A decade ago I completed a graduate degree in conflict resolution. To some of you this may sound somewhat suspicious like a money-grab posing as academia or the equivalent of studying underwater basket weaving. I assure you, it was not. It has since become one of the most life-changing and fruitful endeavors of my life.
Subconsciously, this degree choice served two purposes for my personal life: 1) my family of origin struggled with managing conflict in healthy ways and 2) as a minister’s kid from a young age, I observed churches consistently mismanage conflict. Those two life-experiences alone impacted my faith, my marriage, my relationships with friends, and my children. My graduate degree woke me up to my own ability to manage conflict around me and within me. It trained me to understand the complexities of conflict, how it impacts systems, and how to effectively engage and manage it. What I loved about the program was its functionality. Rather than merely focusing on philosophies or societal theories aimlessly floating in the ether, I became a certified mediator and divorce mediator in the process. I learned to pinpoint issues and how to separate those issues from interests. I learned to observe how culture determines how conflict is approached and how cultural collisions are often causes of major conflict. I learned that individual personalities also approach conflict differently adding even more layers to conflict management. I now accept that how each of us handle conflict reveals a great deal about our own emotional intelligence and stability. If you don’t handle conflict well or the people around you don’t handle conflict any better, life is hard.
However, just because you have knowledge or expertise in a specific field doesn’t mean anyone else really gives a flying flip, fully respects that knowledge, or even desires your help. There are a few reasons why you don’t see a whole lot of professional relational conflict managers around every corner. But these times, they are changing and since I own this blog…
Most of the time people don’t like to face conflict for one singular reason: fear. We fear losing control, we fear losing things or traditions we value, and we simply fear awkward conversations which may require taking responsibility for our own behaviors. This fear can manifest in different ways- all unhealthy. Some people love the drama of being embroiled in conflict because it distracts from actually making essential changes to solve the problem at hand. This drama gives them attention and essentially gives them control of the environment. They become the star of the chaos, yet if you try to pin them down on their own personal behaviors, watch out. They will attack you personally.
Other people squelch difficult conversations as soon as their control is threatened. Maintaining control becomes the only agenda. These folks talk a lot about processes, hierarchies, traditions, and rules leaving no room for addressing relevant issues. Stasis is paramount. Change and other viewpoints are a threat to their power. These folks usually are power brokers in several areas of life and may feel significant loss if a power shift appears imminent. Stifling conflict is about their survival and self-worth.
Right-fighters are actually sometimes right…at least according to their worldview. They argue. They get loud. They are stubborn. They are not so great at negotiation or gray areas or listening. What they fear most is actually being wrong, and they may very well fight to the death to prove they are 100% right.
Finally, you have my personal category: those of us who fear painful conversations, the avoiders. Painful conversations are miserable especially for introverts who don’t feel confident interacting already. When you add apologies, vulnerability, emotions…ugh… I’ll need a two week nap. It is easier just to avoid the conflict entirely than to open myself up to scrutiny or to willfully offer up limited emotional currency. I can easily lie to myself about living a peaceful existence if I simply ignore every issue that comes up.
These days I serve the Center for Alternatives in Community Justice (CACJ) as the program coordinator of a new initiative: Centre County Community Conferencing. I was blessed to be a part of this program’s launch, and I cannot say enough good about the people I work with and serve. Community Conferencing is a simple process, much like mediation, where any number of people sit and work through conflict with the help of a trained neutral facilitator. It is a simple process, but the conversations are never easy. But that is the struggle with conflict, isn’t it?
What I’ve witnessed are conversations within community conferencing which transform relationships, ignite creativity and problem solving, and reawaken the part of us from childhood which soars in equality. Simple conversations humanize adversaries reminding us that we all share this common space on earth, and it is ok to make room for everyone- even those who come to different conclusions than we do. These conversations repair relational harm. They are healing in a way that our traditional American courtrooms are not. Where we have relied on punitive systems in the past as a culture, community conferencing is restorative. I believe in my very core that community conferencing, or circle conversations, are the way to resolve conflict moving forward, and I am beyond thrilled to be a part of its inception here in Central Pennsylvania.
