One of the wisest persons I have known in ministry was the former bishop of South Carolina, Ed Salmon. He was fond of looking at challenges like conflict as an opportunity for growth. I agree with that mindset. One of the greatest successes I have had in ministry have been born out of conflict. Sometimes it is messy. You have to bear the heat of disagreement, but conflict, for all of its mess and strife is a very effective change agent…if, it is done well.
Doing this well means first looking to the Wisdom of the Bible. The scriptures teach that we are the Body of Christ and individually members of it in 1st Corinthians. We are called one body in Christ in Romans. Hebrews, Ephesians, and Colossians all call the church, the invisible unity of baptized and converted believers as the Body.
Singular. Definite article. I think we forget that.
I recently planned and together executed with Pastor Bill Schroeder and the Episcopal and Lutheran bishops of Nebraska a joint confirmation service. No greater illustration of who we can be at our best can be found other than that. Two churches came together to celebrate that we are part of something that transcends the names on our signs. We are not the Episcopal body and the Lutheran body just sharing worship and a rite of passage, we were, in that moment, the epitome of what is right with the church. We are one.
We as the church are the physical representation of Christ to the world. As such, since Christ is not divided, we as the church are not to be divided either. But that is the ideal and it does not come without a good bit of work. Since we are the body, handling conflict requires a healthy immune system. Matthew’s Gospel addresses problems of disunity in a three-step process which we will break apart into some simple mechanics.
Matthew writes, “Jesus said, if your brother sins against you, go an tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
Get that – one on one, no intermediaries, no mediators. Conflict is usually not anyone’s business. Ideally it is solved in this manner and that way.
When I was in Florida, one of these situations happened to me. A member of the congregation whom we will call “Bruce” looked at some of the changes that had taken place since my arrival at the parish and felt I was threatening the legacy of the former rector. He did not talk about it to his friends or speak ill of me. He did ask to meet me in a private setting. When one on one interaction occurred, the process of reconciliation was easy. Not only did we come out of it stronger, I gained a true friend in Bruce. He advocated for me and helped me gain the ability to lead with some true authority, simply because Bruce had my back. He always told me, “I will not bring you a problem that I will not also bring you a potential solution.” You see, conflict can be a chance for growth. I might add that without this key person’s appropriate, biblical actions, I would not now be rector of St. Stephen’s, Grand Island. “Bruce” was a Nebraskan and was one of the folks that encouraged me to apply.
But what if that doesn’t work?
Matthew goes on…”But if the one who has caused the offense does not listen, take one or two others along with you that every charge may be established by the evidence of one or two witnesses.” Notice how simple this is. There is a simplicity about it that shows courage. At no point is it advertised, it is not a matter of gossip.
In another real-life situation, a woman we will call “Sandra” and a priest collegue had words and there was a clear rift in their relationship. She called me, a priest of a neighboring congregation to mediate in the matter. I went into that conversation and let them voice their concerns. I quickly found that her concerns were real and that the priest really was in the wrong. He had reached the time when he needed to retire and I invited him to join my staff where he was a very good fit. Conflict solved the Bible’s way ended in reconciliation, restoration of relationship, and new possibilities. “Sandra” and her former priest are still good friends and I am happy we were able to grow through the conflict.
But what if that still does not work? Matthew goes on, “If the person who has caused the offense refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church and if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and Tax Collector.”
How exactly this comes into play is a bit difficult for us to understand. Jesus is not telling us to make a public announcement, but rather to expand the circle of persons involved in the correction. Let us remember that the Greek ecclesia, or church, is a gathering of believers, not an institutional construct. Again, in a well-functioning church, this step is done quietly. If it does not result in growth from the conflict, then excommunication is the result. We often forget that biblically speaking, excommunication was for the purposes of guiding the deceived person to repentance, not punishing or cutting them out forever. The season of Lent was one such time when those who had been stubborn after the third and final step of trying to grow through the conflict could still be restored into the fellowship of the church.
Dissention is a sin and all to often we just look at divisive events as agendas. Let us all remember in every local church that there is but one opinion and agenda that matters, and it is not any of ours. The church exists, as a body, to spread Jesus agenda and vision. If left to rot, division breeds schism and schism breeds the death of local churches.
So, to recap, step one is to visit individually, not to win an argument, but to gain a soul. When you meet with someone who has offended you, you act as an agent of healing. If that fails to work, you include one or two others and repeat the process with the aim of reconciliation. If that fails, it is opened to a wider gathering of believers from the church for correction and if not addressed, results in the offender needing to withdraw from the life of the church.
So, to sharpen your skills see if you can identify the problems in addressing conflict. I have some scenarios that I would like you to tell me what went wrong and why this approach was not biblically handled:
Situation one – true story I might add. At a social gathering a man makes an off-color statement that offends another passerby. That person then calls the rector and the rector removes the offender from his lay ministry position and informs him by letter. What went wrong?
- Not approached individually first
- Rector did not attempt reconciliation.
- Attempt was punitive and not restorative.
Situation two – a church treasurer appears to have misappropriated money. The vestry has a suspicion and asks the pastor to solve the issue. The pastor ignores and runs from the conflict. What went wrong:
- The situation was never dealt with not even step one was followed (you would be amazed how anxious avoidant people can be) No growth can happen if we are not willing to go through the conflict.
Situation 3: People are placing kitchen items in the wrong drawers. Those drawers are labeled. Church ladies then blow up seemingly without provocation at a newcomer that is new to working in the kitchen. What went wrong:
- Individual causing offense was avoided.
- Innocent new person becomes the flashpoint for anxiety that was stuffed.
- At no point was unity and church healing even thought of.
- In this case, the real offenders were those who blew up.
Situation 4. The church is being left unlocked. One of the ushers knows it is someone on the altar guild. Instead, that usher shows up at a meeting and complains about what can happen to the church, using the Guild member’s name as the offender. (the offender has no clue that she has been leaving things unlocked) What went wrong?
- NOT APPROACHED INDIVIDUALLY
- Healing not sought, vented and caused dissention without being direct
Situation 5: Jane Doe has been grossly offended. She is so timid though that she fears interaction with the person that offended her. She asks a friend to pass on a message about how she feels. What is wrong here:
- Not direct with the offender
- Involves a “triangulator” to deal with her own fear
- Skips in a way to step two of Jesus conflict resolution process without going through step one.
We do very well to deal with our issues in any church with Jesus biblical pattern. We usually see very quickly when we do not live up to those patterns, we fail to be the church God wants us to be. While each of those examples can and probably has happened at some time in every church, it is essential that we continually remind each other about Jesus words on how to handle these conflicts.
For some of you, your families need this kind of work. Take the three-step model there too. For others of you, it is the workspace. For others, it is school. In any place, Jesus pattern applies. Let’s commit to being a healthy people and when we are the ones wronged, uses Jesus model to find healing and restoration of relationships.
When we are the one who has committed the wrong, repent and be restored with your brothers and sisters. We can do this. We are the Body, we are the Church, now let us always be one. Even in conflict, we have the possibility for unity, if we but choose to handle it biblically.