March 2016

Getting Along in a Really Strange, Big Family

The finalists in St. Christopher’s search for a new rector were due in town in two days. The church, grounds, and parish house were in readiness; the staff and nominating committee were busy with last minute preparations for hospitality and transportation. The monthly vestry meeting was underway.

“We have an issue here,” Joe the senior warden began. “A member of the nominating committee is not eligible to serve – he is not a regular giver so this is an invalid process.”

A stunned silence held the group for a few seconds. Then a young woman rose. Facing the warden she spoke firmly, with an energy that filled the room. “You,” she said clearly, “do not get to sabotage this process.”  *

Conflict is often a lightning rod for fear, in individuals and organizations. Looking at a sampling of the definitions in various modern dictionaries makes that fear understandable!

  • Conflict as defined in dictionaries beginning with Merriam-Webster: fight, battle war; competitive or opposing action of incompatibles; antagonistic state or action as of divergent ideas, interests or persons; mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external and internal demands.
  • The Business Dictionary: friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities
  • Collins English Dictionary: opposition between two simultaneous but incompatible wishes or drives, sometimes leading to a state of emotional tension; a struggle or clash between opposing forces

Most of us are not interested in living with fights, battles, or wars and despite other, milder definitions, too many people carry scars from very real personal or professional conflicts that influence their present encounters with people.

In the church, adding to that fear is a subliminal belief that real Christians shouldn't have conflict, but live in perfect love and charity. If conflict does rear its head, good Christians simply turn the other cheek; accepting any behavior, regardless of how detrimental to community or individuals.

Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, writes:

"We don't like how difficult emotions feel. We don't know what to do with discomfort and vulnerability. Emotion can feel terrible, even physically overwhelming. We can feel exposed, at risk, and uncertain. Our instinct is to run from pain. In fact, most of us were never taught how to hold discomfort, sit with it, or communicate it, only to discharge or dump it, or pretend it's not happening."

The words never taught lead to the alternative choice, the one I teach: Instead of disengaging or dumping differences, or wading into a battle of verbal hand grenades, with guidance it is possible to, wade into the middle of the behavioral stew, learning how to approach differences that lead to conflict and the ensuing emotions.

A different response to conflict

In my work, there are three particular concepts that form an approach to living and working together in community, which is the setting for what the culture and the dictionaries call "conflict."

  1. Identification and naming or calling out of behaviors.
  2. Understanding the impact, regardless of intention (assumed or spoken).
  3. Knowing positive alternatives to practice, model and teach.

My definition of this approach to living and working together in community comes from Story People creator Brian Andreas

“I'm not trying to bring world peace. I'm just trying to get along in a really strange, big family."

Every family in every system, regardless of size, has differences of perceptions and beliefs. Accepting such differences as normative, even intentional in God's creation, is foundational. We were not intended to be identical cookies, made from the same cutter. How a family, nuclear or corporate, academic or religious, responds to those differences on an every day basis, as well as in crisis, is a choice. The fearful “hunker-down-in-the-bunker” choice is to hope that differences don't escalate into conflict, and when they inevitably do, the response is to bring in an expert for conflict 'management' and hopefully 'resolution.' Until differences again flare into conflict and the cycle begins anew.

Understanding behavioral impacts

We can all learn to think in terms of human behaviors, learning to identify those that are healthy and build up the community, and those that are unhealthy and lead to dysfunction in the community. The next step is developing an understanding of the impact of each behavior on the community and testing that impact against goals for community health and development. If the impact is not healthy for the community, it is important to know alternative behaviors to teach and model. The third step is realizing that intent does not matter. That's right. Impact happens, regardless of the intention. If we must resort to using intent to explain a destructive impact of a behavior, we are reflecting on something that has already happened, and no understanding of what was intended can change that impact. If we are living intentionally, we are looking forward and making choices about the impact we want to have.

A word about anxiety

"I didn't know exactly what was wrong," Tom, a parish leader told me. "Things just felt off-kilter. I could sense that others must have felt this, too by the way they were reacting, the ways they were treating each other. But there was nothing I could put my finger on."

Tom was halfway to the first step in incorporating a process for healthy organizations into his church: his awareness meter was on high, registering that the anxiety in the system was revving up - often a prelude to more severe differences in opinions, and reactive behaviors.

Anxiety is like a virus in any system, personal or professional. It is additive. Catching. Tom, his vestry, and I, working together, set about learning how to put the finger on or recognize behaviors that escalate into full-blown battles, passive or aggressive, and what alternative behaviors might be.

