Enough! It’s time to show some courage.

Where are the leaders who are ready to show some courage? Where are those who will risk losing everything for the sake of the reign of God?

People are tired of the fighting

I talk with a lot of people from around the world. Many come from churches where there are major disputes. Most Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive, disrespectful way in which debates happen. So, they want leaders who will find a way to resolve problems in the church without trying to control and remove their opponents.

Framing debates as “yes” or “no”; “left” or “right”; “liberal” or “conservative” is not helping. Forcing people to argue from the extremes is proving to be ineffective in resolving conflict. Yet people in many churches seem to be rewarded for being warriors for their extreme position. However this is alienating for people inside and outside the church.

People are looking for leaders who have courage. The church needs people who have the courage to take the risk of not fighting! People in the pews are tired of the paralysis that afflicts their church when disagreements go on and on.

What does courage look like?

Courage is being prepared to

  • give up my desire to control others
  • value relationships over power
  • trust that God knows best and so be open to change
  • believe that God desires the unity of his family
  • acknowledge that I have made God in my own image when God hates all the same people that I do
  • do unto others as I would have them do to me
  • love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me

Please add to this list from your own heart. What is hard for you to do in support of fostering a faithful, loving, quality Christian community?

Seek relationships instead of control

The only way to get past the paralysis that comes from hyper partisanship is by seeing the other person as a fellow human being.

There are many examples of where constructive and life giving options have been generated as people stop seeking control and work on the relationship. Perhaps the most powerful and common example is in divorces and setting up parenting plans. When a couple have a toxic relationship it harms the children; makes them bitter for longer; it is destructive and costly; makes later adaptations to the plan difficult;  and limits the number of options. As couples focus on the children and take time to understand the needs of the other person, they generate better solutions that are easier to live with.

It’s the same for disputes in the wider society and the church. Of course it is not easy for people to just switch off their desire for control – that’s why mediators are needed. It isn’t easy for some Christians to stop wanting to demonise their opponents and to get their way -that’s why facilitators are needed. Taking up the alternative of showing respect, de-escalating the tension and looking for alternative solutions does not come easy.

Seek relationships over control. You don’t have to change your mind on the issues in dispute. But you should change your attitude to the other person and the issue.

Will people seek relationships over control?

I like to think that the Holy Spirit will make it possible! But faith is an act of will, as much as it is a gift of grace. People have to choose to be obedient to Christ.

God has created a community through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are incorporated into that community through trusting (faith) in what God has done in Jesus. Our responsibility as disciples is to live in this community that gathers around Christ. This community is our primary identity. It is God’s will that we be one for the sake of the witness of Christ in the world.

When we are convinced that the quality of our discipleship as Christians is more important to God than our opinions on theological and ethical issues then we will choose relationships over control. The early observers of Christians did not say “Look at those Christians – see how they agree with one another.” Rather it was said “Look at those Christians – see how they love one another.”

People will seek relationships over control when they have the courage to believe the Gospel that we are one in Jesus Christ. However, this unity is not achieved by what we do, but by what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Does it happen in real life?

It is somewhat sad, but perhaps encouraging, that most of the examples of success come from outside the church. It is encouraging because if fighting spouses, political enemies, and hostile opponents on moral issues in society can do it then Christians should find it easier.

People move from control to relationships when they:

  • know that the present way of working is destructive
  • have a hope that things can work better
  • have a unifying principle, eg being citizens, family, fellow believers, etc
  • show courage by giving up power
  • habit disrupting rules are put in place
  • firm structures are put in place
  • thoughtful questions are offered

Mark Gerzon in The Reunited States of America, offers numerous examples of community organisations that are helping people to make the move from hyper partisan and aggressive approaches to healthy and respectful discussions. I recommend that you buy the book.

You can also look up some previous posts on this site for how change can happen, for example here. Or find examples of where and how change has happened in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Be of good courage, keep the faith, hold strong to the calling that you have in Jesus Christ.

Finding a creative solution in conflict

 

A creative solution to conflict is rarely found by living at the extremes. Usually the solution to a conflict needs the center – the “middle voices”. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein.

The “middle voices” – a creative center

Mark Gerzon in his book The Reunited States of America notes, at p. 19, that the largest political cohort in the US is neither Republican or Democrat. Rather it is Independents, and those who refuse to vote, that make up the largest groups.

