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Transforming Church Conflict (Part 1)

By April 25, 2013 2 Comments

Over the past fifteen years, I have served as a spiritual care coordinator (i.e., chaplain), an associate pastor, a seminary professor at two different institutions, and a parish associate. In all of these settings, I have discovered again and again that the most challenging moments in ministry are not tasks like sermon writing, visitation, funerals, creating new courses or developing curricula. Rather what creates anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and downright perplexity in ministry are the entrenched interpersonal impasses and conflicts among church members, (and church members who are also family members!), staff, committees, and denominational factions.

Consequently, I have spent the past seven years intensively learning a practice called “nonviolent” or “compassionate” communication. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication has grown an international peacemaking organization, with people on nearly all continents practicing conflict transformation in their homes and workplaces and even now a small handful of seminaries.

My colleague, Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary) and I have written a book, Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action, in which we interpret the practice of compassionate communication in light of Christian theology and apply it to a wide variety of intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges in ministry today. (The book has just been released—so this is a bit of self-promotion, too!)

Broadly speaking, congregations face a myriad of challenges.  Some flounder in intractable conflict. Some struggle to recover from clergy misconduct. Mainline denominations are rent apart by polarizing discourse and some congregations are so disheartened that they are tempted to withdraw altogether. Individuals choose to believe without belonging to the church at all. Or they belong marginally–taking what they can get from worship but avoiding any authentic communal relationships of service and support. Pastors are burning out at an alarming rate, and other leaders grow weary of keeping all the church’s programs afloat.  Both pastors and other leaders falter under the weight of their own and others’ expectations to do it all.

Add to this the fact that in our world today we encounter “otherness” on a daily basis. We are inundated with diverse ways of being Christian, of being religious, of being a person. We have to choose from among these, discerning to the best of our ability what it means to live a good, faithful, true life in relationship to those both near and far from us. And then we have to learn how to live in community with people who choose differently than us.

Actually this is not all bad news. For challenges like these provide opportunities for spiritual growth, for seeing and understanding and following God in new ways.  In short, these challenges can remind us of who we are as the church.

On the eve of his arrest, Jesus prayed to God for his disciples, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). In so doing, he acknowledged the koinonia that constitutes the being of God, the church, and the world.

Often translated “fellowship” in English, the Greek word koinonia means “mutual indwelling,” “participation,” and “coexistence.” To say that we have fellowship with God and each other means, therefore, that we exist in the greatest possible intimacy and integrity with God and each other. Put simply, we belong to God and we belong to each other in the most profound sense.

This koinonia among the members of Christ’s body takes when we gather to worship. As a lived reality, koinonia is a theological and confessional fellowship, a fellowship of conversion, thankfulness, prayer and service. In the church, our lives are knit together in a series of I-Thou encounters of love. By the power of the Spirit in our midst, we live in peace with each other, support one another, confess our sin to one another, practice hospitality toward one another, and bear each other’s burdens.

Woven together as one Body, members of the church are called to witness in word and deed to Jesus Christ, in whom our koinonia with God and each other is perfectly complete and through whom it will be fully manifest. But disunity in the Church contradicts our very identity and scandalizes our witness. For how can the Church be an ambassador of reconciliation when communities of faith are torn asunder by mutual recrimination, judgment, and cut-offs? How can we worship in spirit and truth and vilify those made in God’s image, those in whom God dwells?

Moreover, how we deal with conflict in the church usually is a contradiction of our koinonia with God and each other. But it doesn’t have to be. For conflict can provide an opportunity for practicing our koinonia with greater faithfulness and integrity. But in order to do that, we need to have a new understanding of conflict and a new posture toward conflict itself.

First, conflict is both a gift and a possibility, because conflict is itself a central component in transformation. Whether conflict resides in a single person, between persons, or within groups, conflict provides a possibility for new vision and new practices. For this newness to emerge, though, we often need to patiently endure the discomfort of conflict; we need to prayerfully wait for the Spirit of God to move in our midst, so that we ourselves are transformed.

Put more simply, honestly facing and working through conflict (not around it) leads to more authentic community and therefore to greater creativity in participating in the mission of the church in the world.

Secondly, conflict isn’t just something external to us. It is an internal reality. When a church is in conflict, most pastors and leaders (if not members) are in conflict as well.  The conflict does not reside outside the pastor or only among the church’s most vocal members.  It resides within every person in the church.  We internalize our context and are an integral part of the emotional system in which we reside. So the transformation of conflict has to begin within our own personhood. How church leaders, in particular, position themselves vis-à-vis the conflict is a key to transformation. 

Third, conflict is rarely transformed by seeking compromise. The problem with compromise is that it frequently leads to resentment and fragile community connections. Compromise also tends to bypass humanizing encounter and goes straight to seeking strategies to relieve our pain and discomfort. It can be superficial, therefore. Transforming conflict begins when we relate to one another at the level of our common humanity, a kind of koinonia encounter that is supported by three practices or skill sets, which I’ll be exploring in upcoming posts.


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