Some thoughts on conflict

At St George’s we have been having a series of ‘Vision Hours’ where we consider many things to do with the life, work and mission of our church. At the most recent session we thought about conflict as we have experience some of it recently! Conflict in churches can often feel frightening because we don’t expect it – we expect churches to be peaceful and tolerant, when they aren’t we are surprised. Moreover, most people of faith are deeply passionate about the things to do with faith – the beliefs, the community, the buildings, the mission, the words we use, the music we play, the way we do things. Hence, conflict in churches can feel more highly charged than conflict in other arenas.

However, conflict in the church is as old as the church itself. God in God’s wisdom decided to make us all different, and hence we all have different priorities and ideas. Sometimes these things complement each other and sometimes these things cause tension. In every age the church has struggled to recreate itself so that it can be relevant to the community that it serves. Communities never stay the same and neither do churches. However, change is invariably uncomfortable and leads to conflict.

A group called Bridge Builders have a great deal of wisdom on the subject of conflict. They help churches when conflict becomes painful and destructive. Over the years they have developed an understanding of helpful conflict and unhelpful conflict:

Unhelpful Conflict Helpful Conflict
1. Conflict viewed as wrong and sinful 1. Conflict viewed as inevitable and evidence of involvement
2. Members spiritualise conflict – equate their own view with that of God 2. Members draw from spiritual resources – listening, confession and prayer
3. Members blur issues and people – relationships suffer, people given a cold response. 3. Members separate issues and people – relationships maintained with those who disagree and differ.
4. Leaders discourage expressions of difference and plead for harmony. 4. Leaders encourage expressions of difference and they too can disagree with others.
5. Indirect communication flourishes – talk about people, not to them 5. Direct communication is maintained and clarification sought.
6. Members hoard up hurts and offences. 6. Members keep short accounts with each other.
7. In the stress of conflict, a few vocal people are heard, intimidating the other people. 7. In the stress of conflict, many voices are heard and people are energized by debate.
8. Members react explosively or defensively to the views of others 8. Members interact thoughtfully to the views of others.
9. Discussions focus on positions and people get stuck in their own position. 9. Discussions focus on the process and the problem and only later on possible solutions.
10. Low tolerance of uncertainty and members want issues over and done with. 10. Members able to move calmly through inevitable periods of uncertainty.
11. People repress inner conflicts caused by past experiences and continually project them into the church conflict. 11. People are consciously aware of their past hurts or unresolved conflicts and take responsibility not to project them into the current situation.

 

It might be a surprise to find that conflict can be helpful, but more than being helpful, it is in many cases essential. Conflict forms community and builds intimacy. It is one of the stages of community:

Four Stages of Community

A well-known psychologist, M. Scott Peck, says that any group of people who previously don’t know each other who come together form a community that goes through four stages:

Pseudo-community

People want to be loving and kind. It is a pleasant place to be. In order to achieve this, people withhold some of the truth of themselves. Differences are minimised or ignored.

Chaos/Conflict

Eventually, some differences will appear. This is a shock. It is no fun. It is uncomfortable and unpleasant. We want it to go back to the niceness and comfort we knew before. Eventually, we can bear it no more, we look at who is to blame and the blame is attached to a variety of things until it rests on the leader who bears the brunt of the anger of the community.

From here the community can find its way back to psudo-community or they can walk the painful path through emptiness and grief:

Emptiness/Grief

Members empty themselves of the barriers to communication. They become honest and within each member mini deaths occur – preconception, expectations, projections, ideology. Members start to share their own brokenness, fears failures and defeats.

True community

True community embraces the light and the darkness. The joy and the reality of human failing. A genuine peace descends. When people speak others listen without trying to fix. The community becomes a place of incredible healing.

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