Identifying destructive behaviors

According to Rabbi Ed Friedman, there are eight behaviors that can lead to conflict or dysfunction: Triangulating, over functioning, under functioning, distancing, conflict, sabotage, bullying, and cut off.

Turning these behaviors involves the aforementioned three-step process:

  1. Identification and naming or calling out of behaviors.
  2. Understanding the impact, regardless of intention (assumed or spoken).
  3. Knowing positive alternatives to practice, model and teach.

When working with groups, I begin by asking:

"What images come to mind when you think of Jesus?"

In most participant groups, both clergy and lay, immediate answers have to do with "gentle Jesus meek and mild;" images having to do with love, peace, lambs, and small children. Occasionally, someone will mention the overturning of the tables in the temple.

We then spend a few minutes talking about "what is Christian behavior?" This discussion is foundational to creating an organizational environment where healthy, acceptable behaviors are normative. The goal is for informed, educated leaders in all levels of the organization to pass the model on to others, strengthening the entire system against unhealthy viruses that lead to dis - ease in the organization. All too often the unhealthy behaviors go unnamed and accepted as 'normal:' “That's just Jean!" " He really means well." "It wouldn't be the Christian thing to do to confront them; as Christians we need to accept everyone."

A brief discussion of scripture that show Jesus setting boundaries and naming behaviors that are not acceptable are an important prelude to the next part of the conversation. See John 18:33-37; Matthew 16:23; Matthew 18:15-16.

Defining behavioral impacts and exploring acceptable responses

We next spend time defining and then deconstructing each destructive behavior, (triangulating, over functioning, under functioning, distancing, conflict, sabotage, bullying, and cut off), with the goal of identifying healthy behavior to use in its place.

For each destructive behavior, the group is asked to:

  1. Define the behavior.
  2. Describe where they have seen or experienced the behavior within their system. 
  3. Share an example of when they’ve been drawn into the behavior themselves. 
  4. Describe the impact of the behavior 
  5. Ask themselves if the impact described is the desired impact.

As the facilitator, I remind them that as adults, if they can identify the behavior and know its impact, they have a choice between a dysfunctional, destructive behavior and a healthy behavior. The group then is invited to brainstorm healthy alternatives.

It is important to note that after the "ah- ha" of recognition: Wow! That behavior has a name, and a real impact, and I don't have to accept that behavior, comes the courage to step up, speak out, and teach others how to do so. Leadership groups need to understand and teach others that when they sit quietly, allowing destructive behaviors to continue, it will be assumed that they agree with the behavior. They are unintentionally supporting destructive behavior in their organization.

Some history

A leadership team developed this exercise during a meeting when a congregation was exhibiting several of the above behaviors; behaviors that had long marked life in this particular place. Their participation in the exercise was the beginning of a turnaround. Members recognized themselves in the model and the impact in their congregational life. The next week handmade signs listing the behaviors, impacts, and alternatives started appearing around the building. Naming a behavior became a normal part of congregational life, now that they had identification and vocabulary. Differences still existed in the congregation, but now there was a way to deal with them civility when necessary.

The handmade signs created by St. John's inspired a poster, created by the Leadership Team for all congregations in the diocese.

If you choose to try this new approach to an ongoing process for “getting along in a really strange, big family,” I hope you will download the two images to support your work; a reminder that we can acknowledge our differences, respect those individual ways of being in the world, and live and work together, in God's name.

* Becoming the Transformative Church: Beyond Sacred Cows, Fantasies, and Fears, Kay Collier McLaughlin, Morehouse Publishing, 2013.

Try This

Reflection: Luke 15:11-32, The Prodigal Son **

He came to himself…
  1. What do these words mean in light of this article?
  2. Self awareness: How well am I practicing honesty with and about myself? Do I have a place where it is safe to tell the truth, to name things as I see them?
  3. Other awareness: How much is honesty valued in my community? Is a safe environment and instruction on being honest provided?
  4. Practice: What is one thing I can do to make a difference in the area of honesty in my own life? In the life of my community?

**  Becoming the Transformative Church: Beyond Sacred Cows, Fantasies, and Fears, Kay Collier McLaughlin, Morehouse Publishing, 2013.

Kay Collier McLaughlin, PhD is author of Becoming the Transformative Church: Beyond Sacred Cows, Fantasies and Fears. Further insights on these ideas may be studied in this book. Formerly deputy for leadership levelopment and transition ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, she speaks and consults across the Church ( on transformative leadership and civil dialogue as well as continuing to research and write for her blog and forthcoming books.


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This article is part of the March 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict