Imagine a typical parish. A member of the staff must be laid off because of budgetary constraints; the Girl Scouts and the athletic association have double-booked the gym; quinceañera plans do not conform to diocesan guidelines; the issue of women and ordination hangs like a cloud over a faith-sharing session; a critical agenda has been lost in cyberspace; and the board meeting implodes.
Many of us grew up with an ideal vision of church based on the Acts of the Apostles. We focus on how the early Christians laid their possessions at the feet of the apostles, and we think that they lived happily ever after—all of one mind and heart. When our own experience of church does not match this, we are tempted to think that something has gone terribly awry: How can there be conflict in a community that professes Christ? Why can’t we all just get along like our ancestors in faith?
And yet the conflicts that punctuate our life together are nothing new. Indeed, the letters of Paul, written even before Acts, witness to the presence of conflict in the earliest Christian communities of Ephesus and Galatia, Jerusalem and Corinth. It turns out there was never a time in which the church was without conflict, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict can be a sign of vitality. People argue only over things they care about. Communities that claim to have no conflict are more likely to be riddled with apathy than living in perfect charity.
Granted, conflict is not the goal of our ecclesial life, and we need not intentionally provoke it. But rather than bemoan its perennial presence, we can choose to perceive conflict as inherent in the spiritual journey and commit to confronting it well, allowing our way of living together in good times and in bad to become part of our preaching. As Paul often reminded the early Christians, at the heart of our Gospel is one central message: through Christ the world is being reconciled to God. There is a sense of dynamism in Paul’s summary. All of creation writhes in the labor of becoming what God has always dreamed it to be. Christ the head has emerged while his body is still in the process of being born. Jesus leads the way; the earth remains in an ongoing process of reconciliation. The witness that Christians can most powerfully offer the world is not that of a perfect people, but of a people always fully engaged in the reconciliation experience.
It follows that exercises in reconciliation should be considered essential Christian practices—ways of fully collaborating with God in the ongoing work of creation. As Christians, we are expected not just to theorize about prayer, but to pray. We are expected not just to consent to the idea of works of mercy, but to show mercy. Reconciliation cannot be something we advocate from a distance. We must learn how to engage in it.
This is no easy task, but the fields of conflict resolution and negotiation can be partners to Christian communities in this regard. Resources developed in the fields of law and business offer tangible, easily applicable ways of becoming a reconciling people. When motivated by faith, seven practices from these fields have the potential to become spiritual disciplines in which the Christian vocation to reconciliation is made real.
1. Avoid triangulation.
“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).
When we are frustrated or hurt by others, it is easier to talk about them than to them. As a general rule in Christian conflict, if two people are speaking negatively about a third, the third has a right to be present. Catholic social teaching emphasizes the principle of subsidiarity—decisions should be made at the lowest effective level possible by the persons most affected by those decisions. Applied to conflict management, that means conflict should be handled by the persons directly involved in the conflict. Parents who are upset with a teacher should be challenged to talk to the teacher before going to a principal. Parishioners angered by a pastor’s preaching should go to the pastor before writing to the bishop.
2. Distinguish between facts and interpretations.
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?...You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye” (Lk 6:41-42).
We often talk about conflicts as if they were simple factual disputes with clear and obvious answers. But most disputes are not about facts. Everyone agrees that the board was lacking information in advance of the meeting. What we disagree about is whether it was absolutely essential to possess the information in advance, who is responsible for the information being unavailable and whether the meeting should proceed without it. These are interpretations and judgments that are based on assumptions, past experiences, expectations and self-serving biases. We notice and feel strongly about things that reflect on us. We will give less credit to things that are unfamiliar or do not affect us. So if my pet project is not affected by the missing information, I tend to think we should proceed and that you are overreacting in hysteria over a little lost paperwork. If my project is jeopardized by the oversight, I am scandalized by the unprofessional manner in which this organization is run.
We always have a partial picture of any given situation, and we emphasize both meanings of partial—our view is both incomplete and biased. We need to understand others’ interpretations to see the whole picture. We need one another to “reconcile” a more complete understanding.
3. Practice passionate—and compassionate—curiosity.
Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “[Lord,] Son of David, have pity on us!”...Jesus stopped and called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They answered him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him (Mt 20:30-34).
Understanding another’s perspective requires humility and becoming curious about the experience of others. What information does the other have that I might not have? What leads them to think that this is important or unjust or plain wrong? What are they seeing that I am not seeing? The only way that we find the answers to these questions is to ask the other person directly—not rhetorically, but genuinely wanting to understand their perspective and reasoning: It matters to me that I understand you more fully.
