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Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration
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Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration

by Norma Cook Everist

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You love your work. You love the people--most of the time. They respect you, most of the time. You work together with colleagues, staff, and laity, with energy and enthusiasm, most of the time. But then something goes wrong: a word spoken in anger, a misunderstanding, and things turn sour. What do you do? How do you deal with conflict, whether it be long or


You love your work. You love the people--most of the time. They respect you, most of the time. You work together with colleagues, staff, and laity, with energy and enthusiasm, most of the time. But then something goes wrong: a word spoken in anger, a misunderstanding, and things turn sour. What do you do? How do you deal with conflict, whether it be long or short-term, low or high intensity?

Conflict is a part of the human predicament, yet it need not define or control your ministry. This book is designed to help the reader ask certain key questions about the nature and scope of the conflict they are experiencing and, based on the answers to those questions, move beyond conflict. The author lays out the variety of responses to conflict, running the gamut from avoidance to accommodation to compromise to collaboration.

Written with the real needs of congregations in mind, this book will serve as a reliable guide to all who wish to move through conflict into a more effective and authentic fulfillment of their calling.

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Church Conflict

From Contention to Collaboration

By Norma Cook Everist

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-03801-5


Images of Conflict

Conflict! Is it a mess? An adventure? A maze you cannot find your way through? In the face of conflict do you feel a surge of energy? A knot in the stomach? Exhausted?

Each of us has our own image of conflict that can be expressed in a word, a phrase, or shown as an object. Our purpose is to uncover and to explore those unnamed yet very present images so that we can better understand ourselves and our reactions to conflict. In beginning to identify our different images of conflict—perhaps yours is an invigorating sport while mine is a bottomless pit—we can see why we have such different feelings about it and different ways of addressing it. That is at least a beginning of moving from contention toward collaboration.

How did our ideas about conflict come into being? Partly through our own personality; partly through our family of origin, including birth order; and certainly by our experiences with conflict and the roles we play in conflict at various stages of our lives. We will take time to reflect on our own personal experiences with conflict in chapter 4, but it is not too soon to begin to take note of past experiences of conflict as they flash into our minds. The culture and times in which we live also form us and shape our views of conflict. For example, some Asian cultures emphasize addressing one another with respectful formality, even when parties disagree, to help the other "save face," whereas newscasters in the United States seek viewers' attention through a lead sentence such as "They came out swinging," even when a public meeting was calm and respectful.

Our religious beliefs about conflict determine how we approach conflict. Do we believe in evolution of the human species according to the survival of the fittest? If so, the contentiousness of competition is perfectly natural, even necessary, for human survival. Do we believe in a God who punishes people who are not "nice"? If so, we may avoid church conflict. Do we believe in a God who is capricious? If so, we can never know if this God will be angry or merciful. What do we believe about God? How do our beliefs about God shape our approach to conflict and to collaboration? And what do we believe about the church? That it is a place of "nice" people? Then conflict itself might be seen as "unchristian." It is a place of redeemed sinful human beings? Then conflict will be a constant—and God's forgiving grace more constant still.

Conflict: An Image, an Action, a Word

What does conflict mean to you? How does it feel? A group of adults gathered to explore their own understanding of conflict. Listen to the images they shared:

Alan: Conflict to me seems like a cancer. It's not always visible, not always painful in the moment, but it is there systemically, and it can grow.

Bill (holding up a drawing made by a three-year-old child): I see conflict as a mass of emotions, each line being a potential response. I don't know which one to take, where it will lead, or if it can be untangled.

Rose also brought a picture along to the group. Holding up The Ultimate Kitchen Guide, she showed a photo of a shiny aluminum pot filled to overflowing with utensils: a spatula, whip, mixer, small bowl, measuring cups, spoons, and a timer. Conflict reminds me of this picture: chaos, a lot of things, but being unable to put them to good use. Craziness!

Ray: I see a dog and a cat fighting. It's hair-raising!

John: For me, conflict has a sharper edge, like a gritty stone in one's shoe.

Marie: My image is similar, like sand caught in your sneaker. Sometimes it's so fine it sticks to you and you can't get rid of it.

Annika: I thought of my congregation just a few days ago. A heated discussion about an issue over which the congregation is deeply divided went on for four and a half hours. My image is of the black hole that our sanctuary became.

Beth: I don't see a black hole at all. I picture a Picasso painting with heads severed from the rest of the body. Or maybe one could see it as Shiva, the Hindu God in whom one sees both destruction and creation. I also think of comic images of Batman's power of encounter with evil: "Wham! Bang!"

The group laughed, pondering the cultural range of those images and then continued.

Francis: I just came from a congregation dealing with conflict through having to answer to authority. Conflict in that situation had more the flavor of a legal battle in a courtroom.

Steve took his turn and stood up, then folded his arms tightly across his chest as if keeping himself in and others out. He just stood there without a word.