In churches it is often the same situation. Whenever an issue becomes so contested that the extreme voices dominate the conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking that they form the majority views in the church. However that is rarely the case. Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.

It is among these “middle voices” that it is possible to find a creative way through a conflict. The non partisan members of a church are the key to a deeper insight into how to respond to a conflict.

Conflict – what keeps it going?

It is only natural that we want to have our views confirmed. Our opinions and values are key elements in how we define ourselves. For people of faith our convictions can carry the extra weight of being associated with what God wants. If we sincerely believe that something is the will of God then we will hold to it very dearly. The first thing that keeps a conflict going is that to change may mean changing our understanding of ourselves and God. That can be very hard to do!

Validating our identity and faith by having our views reinforced by others is a comforting place to be. “Confirmation bias” is seeking and valuing information that confirms our opinions and reinforces our preconceived ideas, while avoiding and dismissing information that challenges us.

Conflict often keeps going because people only listen to like minded people. This consolidates the rightness of their point of view. It hardens their resistance to receiving, and taking seriously, alternative views.

Conflict – what can diffuse it?

Gerzon (p.29) tells the story of people going on a 30 media fast. During the fast they stop listening to, and reading, their normal diet of news. They stay away from the information that confirms their bias. Instead they pay attention to the alternative news sources that they usually reject because they speak the “enemy’s” point of view.

He is offering advice for people wrestling with the problem of being hyper partisan around politics. But could Christians in conflict benefit from a 30 day media fast? What would it be like to attend carefully, respectfully to the people who have the opposite view to you on critical issues in the life of the church? The issues are many that have the potential to divide Christians around the world: abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQI ordination or marriage; what evangelism means; justice advocacy; etc.

This is not an encouragement to get educated, but to get empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another without having to make them your own. Empathy is about trying to understand the other person and their point of view – to walk in their shoes for a moment.

Conflict – be part of the problem or the solution

If you are in conflict with people then you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. One way to contribute to resolving conflict is to genuinely understand the people who think differently to you.

  • Stop listening only to those who think like you
  • Listen to the “other side” – not to critique them but to understand
  • Try to discover the grey parts of an issue and not just the black and white
  • Respectfully express in your own words what the other side is saying
  • Talk to people who are not at the extremes – why are they in the middle?

Conflict continues because we don’t value the other person or their point of view. Respect one another. Show respect by listening to those who have a different perspective. As this listening happens more people will understand that issues can be complex and solutions are not so simple. When this insight comes then more people will move from the extremes to the middle. In the realistic middle the issues are properly understood and the solutions can be found.

Relationships Undermined by Twitter

Australian politician Ed Husic has signed off Twitter because it is “an accelerant for hyper-partisanship”. Relationships are undermined when you only speak to people in bursts of 140 characters. The Twitter mindset is anathema to consensus building. Can Christians value relationships more than they value cultural practices like Twitter?

Thinking about Twitter, reflect on what practices work against the  relationships that Christ wants us to have with one another.

What does Twitter achieve?

1.  It saves time

Twitter is made for purpose in a world that is information rich and time poor. Sharing information in short, sharp bursts takes very little time to prepare or to take in. With only 140 characters to work with Twittees (is that the word?) can push out information fast. Even a slow reader can take less than a minute to read a Twitter post.

2.  Talking is more important than listening and relationships

A whole new collection of relationships are possible with the ability to deliver and receive information so quickly . Twitter users don’t need to actually know who is at the other end of the “relationship”. The important thing is to get out ones own message. Some people have millions of Twitter followers. Somehow I don’t think they are reading all those replies to their tweets.

3.  Oversimplifies issues

I don’t know too may great ideas that can be conveyed in 140 or less characters. Twitter encourages a lack of subtlety and attention to detail. Hyperbole thrives in the world of sharp and strongly worded tweets.

4.  Encourages aggression and divisiveness

Of course many Twitter users are respectful of their audience and take care not to offend. Yet there are some very well known examples of Twitter users who do not care the least for how readers will experience their tweet. In fact it is the more aggressive and confrontational tweets that get noticed and get responses.

Relationships need the opposite of Twitter

1.  They take the time that is needed

2.  The opinions of others are valued more highly than ones own views

3.  People in relationships understand that issues are complicated

4.  Quality relationships scale down tension and value collaboration

Break with the culture – support relationships

When Ed Husic indicated that he was withdrawing from Twitter people called to ask if he was OK. He was told how foolish he was in withdrawing from such an important tool of communication. To his credit Mr Husic said that the down side of Twitter was worse than any upside. Describing Twitter as a “bully pulpit” and a medium that fuels “outrage and argument” he quit.