In the last few months, I’ve had conversations with police chiefs, city managers, university vice presidents, activist group leaders, LGBT+ leaders, left wingers, right wingers, black people, brown people, white people, abused people, jail wardens, incarcerated people, homeless people, gaming commissioners, and even have a potential meeting coming up with a congressman; all for the sake of promoting this process of community conferencing. I’ve listened. I’ve asked questions. And guess what- I’ve left every conversation feeling hopeful with a new respect for and understanding of each of my conversation partners. Instead of drastic differences and sinister war plans, I’ve found similarities, kindness, and creative geniuses. I’ve found that every person I’ve spoken with longs for these kinds of conversations and feels the urgency to make this cultural shift, yet due to our hierarchical lockdown on systemic changes, it is a slooooooowwww endeavor to transition from calling the cops on your neighbor every day to actually sitting down and having a conversation. But I see the movement toward this hope for healing, and I joyfully will ride this wave on the way there.
I don’t think I need to explain to you how significant an issue we have in this country with how we respond to those with whom we disagree. I bet you see it. I don’t pretend to have the solutions to all the issues. There are many MANY issues that need our urgent attention. I DO know the only way to address those issues, and it is not by voting in the right person, screaming about it on Facebook, creating more segregated communities, making secret decisions behind closed doors, fighting to maintain our sacred traditions, or ignoring it hoping it will all blow over. We simply must leave our echo chambers and our self-congratulatory mirrors/friends and have difficult conversations with people who look, think, act, believe differently than us. It is the only way forward. We must let go of what worked before and start again. Create anew…together.
Conflict resolution is an ugly business. The process is simple, but within it there are loud, often scary, emotions. There are painful memories of abuse and failures. There are moments of awkward silences and righteous anger. And then there is a shift; a shift in the air when people finally start to see one another again as humans rather than adversaries.
In my heart and in my prayers, I always come back to how I can help churches. I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to use what I’ve learned for the greater community and perhaps that is a more fruitful endeavor. Unfortunately in my experience and observations, churches are the worst offenders when it comes to successfully handling conflict. I’ve witnessed churches choose division over conflict management or even an attempt at creating resolutions. On an individual basis, I watch self-proclaimed “Christians” fill their social media with racist rants, name calling, and political rhetoric that chills me to the bone further dividing our country and our communities. It disgusts me. We appear very comfortable with our chosen platforms, and we gleefully destroy anyone who challenges us as we walk in an obedient line with the power-broker politicians at the helm of our respective movements. After all, as long as we put money in the tray and get a spiritual high from Sundays and vote for the right person, we’ll be in heaven, right? Meanwhile, the world sees us for what we are: people who can’t get along, won’t listen, who only parrot what they hear on the news, and whose only cultural impact may be maintaining our denominational stasis and personal interests.
My personal beliefs and faith traditions are the fruit of the reformation movement and the later restoration movement. Those movements were valuable and absolutely essential for their time. Now is the time for a reconciliation movement in our churches and maybe even a deconstruction of the false God of the Sunday entertainment hour and political nationalistic church. Christ demanded more than our stasis. He demanded more of our lives than a rocking Hillsong ballad. He desired our attempts at holiness which includes reconciliation. And like a dear professor taught me: Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. Peace is both justice and mercy at work at once. Sometimes we think we are maintaining peace, but we are really just squelching uncomfortable and challenging dialogue. Peace takes work.
I do know there are some of you out there doing something different. I see you opening your doors and your houses. I see you walking away from the pews and making room for people on couches and in pubs for sometimes difficult conversations. You look different from the norm and so do your churches. Praise God. I know you may feel abandoned by the mainstream because of this…but meh, so was Jesus. Don’t ever look back to denominational stasis. Death lies there. Keep up the difficult conversations. Keep up the work.