Graham Cheesman is a friend and colleague and blogs once a month or so at Teaching Theology.
His posts are always worth waiting for; seasoned with grace and wisdom. This one is especially good and offers a practical and challenging framework for facing conflict. Graham’s context is a theological college. but much applies to any Christian organisation or church.
Recall that the report on conflict within churches in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland concluded that ALL the cases reviewed were to do with relational breakdown, not one was about differences of doctrine.
Put differently: in Christian ministry, having a common set of beliefs, a common task, being efficient and productive, reaching goals and targets, being successful in fundraising, growing the church or organisation – none of this, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor 13, is worth much more than a Ryan Air trumpeted celebration for landing on time if there are not loving relationships at the core of all the activity.
Those relationships are not secondary to the work, they are the authentication of the work for they show the presence of the Spirit whose fruit they are.
This is why conflict is fundamentally a spiritual issue – for it revolves around issues like forgiveness, repentance, humility, showing grace, considering others better than ourselves, having the maturity to know ourselves with sober judgement, kindness, doing to others as you would have them do to you.
Over to Graham:
Dealing with differences
I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.
People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-
- If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
- If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
- Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
- Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
- Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
- Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
- Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college. Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
- Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
- Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
- Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
- Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
- Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
- Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
- If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
- Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.
There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict. However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.