Can Christians who value relationships within the family of Jesus be as brave as Mr Husic? Can we abandon the dominant practices of our culture when they do not serve to build up the body of Christ. Or do we fret that if we do not use the ways of the world then we will not get our message out?

I am not talking about Twitter here. There are many culturally accepted practices in the church that hold too many Christians in their thrall. They do so even when they oppose Christian values and character. Yet many Christians continue with them because they think they will lose influence, power and connections if they abandon them.

Far too many Christians embrace the aggressive practices of contemporary politics. They belittle, attack, lie and manipulate because that is the way to get things done. The way that the world works has infected the church.

Do you have the courage to break with the culture? If you understand that taking a political approach to church problems is at odds with the gospel – are you brave enough to leave that approach behind? If you do then people will wonder if you are OK. Some will say that you are a fool. Others will assure you that your enemies will step in and fill  the vacuum that you have left behind.

Resurrection requires a death. New life comes after an ending. Christ’s hope, and the discipleship to which we are called, needs us to take up a cross. The cross that the church needs to take up now is the abandonment of the way in which the world deals with difference and to carry – in risk and suffering – the cross of Christ’s way.

 

How to Deal Effectively with Interpersonal Conflict

 

In every church that I have belonged to or worked with there has been conflict.  It’s a normal part of life. It happens. More times than not, the conflict was between 2 people but quickly got out of control by people getting involved and taking sides.

A group cannot work together if there is conflict between the individuals who make up the group. So group based consensus must take seriously processes that seek to restore broken relationships between members.

Hurt feelings, a failure to resolve differences directly, and an inability to listen to one another all prevented these conflicts from being dealt with in a timely manner. Conflict not resolved festers and gets out of control in a congregation.

What causes conflict?

Simply put, conflict is when 2 people or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time. There is a story about a Pastor and Organist who were not getting along. Eventually their tension found its way into a worship service. After a sermon on commitment, the organist played “I Shall Not Be Moved.” After a sermon on gossip, the organist played “I Love To Tell The Story!” Finally, the Pastor announced his resignation; the organist played “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Sounds silly, yet most conflict starts as a small fire and grows into a bush fire if not resolved properly.

Where have you experienced conflict in church life?

Perhaps some of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • A church in Pennsylvania voted to discontinue rather than to deal with a bully that liked to dominate decisions. His controlling behavior caused people to leave the church over the years but no one knew how to deal with situation.
  • Two brothers farmed a piece of property together. When the wife of one was diagnosed with cancer, he went to his brother trying to raise money for her care by selling his share. The brother did not have the money and refused to obtain a loan. Lawyers got involved and eventually the entire farm was sold. The brothers never spoke to one another again, which was difficult for their local church as one was the Chair of Finance and the other was the Chair of the Church Council.
  • A Pastor believed that members of the Church Council should attend every meeting without excuse. The Director of Education missed a meeting without notice, which was unusual. The Pastor moved for his dismissal without talking to the man first. Turns out his young daughter had had a serious accident and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

So what to do?

Christians are called to handle disputes with love for one another and with a goal of restoration of their relationship – see Matthew 15-20. This passage gives us a process for dealing with interpersonal conflict.

  1. As soon as possible, acknowledge the conflict. Go speak with the other person in private to reach an understanding. Under no circumstances are we to go to a third party and pour our hearts out. This first step is about listening – it is not about spreading gossip, rumors, or stories about another. A situation can get out of control quickly and escalate when one fails to go directly to the person involved. This step involves:
    1. Be sincere and trying to work out the disagreement directly with the other person involved. Call them and request a meeting.
    2. Be sensitive and open. You may not have all the facts right. Listen.
    3. Use direct communication when speaking to another person. Use “I” statements (I feel…, I observed this …, I was hurt…)
    4. Aim at reconciliation not scoring points. Paraphrase what you hear them say and ask if they feel understood.
  2. Most times, the situation resolves with the first step. If not, get help. Take 1-2 witnesses with you to keep the listening honest. These witnesses should be the only ones who know about the problem.
    1. These individuals should be neutral and want the best for both people. They are not there to take sides or judge the matter. They are there to help communication to be direct and open.
    2. The witnesses should be respected by both parties
  3. If after the last step the situation is not better, take it to your local church for resolution. (The Staff-Parish Relations Committee if the conflict involves staff; The Church Council or Elders if the dispute is between two members.)
    1. The church group should hear the situation from both individuals.
    2. If possible, get the people to agree on mediation as a way to negotiate their differences.
    3. If this does not work, a determination should be made on how best to resolve the matter. Perhaps they cannot serve on a committee together for 3 years. In extreme cases, the offender or negative influence may be asked to step away from membership in the church for a period of time or even for good. You still can love them but realize the conflict is negatively affecting your ministry and must end.

Does it work?

This is hard work yet essential. Most (95%) interpersonal conflict ends with step one when done well. Step 2 may end another 3%. Rarely does the situation get to the Church for resolution. When it does, the church should be prepared. It is very helpful for a congregation to have a written policy on dealing with conflict. Members should be aware of the policy and know how to use it.

Martina McBride, a country singer known for her deep spirituality, recorded a song entitled: “Anyway”. It talks about how when people are illogical and unreasonable – love them anyway. When you do good, people may be suspicious – do good anyway. People may attack you when you try to help – help them anyway. Why? Because it was never about you and them. It’s between you and God anyway.

A Case Study on Denominational Division

In our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017)  we have a number of case studies about how churches have used, or not used, consensus-building processes in a positive way. (Purchase the book here.) One of the disappointing stories is from the 2016 United Methodist General Conference. Its theme was “Therefore, Go!” A focus on mission was overshadowed by a painful struggle to deal with a hot issue in the church: homosexuality and leadership. This debate highlighted the division in the church. Many delegates were relieved to “go” and leave the experience behind.

Practices Creating Division

Unfortunately

  • the General Conference continued deepening patterns of creating “losers” in the way people talked about one another and dug lines in the sand
  • important issues were defeated with little conversation by using delaying tactics such as numerous Points of Order and Calling for the Question to kill discussion
  • petitions were defeated or supported in Committee sub-groups with low numbers deciding (i.e. 20-9)
  • valuable time and resources were squandered
  • people were exhausted and frustrated
  • division was hardened

Robert’s Rules of Order

Our observation is that Robert’s Rules of Order created chaos and confusion, and reinforced the divisions among the delegates. It did not provide a way forward. It’s time to do something different that actually works.

When a matter is simple and put before the body to decide, Robert’s Rules adequately guides the process. The idea is seconded, discussed, possibly amended (improved), and voted yes or no. However, when a matter is complex or the group has more fear than faith then the process is very unhelpful. It can be manipulated, misinformation sown that cannot be challenged, people damaged, division hardened and confusion flourishes.

This is what happened in Portland.

Alternatives are available

Another process (Rule 44) would have allowed delegates to use an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order. It offered delegates the opportunity to

  • convene in small groups for prayer, conversation and discernment
  • understand the reasons for division and build respect and understanding
  • provide feedback to a drafting group that would take their insights and provide recommendations for the next stage
  • hear a report of their deliberations and seek the creative movement of the Holy Spirit
  • discuss / discern further and decide the matter with a traditional vote.

Simple. The actual process takes far less time than it took to defeat it.

Are you up for the challenge?

We are challenging denominations to use another process to Robert’s Rules to make decisions. The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017) provides such a process and is available at Cokesbury or at Amazon. We invite you to use it in your church, Annual Conference and perhaps some day it will also be used at the General Conference.

Helpful practices for avoiding division

This new resource explains the process and how to use it successfully. The process can be tailored to fit any size group and address any topic. It is written to support leaders as they make a shift in their current way of making important choices. The aim is to exchange entrenched division with consensus-building discernment. It is designed to:

  1. Help your group identify the Christian values your community seeks to live by and to do so with integrity.
  2. Deal with conflict and resistance to change so discussions can be redemptive and transforming instead of paralysing.
  3. Provide simple steps (supported with the Means of Grace) to guide deliberations and decide issues in your context.
  4. Prepare the work ahead — make arrangements to support the process in your context, train leaders, form discussion groups, etc.
  5. Invite people to participate — name the issue, and provide information for their consideration.
  6. Make the decision in your faith community.
  7. Implement and evaluate your decision.

In our case studies it is when people talk ‘to’ each other rather than ‘at’ each other that Christian community and discernment are apparent.

If you believe it is time to have an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order when making church decisions, let us know. Leave a post with your comments. We are very interested in your hopes and experience!