Navigating conflict with a healthy attitude can enable church communities to be a place where all can grow and flourish.
Some years ago, a consultation took place on upgrading our local church building. A proposed architectural plan was put on the communal notice board and people were invited to comment before a final agreement was made.
It gave rise to a huge amount of discussion and disagreement, (and a signed petition by some sent to the clergy). The whole project was put on hold – some left the church and went elsewhere; it all became a moot point.
What was happening and why?
The way we relate to each other and the ordinary ways we allow challenging patterns of behaviour to grow within our church communities means conflict becomes a feature of our culture.
It is more often noticed when serious issues arise – practical, theological, and systemic that focus our attention. At these times, challenging patterns of behaviour (and attitudes) then become acute and can derail a process and positive outcome.
Conflict is natural
Conflict is a natural part of life, though many of us tend to fear it, turn away from it, or even create it. Conflict is a sign of diversity and when the energy and creativeness of difference (whether in ways of doing things, opinions, theology, worldview etc.) is harnessed and managed well, it can be a great source of good for positive change and growth.
Layered onto our varying approaches to conflict and styles of dealing with it, is the context and relationships involved. Conflict in the secular realm is part and parcel of life (we only have to look at politics, reality TV, or our own families).
Dealing with conflict (and challenging behaviours) in a church context seems a bit different. We tend to think it shouldn’t happen, and people should be ‘nice’ and everyone should get along.
So, we may find we tolerate more – with phrases such as ‘oh, she’s always a bit sharp, but she’s lovely really’ or ‘he always gets his own way at a committee meeting and nobody else gets a look in, but he does get things done.’
Such examples lead to resentment and pain, where others feel ‘less’ and voiceless. Over time, such behaviour becomes acceptable and certain ‘ways of doing things round here’ becomes the cultural norm.
Jesus didn’t shy away from conflict
So how can we hold good relationships and live well with differences in church that reflect our Christian values?
Jesus didn’t shy away from conflict, and he never diminished the other person in doing so. How can we mirror that practice of communicating with compassion for self and the other person, which helps them grow in the image and likeness of God and helps us grow in the image and likeness of God too?
How can I approach the person who is a bit sharp, or the one who dominates meetings, to try and have healthier conversations and relationships with them?
Do I want to invest the time and energy to do so for the greater good? Do the structure, systems, culture of our church enable me to do so, or will I be out on a limb?
At Place for Hope we have ‘agreed ways of working’ (see the diagram below) based on our values. These ways of working allow conversations (even tricky ones) to be held within parameters that encourage healthy dialogue and can be used to remind ourselves and others of how we agreed to hold the discussion if things start to get out of hand.
Be a non-anxious presence
Place for Hope encourages people to be a ‘non-anxious presence’ in the face of challenging behaviour. The ability to be able to pause at those moments, take a breath, and choose our words and behaviour that will consciously help de-escalate tensions, rather than escalate them.
To not react in such moments out of fear or anger but rather to act out of love (wanting the best for all parties). That does not mean accepting poor behaviour, but rather naming it, acknowledging the emotions underpinning it, but always seeking to encourage a positive way forward.
Nurturing and supporting more people to practice this skill, and navigating conflict with a healthy attitude can enable church communities to be a place where all can grow and flourish.
Martina Hunt, Place for Hope
Place for Hope accompanies and equips people and faith communities to navigate conflict well in ministry and community.