Jessie picked up the conversation as Steve sat down: Sometimes it can get pretty rough in a congregation. However, I see conflict in a more neutral light. Conflict is not clearly good or bad. I picture a coin with "avoidance" on one side and "confrontation" on the other. You can flip the coin to either side.

Eileen: I wish I could think of conflict as neutral. I keep feeling afraid. I hear shouting and think about feeling helpless and not being able to think or do anything.

The group sat quietly for a few moments, realizing that for some people, past experience clouds any positive image of conflict. Conflict has been associated with abuse. And then a caring woman picked up the conversation.

Katie empathized with the pain of conflict: I think of a knotted rope, like knots in one's stomach—or like a challenge to untangle.

Darin: Conflict can be very trying. My congregation is in a very unpleasant time. I'm trying to see this time as an opportunity, but it's difficult. I'm trying to connect with other people so I don't feel out there by myself. I see some brightness and some darkness and they seem to be competing forces. There are rays of hope and light. I try to walk in the light.

Hannah added one final image: I picture a group of islands with people on each one. The islands are close enough for bridges to be built between them but they have not been built, so each person is alone and wondering why they are alone.

Living Together with Different Images

Images—some would say metaphors—of conflict provide us with insight about ourselves and one another, how we welcome or avoid conflict, and how each of us engages the conflict process. If we are not aware of our images of conflict, we will not understand how we use it in relationships. Our misunderstandings will multiply. What is conflict for you?

How can we engage in conflict if people don't have the same view? We simply won't all have the same view! The goal is not to understand conflict the same way, but to understand just how differently we perceive conflict. Even though some people may resist working on the conflict and the journey ahead may be difficult, exploring the variety of different images with which we work provides a beginning.

Example: A congregation is in the midst of a conflict over retaining personnel. Finances dictate cutbacks. There are personal loyalties, mission goals, and a myriad of other issues involved. People's working definition of conflict shows in the comments about the situation: "This issue is going to consume us" (Alan's view of conflict as a "cancer"). "It's irritating to have to keep going through this" (John and Marie's view of sand or a stone in the shoe). "I hope we can see our way clearly through this" (the image of darkness of Annika and Darin). "I don't want to see anyone hurt" (Eileen's concern that conflict is abusive). "Let's look at the contracts" (Francis seeing conflict in legalities).

Each of these views brings to the table a whole set of assumptions and feelings about the problem and about what this difficulty means to the life of the congregation. If people use these varied images in trying to discuss a conflict, they could create even more misunderstanding or even a stalemate. However, through recognizing and trying to understand one another's perspectives, a group could work creatively on a collaborative approach to their conflict.

Collaboration: An Image, an Action, a Word

In order to move from a contentious toward a collaborative way of dealing with conflict, we need to consider the relationship of collaboration to conflict. Are the two opposites? Do we work through conflict in order to get to collaboration? For our purposes we will use collaboration both as a strategy for resolving conflict and as a sustained environment of working together in a ministerial relationship. In chapter 12, we shall explore collaboration as a response to and a strategy for conflict. Throughout the book we shall discuss collaborative ways of being together as a faith community. In sharing our images of conflict and seeing how these differences can help rather than block a communal approach to a conflicted situation, we have already begun the work of collaboration. People also have varied images of collaboration.

How did the various members of our group view collaboration?

Bill: I see a crew, a team, focused on a common goal. Working together, they can travel through a potentially dangerous situation.

Annika: I picture a team, too, but it's a theater touring team, each adding something of themselves to the common task. Using a theater metaphor, I see a group of people whose work abides in a living script.

Beth: I see people coming together around a table. Collaboration is very difficult. It can be positive, but also very painful.

Rose: I also see people sitting at a table. They are working together on a difficult problem. Maybe they won't come to resolution, but at least there is dialogue.

Hannah had been sitting next to Rose all evening. Now she picked up the picture The Ultimate Kitchen Guide that Rose had used to image conflict and said: I had another idea of collaboration in mind, but I can't resist using Rose's picture. I don't see conflict here. I love to cook, so I see all these utensils just waiting to be used together to create a gourmet meal.

Katie: I'm thinking once again of a rope—actually two ropes this time. But they aren't knotted. The two ropes are unlike in thickness and strength, but you can wind the fibers together by wrapping them and thereby increase their strength. That wrapping action is the Spirit.

Eileen: I'm reminded that among your many gifts, you are a weaver, aren't you, Katie?

Ray: My image involves ropes, too. I'm thinking of those who have climbed Mount Everest. We hear of heroic individuals who have reached the peak, but they wouldn't have succeeded even in reaching the first camp without the native Sherpas. And the climbers need to be tied together. And then there's the collaborative wisdom of those who first climbed with those who climb now.

Marie: I, too, thought of mountain climbing. To reach the peak is a huge goal. Some people dropped out along the way, but many of them supported those who did reach the top.