4. Let grace and compassion transform the emotions.
I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3).
The practice of curiosity, however, cannot end with frank questioning. Conflict is difficult because by its very nature it involves human emotion, generally emotions that we would prefer not to feel: anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, hurt. As persons who profess Christ, we would like to think of ourselves as loving, joyful, serene, generous, faithful, forgiving. Experiencing unpleasant emotions or hearing that we might be the cause of others’ unpleasant emotions threatens the identity that we have built up for ourselves, making us fearful that we are less than the persons we would like to be. Nevertheless, in order for difficult conversations to be fruitful conversations, we have to be curious about the emotions involved and willing to hear how the other feels even when it makes us uncomfortable. We will need to have compassion for ourselves and for the other, recognizing we are all human and struggling.
5. Engage the internal voice.
5. Engage the internal voice.
Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God (Jas 1:19-20).
The other people in our conflicts are in many cases not entirely “with us” in our journey toward compassion and grace. They are still feeling aggravated or impatient or overlooked. Just to make things especially tricky, they are seldom likely to be direct about those feelings. Asked to move the date of a scheduled event, the scout leader might say, “Sure, that’s fine,” when she’s really thinking, “What a hassle! I’ll never volunteer for this parish again.”
Often we have to draw out the other persons’ internal voice, to give them permission to be candid about their thoughts and feelings. But “It doesn’t sound like that’s fine” may be heard as a challenge or accusation. An empathetic, “I know this isn’t the first time, and it must be frustrating” encourages a more frank exchange. In the moment, it may mean a barrage of pent-up aggravation. But if we can hold their frustration and our compassion in the situation, we transform their internal dialogue and perhaps our own. Driving home, the scout leader is more likely to be thinking, “That athletic director seems to really ‘get’ the problem. I hope we can work something out together. It can’t be easy for him either….”
6. Good intentions, bad impact.
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Mt 7:1-2).
Often when we complain to each other about someone else, we start with “the kind of person he is”: “You know how she is—always has to control everything” or “He’s just on a power trip” or “I just don’t think they care.” We assume they have bad intentions and bad character. Yet when we are accused of micromanaging or carelessness, we indignantly defend our good intentions: We just want to do the right thing.
Remembering that most conflicts inside communities result from well-intentioned people having unintended bad impacts on each other can help us raise issues without raising defensiveness: “I’m guessing you weren’t aware of the guidelines for quinceañera celebrations; here’s the problem I’m worried about; let’s figure out how to make it work.”
7. Be accountable for your personal contribution to the problem.
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:4-9).
Adam and Eve pointed blaming fingers in their first conflict with God in the garden. Our tendency to want to assign blame is part of our sinful condition. If we are to transform that impulse into something healing and useful, it is through seeing conflict as a result of joint contributions between us. Almost every problematic situation is the result of multiple contributions—things we each did or failed to do—and also factors that are beyond either one of us. Being willing to be accountable for our part of the problem models contrition and leads the way to reconciliation. Starting with, “I wish I had raised this earlier” or, “Looking back, there are certainly some things I wish I’d done differently” starts us down a solution-oriented conversation and invites grace into our hearts.
Difficult conversations are by their very nature risky undertakings. In the midst of conflict, I have little curiousity about your view. In fact, I probably feel contemptuous of it as a result of feeling frustrated, disappointed or misunderstood. And learning more about your view may make me more angry, uncomfortable or hurt, so I’m anxious rather than excited at the prospect. And what if I listen to you, only to have my own views dismissed or ridiculed?
Why take the risk?
Because Jesus took the risk. Jesus devoted a great deal of his teaching to themes surrounding conflict: challenge, compassion, confrontation and the importance of repeated forgiveness. But he also spent a great deal of his life modeling those teachings with his own followers. In his ministry, we find Jesus frequently initiating conversations that he surely knew would spark disagreement or discomfort in his listeners. Some of those conversations led to his death. But after his resurrection, we find Jesus continuing these conversations in a most personal way with the very people who had abandoned and denied him. Jesus not only spoke about a new age of reconciliation; he practiced it in his own relationships. Although his engagements were often difficult, he demonstrated that good, hard conversations have the potential to increase insight into the character of God and the nature of God’s reign.
In conflict we have the opportunity to enjoy increased insight and understanding, an opportunity to participate in the reconciling of our world to God.