(Ephesians 4:3 NIV)
How can this dream of the BGCT embracing conflict in a positive healthy way become a practical reality? If it was as easy as it sounds why has our convention splintered and over one thousand churches left our ranks? Doesn’t Fundamentalism by its very nature draw lines in the sand that fragment our fellowship? Does fighting Fundamentalism and its advance practically promise two camps in our extended family?
Granted, I have a tendency to have a “Pollyanna” view of tomorrow. I realize this effort is God-sized, but as Paul says “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.” So what do we need to do in a practical sense to “make every effort” to embrace our conflicts?
- Dissect Conflict
In order to understand conflict, one must be willing to dissect it and get to the heart of the matter. Religious conflicts can often be traced according to Robert Dale to “two broad categories, facts and feelings.” These facts and feelings create the tension or “anxiety” the organization experiences in its ranks. This “anxiety” does not have to be harmful in fact if properly channeled these feelings can lead to change and health.
Often facts and feelings lead to what Phillip V. Lewis in Transformational Leadership defines as a “party spirit” which can divide a fellowship into factions. Typically this “divisiveness” can be traced back to a “small core of people” who do not realize they are working to “destroy something rather than build it up” according to Thom Rainer in Eating the Elephant. Often these groups meet in small secret gatherings which according to Peter Steinke(How Your Church Family Works) which seldom seek the “welfare of the whole community.” In fact, he notes it is “the secrecy itself, not the content of the secrets, that is harmful.”
Robert Moeller in Healing Conflict in the Church speaks of these small groups and their agendas noting that what he calls “rump groups” have three basic rules:
a. Share information no one else in the room has any right to know.
b. Discuss details that can’t be immediately verified or denied by anyone else in the room.
c. Reveal just enough facts to leave a questionable impression of another person’s character.
It seems to me Moeller has been reading pages out of our Baptist playbook!
Another key factor to negatively handling conflict is when people talk about each other rather than talking to each other when a problem arises. This is called “triangling” in systems theory, and it goes directly in opposition to Jesus’ challenge to His followers to go to your brother face to face or person to person when a conflict arises.
Too often we make conflict “personal” rather than focusing on the actual “problem” or issue needing to be addressed. When we dissect a conflict we need to focus on the issues and solutions rather than people and parties.
- Channel Conflict toward Growth
In times of conflict the response of leadership is critical. If the leaders function responsibly as what Edwin Friedman calls “a non anxious presence” the system will remain relatively calm and will be able to process the conflict toward growth. Norman Shawchuck has noted a wide variety of ways leaders react to conflict. Some leaders avoid conflict like a “turtle” sticking its head in its shell, others accommodate conflict much like a “teddy bear”. Other leaders seek to collaborate much like an “owl”, while others compromise like a “fox”. Aggressive leaders many times compete to win in conflict like a “shark”. How the leadership responds often makes all the difference in the world.
Philip Lewis notes the healthiest way to address conflict is to “approach it head on, face to face, with the individual or individuals involved”. Conflicts must be faced head on and resolved if growth and vitality are to result. When conflicts are proactively address it protects the organization from the dangers of what Robert Dale in To Dream Again calls “gunnysacking” which happens when a group “suppresses conflicts” and stores them up much a stock pile of weapons that could lead to a “major explosion” leaving brokenness and deep division when the smoke clears. Dale notes of churches that stable congregations “have frequent, but smaller conflicts”.
A wise leader embraces conflict head on and works toward “win/win” solutions by helping people find common ground in the midst of conflict, and by helping them discover creative ways to work toward resolution and possibly synergy. Resolved conflicts often become the foundation of a bright future together like you see unfolding on the pages of Acts.
So the next time you read of conflict on the pages of the Baptist Standard or on the scene of your computer as you read a blog don’t throw up your hands in frustration, but embrace conflict as an opportunity for us to get to know each other better and a great chance for us to learn how to work together better in the days ahead. Remember “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit!”