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Posts Tagged ‘Practical Theology’

Get any group of people together, no matter their moral platitudes, and there is bound to be conflict.  Sometimes this conflict can lead to a heightened crisis that threatens the health of the organization with loss of membership, customers and leadership.  If left unmanaged, the conflict-turned-crisis can have lasting, damaging effects: poor self-image, leadership demoralization, a scarred community image, organizational paralysis, and covered up interpersonal wounds.

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa on Badger Mountain

One would hope that a church community would be better suited and equipped for managing conflict and dealing with crisis.  However, my experience has been that this is not true.  My work experience in other organizations has been a mixed bag.  After all, were all are human no matter where we work.

At the same time, some organizations I have worked in have had a proactive conflict management plan with proactive leaders.  Where these leaders have followed the conflict management plan, the conflict was dealt with quickly and decisively with little disruption to the organization.  Sometimes the issue was resolved without loss of employees and sometimes it was not.  However, everyone knew the steps carried out as well as the outcome and why it was arrived at in that way.

I have yet to find a church organization that deals with conflict so constructively.  And I have to ask why?  (I am not asserting that one does not exist, I am simply stating that my limited experience has yet to discover one through my encounters or of those friends that have shared their stories of church conflicts and crises with me.)  The answer to that question is complicated.

Unfortunately, our public news channels carry too many stories of the failure on the part of church organizations to deal with conflict and crises.  This should cause all church leaders, at whatever level, to sit up and take notice that if they do not practice proactive judgment concerning conflict and crisis in their faith community, then the larger surrounding community will for them.  This will come out as clearly as exposure in the news media outlets or as subtly as the community staying away – and warning all their friends and relatives to stay away.

So, why do church organizations fail at constructively and proactively handling conflict or crisis?  The answer varies…

  1. Church leaders and their followers tend to spiritualize the conflict.  Thus, it is just a matter of all parties concerned praying about it, reading Bible verses about peace keeping, not speaking evil and guarding their tongues.  While these are good spiritual disciplines, they do not actually deal with the problem at hand.  It is to treat spiritual disciplines as some kind of magic that will make the problem suddenly go away.  And if it doesn’t go away?  Then the problem is with our spirituality and not that we simply didn’t wisely handle to problem.
  2. Church leaders and their followers tend to bury the conflict.  The attitude is that Christians should not offend others.  Broadly taken, this inhibits any confrontation that needs to happen in a healthy organization.  Thus, hurt feelings and offenses get covered up in hopes that it will, after awhile, just go away and be forgotten.  Sometimes conflict is buried because everyone assumes that it is the pastor’s job or that the way the pastoral leadership is dealing with the conflict (even if it is to avoid dealing with it at all) is the best and only way.  This is connected to the idea that Christians should never offend.  It also means they do not question leadership actions (or inactions).  The unspoken cultural value in these church organizations is that a good Christian doesn’t question the process or its outcomes but trusts that, whatever the result, the church leadership did the right thing (or at least meant to do the right thing).
  3. Church leaders and their followers tend to misuse The Matthew 18 Principle.  The Matthew 18 Principle is taken from The Gospel According to Matthew 18:15 – 19.  The idea is that interpersonal conflict should be dealt with on a personal level and only escalated to the leadership level or the larger community level after that has failed.  This is a great model for interpersonal conflict and should be used more often.  However, it only deals with an interpersonal conflict.  What happens when that conflict, as often happens, involves a larger group of the faith community?  What should the steps be when the conflict involves a high profile leader?  What is the strategy when the conflict is witnessed or known by many individuals?  This is where The Matthew 18 Principle does not entirely help us.  It is limited in scope and application.
  4. Church leaders and their followers tend to attack and silence the messengers.  Often, in order to deal with the array of opinions, personal judgments, and purveyors of partial truths, church leadership will attempt to shut up or shout down such background noise.  This is often done under the guise of “trusting leadership to handle it” and “personal privacy issues” for those involved in the conflict.  Both of these are worthy considerations for all concerned.  However, they miss the larger need of communicating to all parties who have a vested interest in the process and the outcome.  By attempting to attack or silence those who want to give a message to one or both of the parties or to the leadership managing the conflict, the problem is only compounded not alleviated.
Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA, Flowers

Purple Button Flowers on Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA

Conflict and crisis is always unsettling.  It is like experiencing an earthquake.  When the whole earth is moving, you just want it to stop and feel solid, un-shaking ground under your feet again.  After the earthquake, everyone is talking about it.  It becomes a shared experience and also a process to assure each other that everything will be alright.  Conflict and crisis in an organization shakes the whole structure.  People are going to talk about their experience.  They need to talk about their fears, insecurities and reassure each other that they will survive the process and the outcome.

