Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings
Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA
When left to their own devices, conflict and lingering problems can be extremely costly to the wellness, growth, and finances of a church congregation. It costs little or nothing to pursue concerns before they escalate. Ideally, there are capable representatives within the church body who can offer guidance, as well as some understood local practices for helping conflicted parties be in their best form and minimize the need for more expensive help.
Much of the foundation for conflict resolution in congregational life is grounded in the Old Testament’s dictate for the use of competent third party guides, the requirement for impartial investigations and the pursuit of justice, although Christ’s Sermon on the Mount significantly upgraded the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is being suggested that church leaders do as Moses did—set up wise, understanding, respected and impartial representatives to run point, on matters in their local tribe
(Dt. 1:9-18, 1 Cor. 5:5).
In the Old Testament, a problem handler might be a tribal leader, a priest, a king or other dedicated officials (Dt. 1:15, 21:5, 1 Kings 3:16-28, 2 Chr. 19:4-11). According to their mandate, the figure must not be a party to the concern itself, have skin in the game in terms of the outcome of a matter, or be perceived as being prejudiced towards one party. The primary goal of processes was to seek “justice and justice alone” (Dt. 16:20) with the general hope that parties would be satisfied with the outcome and/or the fairness of their hearing (Ex. 18:23).
The words concern and problem are used here in a broad sense to refer to the following: conflicts over sin/offense, unsatisfactory feelings with respect to an unmet need, an unresolved dispute/grievance, difficult relational dynamics, or a contest over competing values. It is important to identify which of these are present, and if there are more than one, so that the guiding intermediary can start from the best position.
It is important to establish two crucial practices. First, it is often the case that one party usually feels the problem more than the other. According to Jesus, the subject of a complaint, innocent or not, should be proactive in clearing up a matter (Matt. 5:22-23). Second, if the concern is a sin, then there must be witnesses to the perceived offense in order to utilize the simple path prescribed by both Moses and Jesus in Dt. 19:15-18 and Matt. 18:15-17. Witnesses to the offense are to be vetted because their testimony matters. If a matter has become one person’s word against another it is no longer a Matthew 18 issue—it is a relationship to be mediated or a grievance for arbitration.
The following recommendations for the third party problem-solvers and peacemakers are meant for more difficult situations, where actual witnesses don’t exist or are viewed as party to the conflict. A reasonable way to proceed is for the congregation’s leadership to deputize someone to be the third party facilitator, with the agreement of the disputing parties, and with the possibility of the third party facilitator continuing on as mediator or arbitrator.
If you are a church leader or a church member needing to engage in a process of conflict resolution in your congregation, here are some first steps you can take:
1.Propose an Opening Process. The facilitator will assume responsibility for gathering the concerned parties and assimilating them into a mutually agreeable process for improving general clarity. This includes coming up with a safe location, ensuring everyone knows who will be in attendance and why (parties, witnesses, advocates, other resources). The facilitator should speak to the main parties in order to agree upon the topics to be discussed, then release an agenda of no more than three to five general topics. Parties should have options available to them to ensure that the sessions are agreeable. It should be communicated that the upcoming meeting is not intended to resolve the matter, which takes pressure off of everyone.
2. Gather Parties to Obtain Clarity. The facilitator should begin with warm words of hope and prayer, and then guide the first discussion to obtain helpful background history. He should then discuss the agreed upon topics and reframe them in the most useful and least offensive language. Future sessions can then make use of the increasingly clear picture, which usually comes into better focus as progress is made. The facilitator seeks to understand and record each party’s felt interests, makes a timeline and records personal observations. There is no pressure to solve the matter in this session. The goal is to obtain an integrated perspective of the issues and to inspire confidence in future resolution.
3. Determine the Roadmap. The facilitator is now ready to make a few decisions. First, he must decide if the clarified matter requires mediated relationship, arbitration, a separate moderation process or a combination of these options. Second, the facilitator is ready to determine if he is competent to proceed, or needs to form an assisting team, or must turn this matter over to a more qualified third party. Third, the facilitator should now identify everyone who will take part in the process, obtain their consent to continue, and determine what their roles related to the matter are, as well as review everyone’s schedules and general availability.
4. Preparing the Parties. In many cases, even those not requiring mediation, the parties will be relationally strained. Even secondary parties are sometimes caught in the crossfire. It is recommended that difficult problems be accompanied by spiritual and emotional guidance. Two resources are Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a free PDF workbook that I wrote, entitled Preparing for Mediation.
5. Mediate Before You Moderate. Do not attempt to resolve an issue of doctrine, decision-making or preference of worship styles, etcetera, without first repairing a relationship which has been broken over those issues. It is more straightforward to solve a problem when two parties are thinking alongside each other. Two examples of moderation are in Acts 6:1-7 and Acts 15:1-35. Moderation uses representation and reasonableness to negotiate and address needs (such as food distribution) and values (such as obligations for Gentile believers). This subject is beyond the consideration of these pages; however, it is worth reemphasizing that moderation of problems is very difficult to accomplish when there are unresolved feelings between the parties.
6. Mediation and Arbitration. The difference between Christian mediation and arbitration is more evident near the end of their processes. Mediation aims to reconcile the relationship, and arbitration is about deciding an outcome; sometimes they occur concurrently. In both cases the third party focuses on creating the atmosphere for parties to give voice to their views — he draws out and listens, reframes, and nudges the parties. Private caucus is used to address topics deemed too risky for group discussion.
Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:
Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.
Recognizing Each Party’s Interests—sometimes hidden drivers include unmet needs, respect/honor, hopes, fears, et cetera. A facilitator will draw these out when the parties are feeling safe, either privately or during a mediation.
Obtaining Responsibility — throughout the process, it is important to seek appropriate expressions of lessons learned, owned responsibility, sympathy, appropriate defense, meaningful mea culpa and healing words—wherever appropriate.
Explore Outcomes—forgiveness, various types of reconciliation, and negotiated steps for improved dynamics.
Closure—the parties create written statements, including lessons for a better future. Determine who needs to hear of the outcome. Prayer. Planned follow up.
Stephen F. Staten is the Founder and an Organizational Health Consultant at Bridging International.
Reconciliation, Coventry Old Cathedral. In 1995, fifty years after the end of The Second World War, this sculpture by Josephina da Vasconcellos was given by Richard Branson as a token of reconciliation. An identical statue has been placed in the Peace Garden at Hiroshima on behalf of the people of Coventry. Both statues remind us that, in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.