Struggling with conflict? Let the church help


OK, the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being cynical, but am pointing to the deep irony and failure of a Christian community called to reconciliation by the grace of God at the same time being a place of division, conflict, unforgiveness and hardness of heart.

A friend of mine, Joe Campbell, last year researched and delivered a report to the General Board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland related to conflict. It’s a public document which can be found here if you dig a bit (p.37 on).  In it Joe talks of the need for honesty and transparency around conflict, so it seems appropriate to talk about it here.

It’s a hard-hitting self-appraisal. Christians need to admit that conflict is endemic within church life and that it is nearly always handled poorly. Too many people I know have been hurt by the fall-out of conflict in church life to ignore the reality.

Some points that stand out to me:

1.Causes of conflict

60 cases of conflict were reviewed that had been referred to a formal conciliation process. (Far more conflict situations are handled locally and others end up in the formal judicial courts of the church). There were a variety of factors that had caused conflict in the 60 cases:

–   35 cases reflected tensions between a minister and some elders. All of these cases had been going on for a long time

– some involved conflict over church property decisions

– some involved mental health issues

– some involved individuals or families within a church congregation

NOT ONE involved points of theology. ALL of them revolved around breakdown in vital relationships

 2. Insights gained from Mediators

Joe talked with those involved in conciliation. Some points highlighted included:

Conflict seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. There is an enormous human cost to badly handled conflicts within Congregations. Spouses and children feel and see the effects’

“Mediators uncovered an attitude within our Church of confrontation, an unforgiving spirit and at times a deep desire among disputants to have their case heard by Commission of Presbytery or Judicial Commission. It seems we are a people more comfortable with rules than relationships.

3. Insights gained from interviewees

He also talked with people in churches. Again some comments that stand out to me:

– Treating conflict in a formal way early on was a typical response via rules and regulations

– None of those interviewed reported on any healthy supportive pastoral support for Ministers or Elders during tense times.

– The church’s systems for handling conflict “seem hidden to most members, overly bureaucratic, involving carefully written submissions even at an early stage of a process, and takes a long time. Several who have experienced commissions spoke of how they are just not user friendly, law based not relational.”

And the strongest finding I think was this one:

 “It seems clear from everyone I spoke to that conflict is viewed as  wrong, even sinful. It is kept hidden, sometimes ignored, spoken of in hushed tones, and too often leaves people feeling helpless, sometimes angry. Some try to spiritualise conflict seeing it as an attack from the forces of evil. A situation where victory must be experienced at all costs since God is on “my” side. We need somehow to see conflict as normal, since God in His great wisdom has made us all different. How we handle it will make it a bad and negative experience or a good and positive one. The establishment of a good and functioning service to help us handle conflict well, should be seen as a sign of health in our Church, rather than the dominant view as sickness. There were no positive experiences spoken, of conflict being handled well, producing change, new growth, more real relationships, and a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.

No positive experiences of conflict – at all – in a national denomination that exists to follow Jesus who happens to have rather a lot to say about love, giving up of rights and forgiveness.

Joe concludes with what is probably an understatement:

It seems clear that we as a Church need to recapture the attitude and skills obvious in several Biblical models of talking, listening, searching for solutions, praying together, and above all loving, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The report then makes many practical and wise recommendations in light of its serious findings which I hope are ‘owned’ and acted upon with intent.

Some personal comments and questions for discussion if you would like to join in:

– The report is in a context of a historic denomination that has accumulated lots of rules and bureaucracy over centuries. The comments about rules before relationships is fascinating and makes me wonder about the impact of Protestantism’s dominant judicial and abstract understanding of the atonement – but  better leave that for another day.

– Its findings are not surprising – but that in itself is scant comfort. They are shocking – or should be. Christians above all, should be best equipped to handle conflict in a transformative way – yet the complete opposite often appears to be the case. (But it should be said here that untold numbers of acts of grace and forgiveness that lead to healing are by definition ‘invisible’ – we only see the visible damage caused by relational breakdown).

– What do you think lies behind this evident failure to match faith with practice?: to fail to apply and live out the gospel of reconciliation in our relationships?

