(This is a guest blog post Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall. Ellen is a board member of JustPeace and an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at Candler School of Theology).
Conflict transformation is something more than conflict management or conflict resolution. The goal of conflict transformation, as Ron Kraybill explains, “is not only to end or prevent something bad but also to begin something new and good. Transformation asserts the belief that conflict can be a catalyst for deep-rooted, enduring, positive change in individuals, relationships, and the structures of the human community.”
The work of conflict transformation is not the work of putting Band-Aids on the wounds of conflict, or responding to conflict like a fire fighter. This work is about a way of life and the transformation of our culture to a culture of justpeace.
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To help leaders move congregations through times of high anxiety, the following are strategies that I have found helpful. This is not a comprehensive list, but several of my own findings that I offer to you.
In congregational life, some common topics activate anxiety. I call these hot buttons or triggers of anxiety. When these topics emerge, anxiety appears and can easily escalate. Although the list is not exhaustive, it highlights some common topics that escalate anxiety in congregations with whom I have worked:
When the anxiety is lower, the congregation has a higher capacity to perceive what is trying to emerge and invite a new narrative. Granted, as anxiety rises, the functioning of people potentially becomes more reactive and conflict can easily follow, for conflict is a way of dealing with anxiety. The anxiety and conflict, when responded to appropriately by leaders, can be the catalyst for creative, adaptive growth and positive change.
Anxiety is like the wind—you cannot see it, but you can feel it and observe its impact. But to observe it, one must pay attention. For example, one cannot see the wind, but if you look at a flag on a flagpole, you can tell if there is wind, and if so, you can estimate its strength. You can feel it against your skin.
If we want to be successful in our efforts to transform our congregations we will never attempt to do it alone, we will set an invitational tone, we will take the time to learn the system, and we will nest our community’s need for change in the sacred stories of our own religious tradition.
This process of conversational leadership is a way of growing, deepening and broadening the container, so the deeper, more important, courageous conversations can happen. The container has to do with its quality, paying attention to the group field; the clarity and interaction of intention and attentiveness, each of which help establish context; to monitor if it is too palpable? As the leader, influencing the quality of the container is our first job and very closely, it is inviting others to share that responsibility with us.
Leading a successful change process in a congregation, even a very traditional one, is possible. But to do so a leader must earn the right to make that change and partner with others to make it happen. Lone ranger leaders who ride into Dodge and transform an entire community exist only in the movies. In the reality of congregational life, we need a patient posse.
If I am to be a builder of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, I must remember to think small: peacebuilding and conflict transformation begins with recovery of peace and transformation in my own soul and with those around me; those nearest to me which cross my path.
As the Lenten journey unfolds, the tensions increase. The anxieties escalate. When Jesus gathers for the Last Supper and shares the cup and the loaf with His closest followers, there is tension in room, conflict in the room. Betrayal and denial are all a part of this Lenten story.