John: That makes me think about space flight competition during the Cold War. Interpersonal conflict is often expressed in similar terms as the "space race": warfare, competition, explosiveness. Tragedies in both countries' space programs led to mutual sharing of research and technology and eventually to building together the space station Alpha.

At that moment Steve stood up—as he had done earlier—but this time he reached out his arms and took the hands of those around him. What a strikingly different posture! What a different view of Steve.

Francis spoke up: I picture a group of rabbinical students. They are shouting at one another. You think they are angry, but they are merely expressing themselves. They all know they will have their own space to speak from and they exhibit trust and respect in the heat of passionate discussion.

Darin: I see a highway packed with all kinds of cars. People are traveling to various destinations and being mindful of other people's objectives even if they don't know what they are. We give signals—most of the time—to make sure all are safe.

Jessie: How important it is to bring all our gifts to a collaborative event. When we do, we create a good soil in which we can grow new things.

Alan (who had begun the discussion of conflict with the image of a cancer): I see a healthy body, the healthy Body of Christ with all different organs—members—working together rather than being in dissension.

Eileen: Yes, 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that with our varied gifts, if one member suffers, all suffer together, and if one is honored, all rejoice.

Does collaboration energize you? Tire you out? Just as we need to be aware of different images of conflict in working together, so too, we need to carefully consider one another's images of collaboration.

The group had already collaborated in building on one another's images during discussion of collaboration. What are the roadblocks to collaboration? Depending upon our image of conflict, we might say, "Things are such a mess around here that we can't clear things up enough to ever get any work done." We might say, or hear someone we care dearly about say, "I feel so hurt, so wounded, that I don't ever want to go to that group again."

Perhaps conflict relates positively to collaboration. We might say, "That debate at the meeting last night was so stimulating that I feel ready to move on the ideas and put those ideas into action." Or the entire group might feel, "Honestly confronting the issue seemed to clear the air. It has made room for healing to begin so that this group can once again be healthy."

Beliefs About Ourselves, Culture, and God

What is your belief about God concerning conflict? The gift and goal of life together in the church is working together as the Body of Christ, ministering to a wounded world. We are part of that wounded world; we also inflict many of those wounds. We were created for co-labor and we daily confound that promised reality. As gifts to one another we can be the faith community God has and is calling us to be.

People debate whether culture today is more contentious than in previous generations. We live in a society that has raised argumentation to an art and entertainment form. Seeing people fight sells! Disconnection and alienation, combined with lack of respect and understanding, both contribute to and produce unhealthy conflict. Some people gain from keeping conflicts between people unresolved.

But simply blaming "culture" or "the media" disables us from working to create collaborative communities. Christian beliefs can form a basis for understanding: most Christian church bodies use the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Using the three articles of those creeds we can consider the beliefs we confess about God. Each has something to say about the nature of God, our relationship to God and therefore to one another, even—maybe particularly in times of conflict.

The First Article of the Creed

"I believe in God ... creator of heaven and earth." What kind of a God do we have anyway? How were we created to be? If we believe God is a God of chaos, turmoil is the norm. But when we confess that God created a good universe out of chaos, we trust that we were created not to kill one another but for healthy interdependence in the many ways that we are called to live together here on earth. Human beings are created in the image of God, not to imagine themselves to be domineering gods over one another, but to be stewards of the earth and of human community. Living in the image of the God who creates, sustains, protects, and provides, we are created to imagine a richly diverse, just, and collaborative world.

The Second Article of the Creed

"I believe in Jesus Christ ..." The human predicament is brokenness and alienation from God and from one another. In Christ's death and resurrection we have been freed from bondage for restored relationships. Some people picture atonement only as Jesus' dying to appease the angry Father God. This sole image has been used to justify abusive, violent conflict. The second article focuses first on the birth of Jesus who came to live among human beings in the midst of the most difficult conflict, suffering with us, not to glorify conflict or oppression, but to love and liberate and reconcile. Christ lives to save and to serve, to bind up wounds, and to bring light to our darkness.

The Third Article of the Creed

"I believe in the Holy Spirit ..." The third article of the Apostles' Creed connects the work of the Spirit with the church, the "communion of saints," "the forgiveness of sins," and "the resurrection of the body." The Spirit gathers forgiven people into communities of faith and connects us as the living Body of Christ for the work of ministry together (co-laboring) in the world. Historically, Christians have at times adopted a "conquest for Christ" approach to mission that glorifies the conflict of war and the resulting subjugation of entire peoples. An alternative image portrays a diverse and reconciled people at the communion table, empowered for a multi-faceted mission of sharing God's unconditional love in Jesus Christ.


Excerpted from Church Conflict by Norma Cook Everist. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Norma Cook Everist is Professor of Church and Ministry at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. She also has served as guide and mentor to many pastors struggling with conflict. She is author of The Church As Learning Community and editor of Ordinary Ministry, Extraordinary Challenge, published by Abingdon Press.

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