Unfortunately, few churches have a conflict/crisis management strategy that also includes a conflict/crisis management communication strategy.  If they do, it most often boils down to this:  “Don’t talk about it.  Trust your leadership.”  This almost always fails except in cult-like or personality driven faith communities.  Since conflict and crisis are a part of the human experience, wise leadership should use the “calm before the storm” to thoughtfully plan a conflict and crisis management strategy.

An often overlooked key to conflict and crisis management is communication.  Sometimes only dealing with the parties involved is not sufficient.  This is especially true when dealing with high-profile situations or prominent people in a church organization.  Often times, it is managed behind the scenes.  The next thing the congregation and other church employees know is that certain people are no long around.  Without explanation, they are left to create their own stories of the events and outcomes.

Part of a good strategy is managing the story that is being told, especially by the employees and core leaders of the organization.  This does not mean twisting the story’s events to make an organization and its leadership look good.  It means having an open, honest and truthful explanation of events.  The more transparent the communication – even with the admission of stumbles and failures on the part of leadership – the better.  Not everyone may like the outcomes, but they at least know the process was open and honest.  Most leadership, employees and customers can live with this process.

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Another part of a healthy strategy is wisely deciding the scope of communication needed.  This involves answering the questions, “Who needs to know?” and “Who does this affect?”  Some one likened it to having a group of people standing around when someone spills a bucket of paint.  Who got paint on them?  They are the ones that need to be addressed and included in the communication even if they are not involved in the process.  Ignore them and they will tell the story from their point of view and experience.  Include them in the group experience and it becomes larger than just a their own personal story.  Now it involves a group experience that involves clean up and recovery from the accident or tragedy.

Conflict mediation is not new.  It has been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth.  Today, there are formal conflict or dispute resolution and mediation services in local communities.  Non-profit dispute resolution centers exist around the country and effectively help organizations and individuals work through conflict.  They can prevent costly court and lawyer fees and bring satisfaction to all parties involved.  Many large organizations establish their own dispute resolution teams.  This may be a model that could serve well most churches.
Using a third-party dispute resolution source or developing a team within the organization is for each organization to determine.  For churches, this may mean using a trusted faith-based group outside the organization such as trained denominational leadership.  I’ve worked cross-denominationally to help another church and its pastor navigate conflict and crisis.  The key is having a plan and engaging that at the earliest possible moment.  This is  when leadership is most needed.  Proactive leadership will…
  • Know the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Work the plan,
  • Communicate how the plan is working to those who need to know, and
  • Identify the stages and outcomes of working the plan, and then, finally,
  • Evaluate how the plan worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it work better next time.
Every leader realizes that he or she may not be able to take everyone through the crisis and keep them in the organization.  For whatever reason, individuals will decide for themselves if they trust leadership and how it is working for everyone’s interest.  However, the goal of church leadership especially should be to help as many people navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and crisis and bring as many people as possible through the storm.  The church more than any other organization should be able to navigate these storms.  This will take a commitment to living out biblical principles of forgiveness and reconciliation along with proactive leaders who have a publicly recognized, transparent plan that is managed and communicated carefully during these times.  It may not prevent the storms from coming, but it will certainly help the church fellowship survive them.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (September, 2011)

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Let’s All Grow Up

As an observer and listener of world events across a spectrum of news channels, I am wondering what it is going to take for the more moderate voices in our world to be heard.  It seems that only the radical voices, extremists if you want, get all the air time.  And now, a small time pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, of a congregation of barely 50 persons and shrinking in Florida has captured the world stage with a threat to burn the Quran.

Almost a year ago (October 1, 2009 to be precise), I posted a blog article entitled, “Let’s All Calm Down.”  In it I called for people to settle down and realize that the issues we face today, when placed in historical context, should not be all that alarming to us.  Running around scream in a high-pitched Chicken Little-like voice that our world is ending is non-productive.  In historical context, politically and religiously, this is hardly the worst of times for the United States of America.

Whether it is debating health care, taxes or government programs, it seems that the discussion always devolves into a tit-for-tat battle.  In juvenile-like behavior patters, instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, we seem to be concerned with who started it and placing the blame.  It is time we all grew up and got over “it” – whatever the particular “it” of the blame game we are playing.

This should go with Americans attitudes towards radical and extremists of the Muslim religion and vice-versa. Instead of trying to figure out who “drew first blood” so that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be extracted, the mature adult thing to do would be to stand above the offense.  I often teach my kids when they are being picked on by their siblings or kids at school that one of the most potent weapons to disarm a potential enemy is to first not respond to their behaviors and actions.  If that does not work, then proceed to draw attention to their actions by drawing in the attention of others – authority figures and peers.  If your behavior is above reproach, they will support you and fight for you.  In the end, you will have to do very little.

