Category Archives: Psychology

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.

Emotionally Intelligent Churches

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a concept that was made popular by a man called Daniel Goleman, who wrote a book with that title. Decades of research have shown that it is the key requirement for success in every sphere of life. I recently read an article that analysed data from a million people show that these eighteen habits or qualities are prevalent in people with a high EQ:

  1. You have a robust emotional vocabulary
  2. You’re curious about people
  3. You embrace change
  4. You know your strengths and weaknesses
  5. You’re a good judge of character
  6. You are difficult to offend
  7. You know how to say no (to yourself and others)
  8. You let go of mistakes
  9. You give and expect nothing in return
  10. You don’t hold grudges
  11. You neutralize toxic people
  12. You don’t seek perfection
  13. You appreciate what you have
  14. You disconnect from technology sometimes
  15. You limit your caffeine intake
  16. You get enough sleep
  17. You stop negative self-talk in its tracks
  18. You won’t let anyone limit your joy

Reading this list made me wonder what an Emotionally Intelligent Church might look like. It would be a place where mistakes are allowed, offence is not taken, forgiveness is offered and thankfulness is central. There wouldn’t be grumbling or complaining, and change would be seen as a good thing. Toxic people would not be allowed to dominate, but instead they would be encouraged to understand their feelings. Self-control would be exercised, and people wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the jobs because they could say ‘no’. The church would serve the community joyfully and expect nothing in return.

Does this sound good? It does to me, although I think the only refreshments that would be served would be Chamomile or Peppermint tea!

Giles Fraser on Helplessness

The talk that most moved me last year at Greenbelt was this one by Giles Fraser on Freud and Augustine. As it happens I’m not a great fan of Augustine and have mixed feelings about Freud. But anyway, if you don’t have time to watch it, the crux is this:

We can’t fix ourselves. This is central to what Augustine is saying and Augustine’s ‘original sin’ is a way of talking about fundamental human brokenness. As an example, the church is like Alcoholics Anonymous – we turn up and the first thing we do is acknowledge our vulnerability, our need for help and our helplessness. We can’t fix ourselves.

Freud says that the trauma of our helplessness as a child is so extreme that we spend the rest of our lives working this out. The trauma of childhood is that we are unable to be in control of the sources of own  satisfaction. He goes on to say that Christianity is a way of avoiding our helplessness – having a big Daddy in the sky makes us feel less helpless.

To overcome this feeling of helplessness, human beings have two possible coping strategies:

  • Deny that we have unmet needs – ‘I don’t need you’. We sometimes sabotage our happiness by pretending that we don’t want others. We become incredibly well defended.
  • Acknowledge our needs and then bully others into satisfying our needs. We are profoundly frightened by our original helplessness so we need to be in control.

We can even become phobic of our own desires in case they become unmet desires – we are scared of going on retreat because we might want a coffee and not be able to have one. We can’t bear desiring something and not having it – hence the joy of consumerism and instant credit.

And how do we feel about those who meet our desires? We feel ambivalent. The person who satisfies us may also frustrate us – we will have an ambivalent relationship with our partners, parents and God.

Being human means being vulnerable, being dependent upon each other. The road to wholeness requires us to express our need, we have to express our vulnerability. And Giles says that Christianity, far from running away from helplessness embraces helplessness in the idea of grace. We bear with our needs in prayer, we find that it is okay to sometimes have our needs not met, we find that it is okay to have our needs not instantly met. He says that helplessness is not a curse, it is a gift, our fragility as human beings is a gift.

Happy are those who know their need of God – the kingdom of heaven is there.