What are your reflections on church conflict and how it is dealt with?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on the strange and wonderful thing called life

I had a ‘significant’ birthday recently. Of course, one day is like another and so such milestones are artificial. But milestones have a very useful function – or at least they did when we measured distance in miles and when people went on long journeys by foot or horse and actually took note of the numbers on a stone by the side of the road. Those numbers told you where you were on the journey; how far you’d come, how far yet to go.

A birthday milestone tells you how far you’ve come, but nothing of course about how far you have to go …!

Anyway, at a serious risk of cliché, life indeed is like a journey.  I was going to use the analogy of a train that keeps going and you can’t get off. But that sounded too much like a prison and who wants to spend their life trapped by Irish Rail?

A pilgrimage is the classic way Christians have viewed this strange and wonderful affair we call life. For a pilgrimage is a journey with a destination at the end. There is a discipline and focus to a pilgrimage. It has a clear goal. And that goal is to shape how life is lived in the here and now.

C. S Lewis said that it was Christians who were the most heavenly minded that were of the most earthly use – I think he’s dead right.

If the purpose of the Christian life is future-orientated and relational – one day no longer ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ but seeing God ‘face to face’ – then how we live now, what we do with our lives, how we spend our days, time and money, will all be shaped by preparing for that future. It is lived with a very conscious awareness that ‘life now’ is NOT an end in itself. Yes, it will come to an end, but much more significant is what lies beyond the end. This is why Paul could talk of persecution and possible violent death in terms of ‘our light and momentary troubles’ (see 2 Cor 4 as a whole).

This is of course completely nuts within a western consumer culture that has its goal pleasure, wealth, comfort, convenience and limitless choice.

The author of Hebrews and Paul both use the image of a race for the Christian life for good reason. To run a race you need training, discipline, perseverance and focus. I’m trying to prepare for a 10K run in May and it is hard going for I have not enough of any of those things!

Acts 20:24 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Gal. 5:7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us

Since these are musings, I wonder if Christianity in the West is in such bad shape because it is terminally distracted from running the race? Or  even forgetting that we are even in a race? Has the idea of pilgrimage / race been eclipsed in modern church life? Are we more like tourists rather than athletes or pilgrims?: wandering around, taking in the sights, enjoying all the experiences life has to offer but not really getting anywhere?

In other words, I wonder if we have lost the New Testament’s overwhelming eschatological focus?

But on a more positive note: God’s grace is deep, he picks us up when tired and weary and lost. He forgives us our idolatry and pursuit of created temporary things. He gives us his Spirit to guide and empower along the way.

And we don’t run alone. By far the most enjoyable thing about my birthday was that it was spent celebrating with others. We need company along the road – to encourage and be encouraged to keep pressing on til the end.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A delightful Jewish parable

In Deuteronomy  24:19 it says

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Someone kindly pointed me to a Jewish parable, probably from around the time of Jesus, about this verse. Here it is:

A certain pious man [hasid] forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.”

For if we obeyed this deliberately before the Lord, we would not be fulfilling the command. He said to him: It says, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” [Deut.24.19]. Scripture thereby sets out a blessing.

What is interesting about this delightful story is how it sheds light on the motive for Jewish keeping of the law.

Often Christians have caricatured Judaism as being a legalistic form of works-righteousness, coupled with a rather grim sense of desperately trying to do enough good works to appease a forbidding, harsh and rather impersonal God who is busy weighing the scales of good works versus bad.

This parable tells a different story.

This was the only law that could only be fulfilled accidently. It could not be planned for; action could only follow forgetfulness! See how this Jewish man is therefore overjoyed that his bad memory has given him an unexpected opportunity to fulfil this law.

And, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an outrageous result. His offering of two bullocks was ‘way over the top’ in terms of cost. This sense of wild exaggeration is making a serious point to the listeners; Yes the law is to be obeyed in every area of life, but it is a joy and delight to obey the law.

The parable does not talk about fear as a motive for obedience. Rather, the motive for obedience is joy – the sheer joy of pleasing God and doing his will. This is obedience out of love and relationship. The parable is celebrating an unplanned and unexpected opportunity to obey another law.

How does this fit with your view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day?