Granted, this is a difficult approach to take when our emotions running high and our pride and feelings have been hurt. However, acting like a bunch of juvenile gang members or kids on a play ground seeking revenge for every slight will not get us anywhere either.  Someone needs to become the adult in a very volatile situation.  Reverting to our childhood antics and behaviors will not solve our world problems or bring peace.

So, the Reverend – with such a title used very loosely – Terry Jones seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of Jesus when it comes to how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, serve them and love them.  Of course, this requires a very mature approach toward our perceived enemies; many of whom turn out not to be our enemies at all but people only acting out of their own hurt and woundedness, albeit in an immature way.  Unfortunately, Terry Jones is not alone in America.  I have heard many people through our media respond in justifying the action of burning the Quran or vandalizing Islamic worship and community centers with:

  • “Well, they burn our flag in their land!”
  • “If they burn our Bibles, we should be able to burn their Holy Book.”
  • “Islam promotes hatred and persecution of Christians all over the world.”
  • “They were shouting Quranic verses when they flew those jets into the Twin Towers.”
  • “They preach against America as “the great Satan” and want to attack us again, so we have the right to practice our right to freedom of speech by letting them know how we feel about it.”
  • “We have the right to protest and practice our freedom of speech.  Who cares what they think about it.”

Notice that in some way all of these statements hold a kernel of truth.  The real question, however, is whether they are the mature, adult way to respond.  It may be true that my son was hit first by another kid at school.  That does not give him a right to retaliate in like manner and expect to not bear the consequences of those actions: trouble at school with possible expulsion and trouble at home.  It may be correct that another kid called my girl a nasty name, but that does not permit her to respond in a similar way.

We should expect no less of a response for our adult situations in a troubled world.  When will we start to grow up and act like the adults in this cosmic play ground?  When will we stop responding to force with force?  Or, reverting to name calling with name calling and demeaning labels?  Who will be the first to take the moral high road of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One would hope that Christians, in keeping with their message and mission, would be among those.  Where are the adult voices among all religions that call for tolerance, forgiveness, longsuffering, patience, kindness, grace, mercy and justice?  Who in the Christian community is calling for larger Christian community to reflect the teachings of Jesus on the world stage?  I believe they are out there.  They are just not being heard.  Bad news seems to sell better than any good news.  So, a crazy, fundamentalist pastor of an insignificant congregation in Florida gets world-wide air time while the deeds of countless Christians around the world to, for and among Muslims goes unrecorded.  Go figure.

I cannot speak for other world religions, but having been a Christian leader in congregations for 25 years and having studied the Bible with three degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, I do believe that I have some understanding of where Jesus would steer us:

  • “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.”  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?  But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5:43 – 48)
  • “Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 11:25, 26)
  • “Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, “I am sorry,” you should still forgive that person.”  (Luke 17:4)
  • “But love your enemies and be good to them…Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.  Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”  (Luke 6:35 – 37)

Or, where the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the churches would take us:

  • “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, “I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.  The Scriptures also say, “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat.  And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads.  Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:19 – 21)
  • “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude.  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:31, 32)
  • “…forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  (Col. 3:13)

The easy road to take?  No!  But being the mature adult in a room full of children is never an easy task.  It is tiring and trying.  Ask any middle school teacher.  However, it is the road that a majority must willingly and intentionally take to make our world a better place.

Will it come with a price?  Yes!  It will mean being willing to take the brunt of abuses given by those who choose to act out.  The role of the parent in the home is not to reflect the behaviors of the children in the home.  This may mean not taking the ravings of their teenager to seriously.  It may mean overlooking the slight of an angry child who screams, “I hate you!”  Shouting, “I hate you too!” back will only escalate the problem not solve it.  So, assuming the posture of the adult on the world stage may mean absorbing abuses and even the shedding of our own blood.

I do not know a parent of any child who at some time has not wished that the responsibility for being the adult in the home was not theirs.  That is only natural because it can be an exhausting and frustrating endeavor to constantly provide for and police those given into our charge.  However, surrendering our position is not an option.  Neither is reverting back to our own child-like behaviors of our past.  Fortunately, there are many all across the spectrum of religions and politics who act responsibly.  They take care of the poor, stand against injustice, suffer with the disenfranchised, come alongside the marginalized and actively contribute to making our world a better place.  We just need more of them and need to hear their voices.

So, it is time we all grew up.  Stop acting and responding like children.  Begin to behave out of our higher ideals and values – political and religious.  Be willing to bear the cost of improving our world for our children.  Become the voices of reason against the squall or school-yard language and rhetoric.  Refuse to play the “who done it to who first game.”  Then, perhaps in time, the whole world will grow up to become what we all hope it will become.  A place where we can all get along.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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