Regarding ruling elders: managing conflict
Conflict. None of us really like it. The word itself may make us nervous. But conflict is part of life. We experience conflict in communities, national debates, and personal relationships. We experience conflict in our congregations.
John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite layperson and a pioneer in the field of conflict transformation, suggests conflict is woven into the fabric of creation. God creates a vast diverse human family and gives the human creature freedom and the capacity to feel, think , act, and react. In his book, The Journey Toward Reconciliation, Lederach writes, “These elements make our lives rich, ever-renewing, and interesting. They also make conflict a natural part of our relationships” (Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa., 1999, p. 130).
The question is not whether we can avoid conflict in our congregational life. The question is how we will handle the conflict that is a normal part of our life together as followers of Jesus. While congregations experiencing serious conflict are encouraged to contact their presbytery for assistance and guidance, some basic concepts and practices can increase the possibility that the experience of conflict will be enlightening, constructive, and creative: a time in which we discover God’s grace in surprising ways that strengthen Christ’s body.
- Prayer. Pray for each other, for the community, for guidance and wisdom, and for ourselves.
- Mutual Invitation. This process comes from the work of the Reverend Eric H.F. Law. Using Mutual Invitation, one person speaks and the others listen. The speaker then invites a group member to speak next. The process continues until everyone has had the opportunity to speak. Mutual Invitation helps ensure everyone in the group is included, respected, and heard. The use of Mutual Invitation over time helps group members listen and speak more effectively, even in situations where it is not used.
- Ground Rules. Ground rules provide a framework within which a group might interact respectfully. Many congregations have used ground rules created by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Seeking to Be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement.
- Identify the Congregation’s Unwritten Rules. All congregations have unwritten rules that identify what is and is not acceptable. Healthy congregations look at their unwritten rules. They consider how these rules enrich the life of the congregation as a whole. Rules that enhance the congregation’s life are affirmed. The congregation seeks to rewrite unhelpful rules and norms so they become helpful rather than hurtful in the congregation’s life.
- Listen. Listen for understanding. Focus on what is being said rather than on how we might respond. Practice empathy, welcome, and compassion in an effort to hear the experiences, concerns, and commitments of the person to whom we are listening.
- Speak. Speak clearly. Speak for ourselves. Speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Focus on the issue at hand rather than on blaming others or justifying ourselves.
- Look to Ourselves. In conflict, our first instinct is often to ask what is wrong with the other person. Instead consider why we responded to the issue or the statement as we did. What beliefs or values deep within us were touched? Awareness of why we respond allows us to shift our focus from personalities to the causes of disagreement.
- State the Areas of Agreement. We seek common ground for our shared ministry as followers of Christ. A basic communication skill can help us in that effort: stating areas of agreement before identifying where we disagree. The search for common ground shows that, even as we disagree, we are at least as interested in what binds us together as we are in what separates us. Our ways of listening and speaking and working together change as we become as eager to explore our agreements as we are to express our differences.
Jesus teaches his followers how to address conflict in Matthew 18:15–17. Talk directly to one another in times of conflict. If that does not lead to resolution, we are to bring one or two others into the conversation. And if that fails, “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). As John Paul Lederach reminds us, Jesus provides “a view of the church as a place to process and work with conflict, not a place that is free from conflict” (The Journey Toward Reconciliation, p. 130).
Conflict is a part of life; it is a part of the life of the church. By God’s grace and with hard and prayer-filled work, times of conflict can be times of growth and learning on our journey following Jesus. May it be so for you.
For further study, consider using the Peacemaking Program’s resource, To Strengthen Christ’s Body: Tools for Talking about Tough Issues. Order from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Church Store; $5; PDS #2435808001
The Reverend W. Mark Koenig serves as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. Mark previously served with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program; on the staff of the Presbytery of the Western Reserve; and as co-pastor of congregations in Iowa and Ohio.