So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Many years ago I was a lay member of a congregation the bishop credited as being the most conflicted congregation he’d ever had to manage in his long career of dealing with congregations. Going to that church was not a fun experience. When a few failed attempts at finding a pastor willing to step into this milieu of strong, polarized emotions, the bishop assigned a seasoned long-term interim. That interim spent much of his time there teaching about conflicts: how they start; how they escalate; and the damage they cause when not resolved.
A quick Internet search will take you to a variety of sites that lay out various theories about conflict. Here is my greatly simplified summary of some of them.
- You and I discover we have different opinions about some topic. Any subject will do, but let’s assume it’s what to have for dinner each night. We each think, “Well isn’t that interesting. We don’t like the same food items.” But it’s not a big deal. We can either agree to eat something we don’t love or prepare eat separate items. The friendship is safe.
- Turns out we cannot have two menus. Never mind why. We just can’t. For a while I may put up with eating things I really don’t like, but it’s not long before I’m tired of always catering to your food preferences. I start campaigning to have my preferred items on the next dinner plate. You push back. You like the way things are going. We’re still friends, but I’m feeling a bit frustrated with how this is going. Why can’t you understand the advantages of eating my way?
- I obviously need to convert you. I start giving you articles on the advantages of eating the way I like to eat. You are clearly misguided on this issue and need to be educated. For the sake of our relationship, I’ll put in the effort to enlighten you. But, then you start bombarding me with other facts that support your preferred food items. Now we’re in a fact-pitching contest to see who can drum up the most data to support our two very different theories about the right way to eat. And, you know what? You’re really starting to annoy me. I’m thinking eating dinner somewhere else might be a good idea.
- You won’t back down. Neither will I. Now I round up the experts – I start quoting people who back up my ideas and bring them to the dinner table to prove that my way is the better way. And you do the same. Gone are the pleasant dinner conversations we used to enjoy. Present are high emotions and very thinly concealed contempt for one another. Dinner has become the dreaded event with the focus now shifted from friendship and food to the principle of it. I’m right and I know it! Even though you insist you are and are just too stubborn to admit I’m really right. Our friendship is in serious jeopardy, as is our health if we continue this way.
- War breaks out. Well, maybe not an actual war with armies and all that— though this is how wars often start and continue for years and years. We have now declared each other enemies and enemies need to be dealt with in the most severe manner available. Each of us now focuses on destroying the other – or at least completely discrediting anything and everything the other says. If this conflict is not resolved peacefully, we will part company as bitter enemies, each convinced the other is an unreasonable, immoral, ignorant tyrant. This friendship is OVER.
The longer a conflict goes unresolved, the more difficult it will be to get to a mutually agreeable resolution. Some actions keep the conflict going and growing. Other actions help slow down the rate of growth and pave a way for eventual resolution that benefits all parties involved. God bless the mediators, diplomats and conflict resolution trainers and coaches of the world.
Things that keep the conflict going include, but are hardly limited to:
- Insisting there is only one right outcome
- Blaming the other side without first listening and gathering accurate information
- Name calling, labeling and publically shaming
- Talking without thinking. Thinking without learning.
- Assuming the worse of the other
- Quoting anonymous or unknown “They” sources
- Yelling, swearing, threatening, or refusing to listen to the other’s concern or point of view
Things that help contain the conflict
- Listening to learn and understand rather than gather ammunition to use against the other side
- Apologizing, if not for the content, at least for the disrespectful tone
- Talking only about what is known from first hand experience or reliable sources that can be substantiated
- Not taking anything on social media as reliable information unless documented from credible sources
- Taking a break when emotions heat up, but committing to talk again after things cool down
As for that church with the serious conflict? The interim stayed nearly two years. The next pastor was gone within four years. Today, they are healthy, and relatively conflict free. They are again focused on what matters – how they can they best love God and one another and serve their members and community.
Wherever two or three are gathered there is the potential for life-destroying conflicts. However, when we choose to really listen, show respect to those who disagree with us, and make the well being of the other more important than being proven right, we can keep the conflicts to a manageable level. Low levels of conflict keep life interesting and keep us energized. High levels of conflict destroy marriages, families, churches, communities and even countries. We all have choices to make and we make those choices every day.