We know from our experience that the church works well when we strive to help people feel belonging. Conversely, we also know how hard it hurts when we have conflict. In our leaders retreat this was one of the pairs that we highlighted as things that make us happy and things that make us sad.
The problem with conflict is that it is unavoidable! Conflict occurs every time you have two people who do not know everything about each other forced to work, live or be together. This happens mostly out of ignorance, cultural differences, or general unknowing. This Conflict is not typically bad unless we are inflexible or unwilling to give acceptance. As a mentor of mine said, “Healthy conflict is a good thing, because that is how you grow. But conflict for the sake of conflict will destroy God’s kingdom faster then anything else.”
Often this is why churches are so hurt by conflict, because in churches there are times when the conflict is more about power and being right than moving the community forward. One sad thing I once heard an elder say in one of my congregations “We need more conflict on Session so people really know what they are doing.” So this elder went against their own thoughts and desires to create more conflict. The problem with this is that at the end of the day instead of feeling like the right decision was made, the board felt defeated, and the decision that was ultimately made was the minority one this elder had championed, and in time that decision came back and hurt the congregation.
Again, like last week’s discussion of doing things together and suspicion, with conflict and feeling belonging there is a choice that is made somewhere in the journey that the conflict is more important than the community which forces people to take sides and fight before understanding.
Belonging is the number one thing people strive for, but in belonging and to make someone feel like they belong people must reach out and work through their conflict, but there also has to be the flexibility that my way is not the only way. I often preach that for me one of the essentials to being a reformed Christian is the acceptance that we do not know anything fully, and while that does not always make us wrong (though for brevity I say that at times) it does mean that our understanding is always at some level incomplete. Therefore, we need others to complete us and we are never going to grow unless we accept each other for the unique gift that God has made us. Thus, when we are in conflict, we have to ask why and how we can move forward within that conflict.
When institutes like Alban that work with churches in conflict notice that with exception of sexual abuse and financial misconduct, most conflict in congregation derives from issues and battles that have waged from early on in the congregations, in some cases, like the historic rivalry of the Hatfields and McCoys, the initial issue has been lost. I once worked with a church that had been in existence for over 100 years and never had a pastor stay longer than 5 years (the average lasting 2.5). When I worked with them we asked the question “why?”
We found that the stated reason for leaving was virtually the same and the complaints of the congregation were also that way. They made a choice at that point to name and close the past and move forward. When the issue was raised as the new pastor came in, it was expected and addressed. Amazingly, NO CONFLICT! Instead they were able to accept the pastor for who he was and had a great time together in ministry.
When we meet people where they are and accept them, we can name and understand conflict, which helps us to grow, but when we let the conflict or our pursuit of being right be our guide, we will in time destroy our community and possibly seriously injure the body of Christ through the witness that we share with the world that comes from non-acceptance and furthering conflict. However, when we learn acceptance, and the ability to accept and respect each other, while we will still have conflict most of the time that conflict will make us stronger will bring the community together when we learn to accept and move forward together.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen