March 2005
Conflict and Controversy

When Conflict and Hope Abound

Conflict and controversy are intrinsic to the church, even if many of us would prefer to live and worship in communities that never disagreed about anything. Jesus himself was executed in response to the controversy he stirred up; and the church has not been without conflict since. Even though we may heatedly disagree, we do aspire to respond to differences without resorting to crucifixion! 

As leaders, the task of managing conflict is ever-present. A leader becomes and remains a leader by virtue of being able to make a clear decision and encouraging others to respond to that decision. Christians do that every day in responding to the expectations of the baptismal covenant, and Christians become leaders in their daily ministry as they experience and foster transformation in themselves and the world around them.

Conflict at its most basic is a difference between one or more views of the way things are or should be. In theological terms, we are in conflict because we have not yet arrived at the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and we will be in conflict until the Second Coming. Simply put, that means that God is still at work, and therefore, hope should abound! Conflict is a sign of life and a necessary precursor to growth. That said, conflict still generates fear or discomfort in most of us. 

Leaders manage their reactions
Effective leaders learn to manage their own emotional reactions to conflict in ways that allow others to respond more rationally and less emotionally. The less anxious a leader is about the conflict, the more able others will be to engage the conflict constructively. Jesus’ public ministry gives repeated examples of this principle of leadership. 

The most public conflict in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion right now has to do with the controversial decisions of the 74th General Convention about matters of human sexuality. That particular conflict is being played out in a variety of ways around the church and the Communion, and it is a more painful issue in some places than others. 

I did vote to consent to the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and I also voted to pass Resolution C051, which recognized that blessing same-sex unions is within the bounds of our common life as Episcopalians. Those decisions were far less controversial in Nevada than they were in some places, but they still engendered a fair bit of heat. The real struggle in Nevada came at our diocesan convention in 2003, when the Integrity chapter presented a resolution asking for a policy on same-sex blessings.

Suddenly the issue was not across the country; it was here in people’s own worship communities. The convention eventually agreed to continue (and in many cases, begin) conversation about matters of human sexuality in their own congregations and regional gatherings, and to permit, with the bishop’s consent, congregations to develop their own policies. The conversations in the year following showed a remarkable growth in community. Most were marked by far more light than heat, especially when individuals were willing to ask hard questions and/or share their own confusion and vulnerability.

The ability of a few leaders to model appropriate self-disclosure and respectful questioning made an enormous difference. The hard work of those conversations did not lead to uniformity of opinion by any means, but it did demonstrate to all who took part that their opinions were valued. The few who left the Episcopal Church were generally not those who took part in those discussions, and the congregations who avoided dealing with these issues have missed the true vitality that comes from wrestling with God.

Holding decisions lightly
The most helpful aspect of leadership in a conflict is the ability to be clear about the decision that has been made without being defensive or argumentative. At the same time, a good leader is able to hold that decision lightly, with enough humility to recognize that no one individual ever holds the fullness of Truth in him or herself. We rarely make highly significant decisions that cannot later be revisited if better information comes to light. If we believe that God is present with us, and the Spirit still at work, then sometimes our decisions will change. 

Our own church is a wonderful example, in its historic ability to hold differing positions in tension — Catholic and Reformed, high and low styles of worship, music that spans a millennium, and social policy that incenses some and gladdens the hearts of others.

Our ability to provide leadership in communities experiencing conflict is also a gift to the wider world. Churches are laboratories for daily labor; they are gymnasia where we train for life as Christians in the world. The Reign of God requires the ministry of each one of us, whether or not we can agree on exactly what it will look like! 

The Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori is Bishop of Nevada.

This article is part of the March 2005 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict and Controversy