the church (or perhaps, more optimistically, "not yet a part of the church") the same way.

Mark also writes that,
"in order to influence with authority, the leader must go through a process of withdrawal. Here the leader learns to confront their own anxiety, and emotionally differentiate themselves from others and the anxious environments that they create. The leader must "return" to the toxic environment, maintaining relational connection yet remaining emotionally differentiated, and live out a posture of peace."
(Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan)
How we handle conflict will be instrumental in leading the world to Jesus. Jesus was not a leader who led from His anxiety, He led from a place of peace and strength, and He certainly did not avoid conflict. He didn't ostracize pagans and tax collectors, He welcomed them into His inner circle. He helped them transform, both through healthy conflict management and healthy modeling of a new way of living. He washed the feet of the one who betrayed Him, and served him bread and wine.

He died and rose for them.

He redeemed them.

And so the world will know His followers by the way they love one another.

What we do in church isn't just for "in church," though we ought to use it there too. What we do inside is practice for when we are outside. We model as a Church what we practice with the World. What we sing and how we sing it isn't just for Sunday, it is to be lived out the rest of the week too.

And we can show the world that God can and does take broken things and make them whole again.

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