Energy for Change

The meeting agenda gave rise to heated debate. There was discussion and dispute, conflict and criticism. Someone was truculent, someone else pedantic, and there were several examples of head-butting. Agreement was reached on some matters ,while others needed to be put aside for further consideration. Was this a parliamentary subcommittee or a trade union meeting? Not, it was a gathering of leaders in a local church. And the Holy Spirit was there in the midst of the turbulence, helping humans beings, that God has called and equipped to serve him, to come to a conclusion about matters of congregational life.

People looking at the church from the outside - and sometimes too from within - can be surprised that God works in the midst of robust human debate. Perhaps they think that church leaders are so holy they just know the right answer without grappling with it. But that isn't the way God worked in the Scriptures and it isn't the way he usually works today. People like Jeremiah and Paul tell us of their emotional struggles, and for Jacob the wrestling was a deeply physical experience. Councils in the early church debated issues like "Should all Christians follow the Jewish calendar?" and "Can we eat food offered to idols?" as well as the great theological issues like "Was Jesus really a man?" and "Which sacred writings are to be regarded as Scripture?" It seems the Spirit works through the disputes of believers as well as the points of agreement. If it weren't for these debates we would not have helpful writings like the Corinthian correspondence or the Nicene Creed.

It is therefore not surprising that churches sometimes have to manage interpersonal conflicts. Many find it is helpful to design a protocol to guide members and leaders as they work through difficulties. Such a protocol usually begins with some ground rules:
  1. Listen respectfully; one person to speak at a time.
  2. No shouting, putdowns or physical violence.
  3. Listen with curiosity; try to understand others' perspectives even when you don't agree.
  4. Be authentic; own your feelings and deeply-held values. Use I-messages.
  5. Accept that others may have emotions and values that differ from yours.
Such a covenant is aimed at group members experiencing empathy, the ability to appreciate another person's perspective. This aspect of emotional intelligence can be intentionally enhanced; for example, the Canadian evidence-based classroom programme Roots of Empathy has dramatically reduced levels of aggression among school children there. The New Zealand Peace Foundation is currently piloting the programme to raise social/emotional competence in Kiwi primary schools. But adults can benefit from training in interpersonal relationship skills as well. And for followers of Jesus Christ, the servant leadership offered by the Master is a compelling example of authentic empathy.

Our local church is piloting a conflict resolution protocol based on the Christian worldview. It assumes that we are all sinners, and have faults and failings that can get in the way of good communications and healthy relationships, and that Jesus came to forgive those sins and heal those relationships. It begins by acknowledging that conflict can be a good thing, for three reasons:
  • to glorify God - because we must turn to him for wisdom and grace
  • to serve others - because we all need support and compassion at times
  • to refine us - because we all need to become more Christlike
However, it seems to me that an important fourth point has been missed here - to change the situation. Conflict can provide the energy for change. Anger is very often an emotion that works positively, telling us that something is wrong. If you see a stranger kick a dog or back into a car, anger will give you the courage to step in and say, "that's not okay." That energy, that desire to see something change, may be a matter not just for consideration by the individuals involved, but for the wider community. William Wilberforce's anger against slavery energised him for twenty years, until emancipation was finally accomplished.

It is for this reason that I have some nagging concerns about the first stage in our current protocol. We are enjoined to look deep within ourselves - undertake an examen of conscience - and then confess our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. Identifying our own contribution to the conflict and then apologising, without making excuses, is set out as the a priori to further discussion, whether by private dealing or in presence of witnesses - a process taken from Matthew 18. This is said to be the distinctive feature of Christian conflict resolution. Although it is important for us to be self-aware, and humble and teachable, I am not sure if this is the right point in the process for a sincere apology.

There are times when we should apologise without demur. The first is when we are clearly in the wrong; if we have damaged something, or undermined someone, even if we have inconvenienced them by arriving late, we should humbly accept responsibility for our fault. This applies even when the other person is one of our young children; we can model to them the humility to apologise and take reponsibility for our actions, For example, I can remember overreacting and "grounding" our daughter, when she skipped church after a sleepover. Much later, I realised that we had never discussed what she would do about church that day, just assumed she knew our family values. But to her eleven yearold heart, it was a no-brainer; she would stay with her friends. I couldn't go back and change things, but I confessed to her that I had been overly harsh when she didn't really know what was expected.

A second time for apologising is when we are not necessarily in the wrong, but clearly have been misperceived. Sometimes our own temperament, our childhood experiences, or our vocational training can predispose us to seeing things in a certain way. We may be abrupt or silent, we may be demanding or chauvinistic, and these responses may be hurtful to others. If someone explains to me how they felt, and I can empathise with that response and see how it came about that they took it that way, even if that was not how I meant it, I need to apologise. Again this applies as much within the family as it does in the church. One of my children worked out that I never spent as much on his birthday gifts as I did on those for the others, and took it to mean I loved him less. (He may have been right, because his birthday is very close to Christmas). Once he told me how he felt, I needed to apologise for unwittingly making him feel less beloved, and to take more care in managing the birthday finances.

But there is a time when not to apologise, and that is when the demand for an apology is part of a process of coercion by a person who wishes to control or manipulate me, or someone else. This is when careful communication reveals that their perceived hurts are unrealistic, or simply unjust. There are times for an individual or a church leadership group to say, "No, that is enough, what you are demanding is not possible." I read of an example today, where a parent of a high school student was demanding that the school counsellor disclose the subject matter of their discussions with the teen. That is neither legal nor ethical, and it is simply inappropriate with pastoral care of adolescents. This sort of conflict is often about boundaries and responsibility and ethics. Sometimes, sadly, it is about workplace bullying. These situations can occur in a faith community, and whoever is responsible for oversight sometimes just has to say "No, Enough is enough." Matthew's version of the teaching of Jesus outlines a very strong version of such a response, the conclusion to an extended process of communication, and thankfully not one I have ever had to implement. But I have had to say, "you have to relinqish this or that role, because of your intransigence." And that speaking of "the truth in love" has been the healthy response, and the energy to bring about needed change. These are not matters for apology but for finality.

Our conflict resolution protocol doesn't say what to do when things go this far - but perhaps it should.

To Chew Over: How quick are you to apologise? Are you too quick? or too slow? How do you know the difference?

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve known together
of Christ’s love and agony.

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.
Richard Gillard.