Comments, as ever, welcome.  

The greatest story

Last week a university student union invited me to give a talk on how Jesus, the OT and the NT fit together.

I used this outline:

1. What is the Bible about? 

An all-encompassing story – from Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Spirit & Church – to our place in the story and looking forward to the END of the story (new creation)

2. What is the NT?

Here’s a suggested definition

a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Every NT writer is doing this in one way or another. Examples from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul in Romans .. etc etc

3. Who is Jesus?

The promised Messiah in whom God fulfils his promises to Israel and accomplishes his plans for the redemption of the world.  He is the one around whom the whole story revolves. To understand the OT as Christian scripture, you start with Jesus and re-read the reconfigured story. The NT does this in hundreds of ways -the diagram is a quick sketch of some examples. Most significantly, Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH himself come to his people to redeem his world.

Jesus and the OT

4. What difference does this make?

Someone (rightly) said I didn’t earth this practically enough. So here’s another go:

Being a Christian is much more (but not less than) believing truth – it is faith in a person; being ‘in Christ’ who is the resurrected and living Lord.

This gives believers:

A new identity – the old ‘I’ is gone, the new creation has come.

A new purpose – ‘my’ story finds meaning within God’s story in Christ

A new community – my story is lived with others who are in Christ

A new hope – the story is not over yet.

Such profound identity change costs everything – it is a complete re-orientation of the self, of life, of values to live by, of meaning and of purpose. It is, in other words, a radical decision to join one’s life to one true story; the greatest story of all.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Posts on Patrick

Happy St Patrick’s Day to one and all

I’ve done a few posts on Patrick in the last 4 years of blogging. Here are some links if you’d like to spend some time with the great man on his day.

Patrick, Paul and God’s Unlikely Choices 

Patrick and Paul

20 thoughts on St Patrick and the rare virtue of humility within contemporary evangelicalism

Will the real St Patrick please stand up?

I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman

And for an excellent site with Patrick’s own writings see here

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This Wes Anderson film is a joy. Not only was I taken out by my two daughters (who are huge fans and wanted an excuse to see it again); it was full of fun, absurdity, wit, style and a sneaky amount of poignant substance that catches you unawares and leaves you with a sense of loss at the brevity of life. This is a flashback story of a mythical golden age gone for ever – along with characters you care about and who inhabited it with such verve, humour and courage.

Visually it is entrancing and creative, intermingling miniatures and ‘real life’ sets, all beautifully constructed to the finest detail – like Fiennes’ acting in fact. He is marvellous as M. Gustave, the impeccable, solitary and outrageously promiscuous concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its splendid heyday in the fictional state of Zubrowka. His Lobby Boy, Tony Revolori, is dead-pan excellent and his later self played by F Murray Abraham, is shrouded in both melancholy and sweet memories.

Familiar Anderson faithfuls appear one after another – Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, supplemented by a wildly over-the-top thug in Willem Defoe, a lonely Jude Law, and batty Tilda Swinton, a punctilious Jeff Goldblum, a bizarre Harvey Keitel and Saoirse Ronan speaking in a glorious Carlow accent. You could imaging all of them having a ball behind the scenes.

The amusing plot is simply a vehicle for the caper to begin. Can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but jump on board and see where it takes you.


staying low key

Two self-effacing comments I came across today from wildly different Christian public figures:

The late and great Johnny Cash in Cash the Autobiography on graduating from a Bible correspondence course

I learned just enough to understand that I knew almost nothing














N T Wright on his monumental 1658 page Paul and the Faithfulness of God, the fruit of a lifetime’s study, much of it in dialogue with his friend Richard Hays

I see this book as a kind of semi-colon after thirty years of Pauline conversation

That’s some semi-colon.

The god, economy

On the radio this morning:

A discussion on the high cost of childcare in the UK that is seeing increasing numbers of working women having to leave work to look after their children themselves. To paraphrase,

“These women have been upskilled and are now being lost to the economy”

Lost to the all demanding god economy before which we all must bow. Nothing at all said about the benefit of them being with their children; only economic proposals for making it more affordable to be at work and so sustain, and boost, the ‘economy’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.