There are a lot of old jokes that are built on the common experience that churches are places of conflict.
The New Testament epistles are nearly all written because churches were in conflict. Sometimes internal, sometimes external but the presence of people seems to always bring with it some conflict.
And I think this is a good thing.
When I look back over my own life, all 57 or 58 years of it (I’m old enough now I can’t quickly remember which of those it’s been), conflict has been the location of my most significant growth, the most important life lessons and the forge of some of the most meaningful and lasting relationships in my life.
But I don’t love conflict. And normally I don’t look for conflict. But neither am I afraid of conflict nor do I attempt to avoid it.
I was downtown with my wife and as we walked through the crosswalk, a truck turned and went right through the crosswalk in front of us, nearly hitting my wife. Not being conflict adverse, I left my wife to get across on her own and I chased the truck on foot until it came to a stop at the end of the block. I knocked on the driver’s window who was surprised to see me but rolled down his window. We had a short but important conversation about the rules of the road. Arguably it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life (according to my wife) but sometimes conflict has to happen, or we never grow or learn or get better.
Let me tell you about my Regional Leaders in the denomination of which I’m a part. A very small and inconsequential part.
Our denomination has currently set up the U.S. into a number of regions and each of those regions – more than a dozen, less than twenty – have regional leaders. Those leaders are given the task of – well to be honest, I’m not entirely clear on their task as it seems to vary from region to region – but among their task is dealing with conflict from people like me. This is all done aside from their real jobs as pastors of a local church. Typically, our regional leaders are chosen because they pastor the largest church in the region unless their church is so large, mega-sized, that they get their own transregional group of other megas.
Are you with me so far?
So, these regional leaders are not necessarily chosen for their aptitude for working with pastors or because they have the skill set deemed necessary for the role but rather because they pastor the largest church in a given region.
And that brings me to my regional leaders and conflict.
Our very first meeting – literally – was full of conflict. Not conflict they were looking for or intending to create but my reaction to choices that had been made about our area led me to engage in a conflict with them.
Let me push pause on that for a second and tell you how conflict often goes in the church.
One man I know, who was a mega-pastor, was confronted about something he’d done by another staff pastor. The mega-pastor’s response was to “promote” this staff pastor to “campus pastor” status of a satellite church very far away from the main campus. He didn’t promote him immediately but within a couple weeks his response to confrontation and conflict was to remove the irritation.
Later, it would come out that this man, my friend, had been having an affair and a long list of similar unhealthy ways of handling conflict with other pastors would come to light.
Sometimes the pastor or leader can’t “promote” someone so instead, they themselves leave.
Or they cry “insubordination!” and have the person leaning into the conflict marginalized, ostracized or properly religiously shunned by other members of the church.
Or they just let a few well-placed people know a bit of information about the person engaged in conflict that may or may not be true – it just has to be possibly true – and soon we have teams and nearly all church people will side with he or she who has the most power. In some churches I’ve been in that was clearly the man pastoring the church and in another church it was the auntie of the church who was the treasurer and decided what did and didn’t get spent.
I even know of one man, leader of a whole movement of churches, who choked out one of the other leaders of that movement over a conflict they were having.
Often, in response to conflict, pastors will try to reorganize their church in a way that insulates them from conflict. They will create layers of bureaucracy to avoid every having to deal with a person or group of conflict. It usually goes something like this – if you have an issue, you need to take it up with your home group (small group) leader – if you don’t have one we won’t hear the issue until you have one and have vetted the issue with them (usually him). Then, if you have a home group leader and submit it to them, they will discuss it with the appropriate leadership – if deemed necessary – and get back to you.
The more layers of bureaucracy generally the deeper the fear of conflict and the felt need to insulate from criticism and the hoi polloi. People at the grass roots know that a bigger bureaucracy will not serve the people. A bigger bureaucracy is always intended to protect the bureaucracy. People in power tend to use their power to stay in power.
So that brings us to my regional leaders. If you remember, I said our relationship started in conflict. But it didn’t end there. Neither our relationship nor our conflict. Numerous times I have reacted to things that have been handed down to us from on high and my regional leaders have born the weight of the conflict generated by those pronouncements and decisions or lack of decisions.
And my regional leaders have handled conflict with me over and over and over again by engaging with me. By listening to me. By asking me questions. By keeping me included in everything else going on in our region – looking for ways to make me feel included and feel like I matter to them. Their approach to our conflicts has left me feeling listened to even when nothing changed and valued even when I didn’t get my way or they still didn’t see things my way.
Here’s the thing, they didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to respond that way. That’s not “normal” in our movement.
But this is what good leaders do. This is what good pastors do. They meet you in the conflict and they listen and they seek common ground and they look for ways to make sure you don’t feel marginalized for speaking up.
They don’t spank you or punish you for sharing honest answers to their honest questions. They seek to understand your heart and not simply defend their own.
My regional leaders have had phone calls with me, in person conversations, email exchanges and invitations into their home, around their table and opportunities to contribute in conversations of substance.
And to drink wine.
Knowing that I might say something that won’t be from the party line – in fact, knowing I might say something that criticizes the party line – they still make space for me and my voice. While i sit silently, one of my RLs loves to ask, “and Brian, what are YOU thinking?” She knows what this could start and I love her courage and pastor’s heart for being willing to get it started.
And, this is important, it’s not because they agree with me, it’s because they want to provide healthy leadership for me. It’s because they want to be like Jesus to me.
I know that my regional leaders would never want to do church the way we do church here in our local church. I would drive them crazy by doing things they way I do and I know that. We don’t see eye to eye on everything or even a lot of things maybe. But our relationship has not been based on my ability to keep it conflict free or conform to their way of doing things, it has been based on their will to love me the best they can and enter into these things with me. That’s what good leaders do.
One of my regional leaders often tells me that she is a practitioner. She wants to know how all my thinking stuff intersects with real life stuff and if it doesn’t have some practical real life application, she doesn’t see much use in it. I need her pushback to clarify things and make these connections. My other regional leader has pushed back on things I’ve said and even pulled the dad card on me, “because I said so.” And truthfully, I hate that answer, but it was his honest answer and it wasn’t his final answer (sort of) and it wasn’t the “final word and we must never speak of this again.” He’s patiently listened to my pushbacks without having to give up any ground while making space for me to feel heard.
What I’m trying to say is that good leaders pushback. They don’t enter conflict merely as spectators but they get in and wrestle with you.
I’ve talked with others in our movement who just listen. Just take it all in and you never really know where they are, what they think about you or the topic or if they even have an opinion. This is great for a therapist but not so great for a pastor or leader engaged in spiritual formation and development. I’ve been engaged with churches and movements that deal with conflict by putting a suggestion box in the back of the room and promise to read every comment that comes in but not necessarily engage with them. This is bread and circuses, a distraction meant to relieve pressure the hoi polloi are under and create the impression but not reality that those with power are listening to those without.
Conflict is a part of life. A good part of life if we handle it in a way that looks like Jesus, looks for Jesus and is invested in growing people and not protecting ourselves or our positions. Conflict can be the catalyst for amazing growth personally, professionally and organizationally when we handle conflict with grace and purpose. I’m grateful for the regional leaders I have had in the movement of which I am a part. As change is forecast, even if the forecast keeps changing, I will be very sorry to find myself with new leaders if they are adverse to conflict and fail to see it as an opportunity rather than something to be avoided.