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.