Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 3

I have mentioned this very impressive TED talk before, but it bears repeating here due to its direct impact on how we look at conflict. It opens the door to the final step in finding hope in the middle of strained relationships and sticky situations.

Management expert Margaret Heffernan, in a thought-provoking talk given at TED Global 2012, offered a counterintuitive lesson learned during her years running businesses and organizations: that conflict and opposition are essential for good thinking (“Dare to Disagree,” August 2012). Heffernan shared the story of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950’s dared to challenge a key component of prenatal care – the use of x-rays on pregnant women. Her research, which linked childhood cancers to this procedure, was not easily accepted.

Alice Stewart“…for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn’t. … But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” He actively sought disconfirmation – different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators? Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking. So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves.”

To effectively deal with conflict, we need to:

Embrace new behaviors and methods that will help move conflict toward resolution.

The ability to make conflict work FOR us and not against us is one of the most important skills we can learn. The problem is that many of our default methods for handling conflict work directly against this. As pastors and ministry leaders, our tendency can be to believe that simply introducing biblical data into situations of conflict will win the day. And when it doesn’t, we bring more! The likely result is not a healthy resolution to the issue. Scripture needs to inform the process, but a “warriors” approach to its use in conflict will never bring the unity we hope for.

A better approach to conflict may be found in advance preparation. Ken Sande, President of Peacemaker Ministries, offered this insight when asked about putting structures in place to help us navigate difficult situations:

“Right! Do it when everybody’s getting along. Say to your team, “Listen, we may have a falling out some day. If that happens, what will we do? How do we ensure accountability and fairness?” If you wait until you’re in conflict, then anything you suggest will be met with suspicion. Failure to have accountability structures in place before a conflict is the single most frequent issue we deal with in conflicts between leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, people at every level. So put structures in place before a conflict happens.” (Leadership Magazine, 2011)

Rather than avoiding or merely reacting to conflict, we may do well to invite it in.

So where does conflict exist? In the space between people. If we can close that gap in godly ways, then conflict can become the means to new understanding and a more confident ministry. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17

Jesus and conflictJesus used every conflict as an opportunity to advance the kingdom and deepen his disciples’ understanding of their relationship with Him and each other. Not every godly insight or nugget of wisdom I have received has come as the result of light and easy fellowship. Quite a few have risen out of the ashes of very heated conflicts.

A good question we should always ask, especially when faced with opposition from those who see things differently than us, is, “Why shouldn’t we do it this way?”

 

Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 2

In part one of this short series, I talked about the need to be aware that conflict is inevitable in ministry. Another component in finding hope in the midst of conflict is the matter of self-awareness.

baggage claimWe all enter into our walk with Jesus and into our ministry with a baggage claim in hand. Though our guilt and shame is washed away, we still bring with us all of our experiences, character issues, bents in style and behavior – and how we handle conflict is often a result of the baggage we carry. Some of us have learned to resolve conflict in a healthy way, but most of us have not. Conducting some routine self-examination will help us recognize the less than productive ways we approach situations where conflict exists. So, the second key idea to navigating conflict is:

Examine your own styles and the baggage you bring to ministry!

When I sit across the table from a fellow leader in the church, and the dialogue escalates in intensity, when disagreements become deeply entrenched animosities and we are caught in what Eugene Peterson calls the “crosshairs of pastoral expectations,” we often retreat into methods of dealing with conflict that can prove disastrous to finding godly resolution. Here are a few that sound way too familiar to me:

Taking Things Personally (The Defender)

Steven James offers the following advice – dripping with sarcasm –

“If people criticize your work, they are, in essence, attacking you. Criticism of a project you have worked on is a direct assault on your intelligence, personality, and character. As a matter of self-respect, it’s important that you don’t let them get away with that. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you might come across as a pushover. So, show your strength and conviction by defending every idea you have. Rather than “choosing your battles,” remember that if someone criticizes your decisions, actions, or suggestions, they’ve already chosen to attack your personal self-worth. Don’t let them get away with that.” – From Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders – Time-tested practices to ensure complete and utter failure.

PIR uses an assessment tool called PRO-D. The potential for taking things personally is one of the most consistent themes identified by that tool as an area of concern for pastors and exited pastors. It is the dark side of our desire to care deeply about people: the extreme sensitivity to criticism and the tendency to make agreement a matter of personal acceptance.

Avoidance of Conflict (The Peacekeeper)

In his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, David Rohrer identifies the temptations we face when we try to avoid conflict. We default to either “fight or flight.” Fear (flight) can lead us to become the “fixer upper,” the redeemer of all things negative. We can easily confuse peacekeeping with peace making! People pleasing, which is another way to express this, rarely leads to the place where God wants His church to be.

“If avoidance of controversy and maintenance of the appearance of stability are your highest aim then you will never go far in leading people into the truth.”– David Rohrer, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry (IVP), p.117

Passive-Aggressive Behavior (The Controller)

Pastors sometimes feel themselves at the mercy of church boards, key leaders, or influential groups in the church. A desire to feel in control of something, or anything, especially when you feel powerless, can lead to passive-aggressive behaviors.

“Passive Aggressive behavior is the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive, passive way (such as through procrastination and stubbornness).” http://www.outofthefog.net

Resentment and anger, like so many other strong emotions, will eventually leak out no matter how hard we try to bury them. They may find their way out through Withdrawal (deliberate procrastination or unwillingness to contribute), the Silent Treatment (making yourself generally “unavailable”), Off-line Criticism (trying to influence opinion through gossip), Sarcasm (targeted humor), and even through Indirect Violence (slamming of doors and kicking the dog).

Winning At All Costs (Narcissism)

According to Rohrer, the “fight” side of avoiding conflict takes on the face of the “warrior.” This requires us to win and establish that we are right. As a result, there can be a slow creep into narcissism – where it’s all about me. Researchers are beginning to see a growing trend in our culture toward narcissism and pastors are not exempt.

“Imagine a person who does what he wants, regardless of how it affects other people. He refuses to take responsibility for his own mistakes, and he believes he’s unbeatable at anything he undertakes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Sounds like a textbook narcissist, right? Well, these days, it also sounds a lot like the United States. Narcissism is on the rise in the U.S. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better…” –United States of Narcissism Newsweek (7/17/2011)

feedbackIt may be time to take stock, and get some good, honest feedback about how you engage with conflict. Is your style of handling conflict an obstacle to finding godly resolution? Is it putting you at risk for an exit? Being aware of the way you deal with conflict is not just helpful – it’s a vital examination for anyone wanting to have a healthy ministry.