While a good number of folks were enjoying a holiday weekend of relaxation around Presidents Day, a few dozen individuals were hard at work in Louisville participating in the seminar, “The Spiritual and Practical Aspects of Negotiation of Church Conflict,” sponsored by the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The seminar, which drew some fifty participants from across the country on February 19-20, 2012, was an introduction to the basic components of a negotiation process – all within the context of a spiritual perspective.

Tony Arnold, professor of law and urban planning at the University of Louisville, and Mary Jo Gleason, adjunct law professor at U of L, walked participants through the process of negotiation – what it is and why it’s done.

“Negotiation is not about manipulation,” said Arnold. “If you’re wanting the other to think like you, it won’t work. Negotiation is coming to an agreement where both parties have gained something.”

Laying a spiritual groundwork

Before addressing the practical steps of negotiation, however, Andrew Black, director of constitutional services for the Office of the General Assembly, laid the groundwork for bringing the spiritual aspect into the realm of negotiation. Doing so, he said, provides an opportunity for living out one’s faith and being the church in a new way.

“How we navigate these challenges [of current conflict within the PC(USA)] will not only say something about our character, but will have significant impact on the long-term health of the body of Christ.”

Black continued, “I have become increasingly aware that in times such as this we cannot simply be a people of great resources and information; we must also be a people of great transformation.”

Few would argue that the PC(USA) currently finds itself in the midst of conflict. Some congregations have expressed displeasure – with a few opting to leave the denomination – over a General Assembly action in 2010 to amend ordination standards, which was ratified by a majority of PC(USA) presbyteries in June 2011. What has ensued in a number of these cases is conflict over church property, centered on whether, or how, a congregation can depart the denomination with its property, even though the PC(USA) Constitution contains a clause that says a congregation’s property is held in trust for the denomination.

But Fred Heuser, director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, reminded participants that disagreements and divisions have been part of American Presbyterianism throughout its history. In his remarks, Heuser said that we tend to have “historical amnesia or historical ignorance” when it comes to church conflicts.

“It seems new to us because we haven’t experienced it before,” Heuser said. “What we’re feeling today is the sum total of what’s been going on over the past 300 years. It builds upon existing tensions since the beginning about biblical authority and interpretation and how to be the church in a rapidly changing world.”

Leaving room for the Spirit

Given that conflict seems to be an element with which Presbyterians contend from generation to generation, how then might we work through it in a healthy way? “Even with the difficult matter of church property, we need to find a way to engage one another that demonstrates our commitment to doing and being church in a new way,” said Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.

Ray Schulte agreed. As a co-director of the Center for Parish Development in Chicago, Schulte suggested that conflict is helpful “when it leads to discernment.” The approach to negotiation is not to come in with “no wiggle room,” but to “leave room for the Spirit.”

“How are we seeing this in the context of doing God’s mission?” asked Schulte. “How do we open ourselves to the gifts of the Spirit? None of us alone has all of them.”

Engaging in negotiation from this perspective is “participating in reconciliation and love for the sake of the world that God loves,” Schulte said.

The seminar, which began with dinner on Sunday evening and ended mid-afternoon on Monday, left no room for leisure. Within a matter of a few hours on Monday, Arnold and Gleason had walked participants through the entire basic outline of the negotiation process, from establishing the relationship to reaching closure. They engaged participants in role-play and fielded numerous questions from the experience.

Throughout the process, Arnold and Gleason emphasized the importance of communication – active listening, paraphrasing, being attentive to nonverbal cues, and more. “The process is as important as the decision,” they said.

Staying grounded

Black could not agree more, adding that if one enters the practical aspects of negotiation having prepared spiritually, the outcome can be even more profound.

“The best thing you can bring to the negotiation table and any situation of conflict is your own transformed self,” said Black. “Stay centered, focused on priorities, remain grounded in listening, and be a voice of reason.”

Commenting on the Scottish Council of Churches message on spirituality, Black continued, “We become human through our relationships – with ourselves, others, creation, and God. Reformed spirituality is first and foremost about being grounded in what holds us in common with one another and grounded in what it means to be human.”

No matter how deep our divisions may be, we must never lose sight of our common humanity.”