This is my commandment, that you love one another.
The Gospel According to St. John 15:12
What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?
Matthew 16:26 (The Message)
Conflict can be delicious to us in a perverse way. Some people enjoy it. In one congregation with whom I worked, a parishioner described the situation, “Our homeostasis has been to stay in conflict. We are like a boat that has been rocked by the storm for so long that the storm has become our norm. We seem to enjoy it. That is the only way we know to be together and function as a community. We need some calm waters for a period of time.” For some, conflict creates pseudo-relationships with allies against others (triangles); for others it creates excitement; and for others, conflict is the way that they learned to relate from their family of origin. But conflict, when handled poorly, comes at tremendous costs to the parties, congregations and organizations—spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially.
Stuck inside a conflict, we may struggle to tally the costs, or we feel like the justification is worth the cost. But intentional work around tallying the cost can be helpful to the minister/leader, the congregation/organization and the family.
When working with a congregation, soon after entering, I have a conversation with the pastor, especially if he or she is the focus of the conflict. We discuss if he/she is interested in staying if she/he can work through the conflict, or have they paid too much already, and the time to move has come. Often, you can see it in her or his eyes—if the cost has been too great and is taking toll on their souls. Also, I listen and watch for their honesty, both with themselves and with me. If they say they are ready to leave for the pain has been too great, then our conversation becomes, How do we have that conversation with the D.S.? If they want to stay and believe staying is realistic, then our conversation is, How do you lead through the situation in a healthy, mature way? How do they tend to themselves, their family and the congregation in a responsible, I-Thou way that has the greatest potential for helping the minister and congregation deepen and move forward?
This type of conversation happened to me in a church where I was serving years ago. The church was in severe conflict, and I was the focus. I remember sitting at a coffee house with my D.S., who is now a friend. She said, “That situation is getting abusive to you and your family. We need to get you out of there.” I paused and said, “As much as I want out, something in me says, ‘it is not the right thing to do at this time.’ I appreciate your concern, but I think we need to stay.” Something in me wanted to leave, but something deeper knew that in this situation, for me, leaving would not be the better way. I would be running from something, not toward something. She and the cabinet honored my request. My health paid for it, or to use a biblical image, since that ministry, I have walked with a little limp, but I followed what I felt was the right thing to do. In time, the community became a healthier place and in the years that followed moved from a place of challenge and pain to one filled with deep friendships, soulful creativity and life-giving ministries. For me, in that situation, it was the right decision, while it might not have been the right decision for everyone. As ministers, we have to heed not only the level of difficulty and the cost, but also God’s voice in the decision—what is the right/best thing to do.
A simple exercise with each party or group, privately, can help them/us quickly see that the costs may have spiraled out of control. When I do interventions with congregations, I spend time alone with the clergy person and other appropriate leadership exploring the questions below. What is the cost?
Exercise: Here are some questions as you think about the costs:
- How much time are you spending thinking about the conflict or the people in the conflict? (Some research has said that we spend on the average 25% to 30% of our time on conflict. My suspicion is that in these anxious times, that percentage might be even higher.)
- What has been the emotional and spiritual toll of the conflict? Has it affected your health? Your happiness? Your wellbeing? The way you see and relate to people and the congregation?
- What is the cost of the conflict to other significant people in your life? Your family? Your friends? Your co-workers? Your employer, the Conference, or relationships with other members of the congregation or in the larger community?
- Has the conflict affected your ability to have peace of mind?
- Has it taken a financial toll? What costs have been associated with the conflict?
- How is the experience of the conflict informing your image of God or the feelings of God’s absence/hiddenness? How is it influencing your understanding of the congregation/church/world?
- What are you learning from the situation in which you find yourself? What might God being saying to you through it? What changes do you need to make?
Assess Your Costs of Unhealthy Behavior, Conflict and Anxiety in Congregations or the work place:
- Wasted Time
- Lost Energy
- Lost Opportunity
- Wasted Money
- Turnover with staff, volunteers, visitors and members
- Cost emotionally, physically and spirituality
- Other Costs
- Total Annualized Cost
What if you were able to recover 50% of that? What about 10% of that?
Agree or disagree, we invite you into the conversation!
(Note: Not all conflict is negative. Conflict, when handled in a healthy way, leads to deepening community, transformation and positive change. When handled in an unhealthy manner, it leads to deep wounds, trauma and destruction. Costly conflict is a way of talking about conflict dealt with in an unhealthy or immature way.)
The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow human being is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say.