March 2016

Overcome Being Conflict Averse

When my children were younger their pediatrician would ask them at their annual check-ups, “what color is your bike helmet?’ Not “do you have a bike helmet?”

After my kids answered the question, he’d turn to me and say that kids know the right answer to the second question is yes, even if they don’t have one. But that the first question gets more consistently at the truth.

In a similar way, when I am coaching search committees in the call process for a new rector, I encourage them to not ask a generic question about conflict but to get specific. “Tell me about a time when conflict led to positive change in your ministry.” Or “tell me about a time when a conflict you were involved in did not lead to reconciliation – and what did you learn from that?” We learn, after all, not only from those accomplishments that delight and satisfy us, but also from those “disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God alone.” (See Book of Common Prayer pg. 836)

Too many clergy confide in me, at least privately, that they are conflict averse. They know, of course, that this is not the right answer in an interview, but there are deeply ingrained behaviors in most Christian congregations that confuse being “nice” with Christian fidelity. This too often keeps us from “leaning in” to conflict and this is a problem. We need to work together – clergy and laity – to change those behaviors.

Recently I led a workshop at our Diocesan Parish Leadership Day on conflict, using a case study where conflict escalates for all the usual reasons that it does in real-life congregations. Those early signs of dissent are ignored, rather than engaged. There is poor communication in all directions. There is a sense of “urgency” in moments where process (and prayer) matter, and slowing down a bit (NOT stopping) would actually get to the end much faster.

It all begins innocently enough: with a desire to do good and initiate a positive change toward inclusivity. Who is against that? No one, of course, until you actually introduce some new hymns or change the liturgy or make any other number of changes that will inevitably meet with some resistance. Sadly, like too many real-life situations, the case study ends with staff and vestry on the verge of resigning and a bewildered priest asking, “where is God in all of this?”

At any given point in the case study, however, there are choices that can be made that might lead to a different result if people were not so conflict averse. Choices that, if made, could lead to positive change. It’s similar, I think, to what we’ve grown accustomed to hearing when we travel through airports: if you see something, say something. At some point, conflict that is not dealt with will escalate to the point of no return; the kind of conflict that too often leads to the dissolution of pastoral relationships. This, of course, is what conflict-averse people fear: that worst-case scenario. But ironically we add fuel to the fire by avoiding (sometimes at all costs) the steps we might take along the way that may potentially lead to deeper intimacy, healing, and reconciliation. So when we see something we must say something.

What does that look like? I wonder what would happen if a vestry or congregation began by collecting “good news” stories of conflicts that led to a deeper level of trust and fidelity. In our most intimate relationships, there is no way to avoid fighting. But we can learn (at least in healthy relationships) to fight fair. This, of course, takes practice. And since we won’t always get it right, it takes forgiveness. But alas, practice and forgiveness have a lot more to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ than being nice does!

This is the kind of love the world needs to see modeled by the Church – not a community where everyone is always holding hands, but a community that fearlessly leans into conflict as a gift, trusting in God’s mercy every step of the way. It seems to me that the two biggest first steps we can take are to get clearer about the mission and to acknowledge the challenges around who has power and authority in the system. Too often I see leaders (usually clergy) who are either too timid to do anything that might lead to conflict OR who think they have more authority than they really do. Even when the canons may be on their side, leadership is about bringing people along – not issuing edicts. When we are clear about what the work is, we can begin to focus on the deeper questions. Together.

When we ask “where is God in the midst of this fight?” we need to stay with that question long enough to hear one another. This is about more than trying to create win-win situations or avoiding lose-lose situations. In my experience it’s about a kind of radical hospitality that requires listening to each other and to God. I’ll share an example.

For many years I served a parish that fought about music styles. When it came time for me to finish a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) Project I focused on (so-called) secular music that people listened to that brought them closer to God, music that touched their souls. We were a diverse group. Some of us liked country music and some of us liked classical music and some of us liked rock and roll. Although people can be judgmental from any of these places and few people like all kinds of music the same, the key to the project was focused on listening for the “why?” questions. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan – but the question is not ultimately about whether or not I can convince other people how great Bruce is – but why it is that his poetry and music touch a place deep within me, what it is that makes a song like “The Rising,” dare I say, sacred.

My DMin project didn’t end the “fights” about church music. People have different tastes. But I think it contributed to a deeper understanding of one another and clearly this is part of the invitation that conflict offers to us; a deeper sense of trust and intimacy on the other side.

I am convinced that finding healthier ways of to deal with conflict is a big part of the work that God has given the Church to do in a polarized society and that doing so holds within it the potential to rebuild Christ’s Church. The fruits are the same as they were in those conflicted congregations in first-century Corinth where Paul counseled faith, hope, and love – but especially love.

Try This   

How might we train ourselves to be less conflict averse? Perhaps, as Rich suggests by collecting “good news” stories of conflicts that led to deeper levels of trust and fidelity. You might start by taking a look back – in the life of your church or perhaps another group you are involved with. Are there any “good news” stories there?

Plan time at a meeting to talk about – and dissect – these stories. Revisit what happened. If you could go back in time, what parts of the process would you do differently and why? What behaviors would you like to lift up as an example of the kind of loving behavior the world needs to see modeled by the Church – not a community where everyone is always holding hands, but a community that fearlessly leans into conflict as a gift, trusting in God’s mercy every step of the way. What steps could you take to help your congregation feel more comfortable about ‘leaning into conflict as a gift?’

Richard Simpson is an Episcopal priest and Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. His ministry is to support clergy and congregations toward the larger goal of furthering God’s Reign of mercy, compassion, and hope. Rich writes a blog on contemporary faith called Rich’s Ruminations.


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