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 Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.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.

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!