I confess it. My innate pattern was – and perhaps still is - to avoid conflict. Don’t fight. Be peaceful. Be nice. Maybe the conflict will go away.
That was my family of origin pattern. Since we oldest three brothers were all three years apart in age, and my youngest brother 9 years younger than I, we could kind of ignore each other, and just walk away if we were upset. I knew it wasn’t wise to cross my older two brothers. My father was an introvert who was known as a quiet behind-the-scenes peacemaker. He seldom spoke out in public, and never raised his voice when he did. Mother, the only extrovert in the family, more inclined to name things, accepted her diminished role as a woman and spoke up only in women’s meetings.
My home church, in my opinion, had a very poor record when it came to conflict resolution. Conflict there was aplenty. The pattern, it seemed to me, was to avoid conflict (though there was lots of gossip). But occasionally there were explosions of anger vented in public. That experience made me very afraid of open conflict. In my mind I still hear how people yelled angrily at each other in a congregational meeting.
I married an extrovert whose family pattern was to engage each other rather forcefully. They seemed to love arguing with each other, challenging each other, stating their opinions and convictions very strongly. And it didn’t break relationships. It seemed to me that their disputes deepened family bonds. Looking in from the outside I admired this capacity to have things out in the open. But it took me a long time to have the courage to enter this kind of give and take. I was a conflict avoider, kind of stuck in that rut, afraid to change long ingrained inner patterns. Gradually, and far too slowly, I learned to enjoy the give and take of having disagreements out in the open and sorting things out face to face – though old patterns of avoidance still tempt me. My family home was more peaceful than was the Neufeld family home. But we buried things inside that should have been uncovered and dealt with.
As an educated pastor I was fully comfortable with rather rigorous academic and scholarly pursuit where Biblical and theological differences were easily challenged and discussed – a bit at arm’s length, I confess. But what about much more personal and emotional conflicts which engaged the heart more than only the mind, when the attack was much more personal than intellectual? Differences of opinion or interpretation or even conviction can be sorted out in one’s mind with rational discussion. But when the dispute has to do with more deeply held personal convictions, or has entered the sphere of emotional intensity, the sorting out is much more challenging.
Gradually (too gradually), I learned that it was freeing to name and to express deeper emotional stress, including anger, within my marriage, and family, and church circle. Much better to have anger out in the open rather than simmering inside. I am not quite a “Neufeld” yet, but I have moved beyond my “Harder” carefulness. When Lydia and I taught our “Church and Ministry” course at Conrad Grebel University College, and when we partnered in doing intentional interim ministry in three different churches, we would hear appreciation for the times we would publicly disagree with each other. And we were listened to when we named and challenged in-appropriate use of power in the churches.
What about conflict, and anger, in the church? Should I as pastor supress it, or engage it? Do I put on my “Harder” hat or my “Neufeld” hat when being a pastor in a church in conflict? My observation is that generally we Mennonites do not have a very good record when dealing with major conflict within the church. It seems to me that there is a culture of avoidance and secrecy in many of our churches. We are afraid of conflict and tend to supress it – until it wants to explode. We want to manage conflict carefully, rather than bring it out into the open to heal the underneath stuff.
When we look at the New Testament church, we notice immediately that huge conflicts were there from the beginning. The really big one, of course, was bringing Gentiles into a church that began with Jewish believers. Acts 15 tells this story and includes a line that I delight in. “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’. And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them…”. A few verses later we read, “After there had been much debate…”. In other words, they faced the conflict head on – and changed the church forever.
The church at Corinth was full of conflict. There were fights between leaders (Ch. 1), there were “worship wars” (Ch. 14), and the communion service itself became a showcase for the rich flaunting their power over the poor (Ch.11). Paul seems to address these conflicts directly and wisely. I really like what he said regarding the substantive issue of how best to worship, which was dividing the church in Corinth between the “charismatics” and the “rationalists”. “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also: I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Wow.
I am not convinced that Paul was equally adept at inter-personal conflict. First, he has quite a row with fellow missionary Barnabas who wanted to take young, inexperienced John Mark with them on a missionary journey. Paul would have none of it. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company” (Acts 15:37-40). And then Paul tears a strip off fellow apostle Peter when they have a difference of opinion. “But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13). Wow again. His style would not be in today’s conflict resolution manuals.
The church will always have its conflicts. I assume that as a given. And since we Mennonites reject having a powerful hierarchy solving our problems for us, we must learn healthy patterns of working at conflict (not bullying, or managing or avoiding, or overpowering, or leaving).
I end with a story that still grips me. The church where I was a pastor was in the throes of a very divisive substantive conflict. There were certainly parts of this story which were very hurtful and unproductive. But one evening was very special. We re-arranged the chairs into a big circle. (we needed a very large circle for this one). Every single person in this large circle was given a mike. Every person was invited to share their deep conviction. You could “pass”, but very few did. People were almost brutally honest. We heard a lot of pain and anger and root convictions. Everyone listened without public judgment. It was, as it were, an invitation to listen deeply into people’s hearts and minds. We didn’t agree with each other that evening. But we heard each other. Deeply. It was very powerful.
Now if my spouse and I would only agree on how we want to plan for the Bible study that we are leading together…