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Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings

Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA

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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.

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:

  1. Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

PHOTO CREDIT:

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.







Jesus, the Master Discipler

by Gordon Ferguson -- Dallas, Texas, USA 

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If you have the world's most important message and you want to get it to the most people, how do you do it? Jesus had that conviction, and he had that concern. However, most Bible readers make some very erroneous assumptions about the ministry methods of Jesus. For years I was one of those people. I was very impressed with the times the Master Teacher worked with large crowds. I thought about how great it was for him to have exercised such magnetism that he was able to attract thousands at one time. 

And yet, Jesus spoke to the crowds more as a means of training his apostles and other future evangelists (such as the seventy-two) than to "convert" the crowds. Of course, he was vitally interested in sharing God with those multitudes, but he wasn't naive enough to suppose that teaching in those large groups was going to really do the job of changing their lives. He realized that a more individualized approach was going to be necessary, and he was preparing some very special men to provide just that approach. 

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How We Learn Spiritual Truths

Most of what we learn in life is learned by OJT (on-the-job-training). We watch big brother tie his shoes, and then we imitate him. We watch Dad change the tire on the car, and we quickly know far more than if we had spent a couple of hours reading the manual. Becoming a carpenter is a process: a journeyman repeatedly shows an apprentice how to do carpentry. Just about everything we learn in the early years of our lives is learned in this manner, as is most of what we learn in the later years. It is the fastest and easiest way and in many cases the only way to learn. Nowhere is this principle more important than in learning spiritual truths. Discipling is all about learning from someone else as they are following Jesus. 

As we study the Scriptures, we see that there can be no "loner" Christians. We play an absolutely essential role in each other's lives. The gospel cannot be spread effectively without the human demonstration at the heart of it, nor can those who accept it be brought to maturity without those relationships (Matthew 28:19-20). 

The Bible alone is sufficient to reveal the content of the truth to man, but to grasp its power, we must read it both in black and white (pages) and in black, white, brown, red, and yellow (people). Can you see the point here? Discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply been found difficult and not often tried. However, when it is put into practice, lives change radically, and others are drawn to that magnet of visible change. Discipling works! And it is all that works! It was and is, without question, the plan of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. 

The Plan of the Master 

Years ago, when I was first learning about discipling, I read a very helpful little book entitled The Master Plan of Evangelism. Coleman shows quite conclusively that the Master's method was men, plainly and simply. He poured his life into men, especially the Twelve, and when he returned to heaven, he left them to evangelize the world. They very effectively carried out his mission because they followed the same plan of pouring their lives into the lives of others, who repeated the same process over and over and over. 

Christ's purpose was never to personally convert the masses, for in a physical body he was limited to one place at one time. However, through his spiritual body, the church, he could be everywhere at once. The masses are converted one by one. As I shared my faith yesterday with a young couple in a restaurant, disciples all over the world were doing the same. And as I slept last night, members of Jesus' body were carrying out his mission all over the world. Yes, the plan of Jesus was certainly the master plan! 

The basics of his plan were as follows. First, he called men to follow him (Mark 1:14-18). Second, he kept men with him in order to train them and later send them out to share his message (Mark 3:14). Third, the training process included practical assignments, for we truly learn and retain only that which we practice. Finally, Jesus gave his life for what he had taught. Until we have something worth dying for, we have nothing worth living for. 

After Jesus had been resurrected from the grave, he spent forty days preparing his trained men for the coming of the kingdom and the task of spreading it all over the world. He then ascended back to heaven, leaving these few ordinary men with the extraordinary task of being (not just preaching) Jesus to the world. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:20, "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us." Jesus' method was to pour his life into men, and once they were fully trained, they would be like him (Luke 6:40). Having been thus discipled, they were able to "go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It was a simple plan with a high price tag of a tremendous personal investment in training individuals -- but it worked. It remains the same simple plan, and the price tag is just as high. No other plan has ever worked, can ever work, will ever work. We either do it this way, or we fail miserably. 


Reprinted from The Greater Houston Church Sunday Bulletin, January 21, 2018, No. 02


Photo credit: Carpenters: KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tech. Sgt. Kalon Pang and Master Sgt. Cindy Dickson, instructors assigned to the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, assemble a doorframe August 18, 2015, that will be used in a home building project. About a dozen military volunteers took part in the two-day Habitat for Humanity project here inside the organization's wood shop. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Mike R. Smith/Released)