November 11, 2011

What I Didn’t Learn in Geometry, I Learned at Church

Triangulation. It’s the classic killer of many ministries. Person A tells something to Person B, and Person B takes it to Person C. The problem is exponentially exacerbated when Person C actually holds court in the first place with Person B. There are many different forms of Triangulation, but it’s even scarier when the main culprit adding fuel to the fire is your rector.

The best way to avoid triangulation is to simply adopt the biblical principle in Matthew 18. If you have an issue with another person, don’t go behind that person’s back and stir up trouble. Rather, go to that person one on one. If the conflict cannot be resolved, then, and only then, do you take a group of people as witnesses to help mediate. The verse also mentions seeking a spiritual leader as the third course of action. Though many pastors are excellent at sniffing out potential triangulators and refuse to hold court with such persons, I know many ministers get sucked into it—sometimes even unintentionally.

A clergy person may feel that it’s her or his duty to adhere to an open-door policy with her or his congregation. Clergy are often trapped into listening to people complain about a member of his or her staff (paid or volunteer). Sometimes parents feel offended by, threatened by, inconvenienced by, the decisions youth ministers or Sunday school teachers make regarding their children. Sometimes a choir member disagrees with a call the Minister of Music has made. But what is happening the minute a priest has heard these complaints and then, in turn, brings those concerns to the staff member or volunteer after the fact? Plain and simple: triangulation.

Instead, clergy should make it an expectation that no complaints may be brought forth unless the person(s) has first spoken with the offending party. Then, if the problem has still not been rectified, the priest should set up a meeting with the complaining party AND the offending party, together. This policy needs to be universally incorporated into the culture of the church.

What happens if the complainant doesn’t want to talk directly with the offending party? The priest needs to kindly shepherd them by explaining our biblical model for conflict resolution. If the complainants still do not wish to speak with the rector and offending party in the same room, then the rector needs to hold the line. Yes, it’s extreme, but the complainants shouldn’t be given a forum to address their issues unless they have gone about it properly. Anything outside of this model is truly beyond the realm of the example Christ would have us live by.

What should you do if you suspect that your church is perpetuating triangulation? First, thank God that it hasn’t sunk your ship…yet. Second, speak to your program and pastoral staff of your church and remind everyone of Matthew 18. Strategize with them about ways that you, as a team, can start promoting the new expectation of conflict resolution for the congregation. Finally, pray that the church has the strength to follow the guideline with grace and mercy.

This blog originally appeared on Melissa's blog, Moving the Spirit and is reprinted with permission.