By No Means Easy: Responding to Conflict in Personal Life
Oct 26, 2009
“I’m glad we went through that process before he died,” I recently told my pastor. Jay had been speaking of the death of a long-time member who had participated in a number of church conflicts over the years. The process I referred to was a series of meetings with the individual to discuss the impact of letters he had sent during the past two years to the entire congregation on several contentious issues. These letters created various harms to individual church members as well as to the church family in general. In reflecting on the loss of Mr. M., I couldn’t help but feel that the meetings provided an avenue for church leadership to both express care for him and be open to listening to his positions and the concerns behind them.
Yet the process was not an easy one. I was serving my second year on the deacon body (a servant-leader group) when the first letter was sent out. I’ll never forget the deacons’ meeting following that. Some people were upset. A few thought that the letters had at least brought up issues that weren’t being discussed. Most thought the letter was a problem, but that was just how Mr. M. dealt with issues. We all just needed to live with it. With several years in the restorative justice field, I argued that we needed to do relational work to both understand why “that was just Mr. M.” and respond to the harm that was done to the church. I can’t say there was a lot of agreement that night or that I understood what it would mean for those who participated. But, the result was that the pastor, another deacon and I met with Mr. M.
All sides were heard. Mr. M. had the opportunity to ask questions about some decisions in the church and express his concerns. At the same time, the rest of us had the opportunity to explain how a letter out of the blue could be taken by church members (or former church members angry at receiving it) as well as to describe our personal reactions to it. A key moment in the meeting was when we explained that we cared for Mr. M and wanted to hear his concerns in a constructive way. We identified alternative ways of raising his concerns and the group reached a consensus about how he would do that in the future.
Unfortunately, we didn’t put the agreement in writing -- the others felt that we had reached an understanding so a written agreement ‘wasn’t necessary.’ Months later, after another major church decision, Mr. M. again sent an open letter to the congregation. After reading it and feeling betrayed I called Jay to see how he was doing. I also spoke by telephone with the other deacon who had participated in the process. He asked if I would be willing to be a part of another meeting if one were scheduled. I agreed, although I was a little more sceptical that this would achieve anything.
Our next deacon’s meeting erupted into anger. These meetings tend to follow a general agenda that begins with approval of minutes from the previous meeting, discussion of needs in the church, prayer and only then discussion of business. But early in the meeting someone called for a formal response to Mr. M. The discussion was emotional and retributive. There were open expressions of how the letter had caused harm, vehement calls to issue an open letter rebuking Mr. M., and a demand that a delegation meet with Mr. M. to “lay down the law.”
The voice of reason came from our pastor and the other deacon who argued the need to respond relationally. My fellow deacon outlined the arrangements that he had made for another meeting with a promise to report back. There was agreement, albeit reluctant, to hold off on other actions for the time being.
The second encounter was characterised by much more tension. All of us walked in not knowing what to expect, but adamant that the need for respect was paramount. We talked for nearly three hours. While there was no agreement on the particular concerns raised by the letter, there was communication, acknowledgement of personal harms, and agreement that we were all members of a single community (we use the term “family” in our church) and that we needed each.
Mr. M. was surprised to hear that others felt harmed by what he had done. He appreciated the invitation to speak with the deacons personally and to explain to them in writing why he had issued another letter. This time we developed a written agreement on how questions and issues would be dealt with in the future.
Mr. M. also had the opportunity to meet with the deacon body to explain his motivations and reasons while stating that he had not meant to cause harm to specific individuals. As Jay described the event, “It was Mr. M.’s last opportunity to share those values and causes that were his greatest priorities.” It also provided him the opportunity to be heard and have some dialogue with the deacons over the issues of concern. While some preferred more of an apology, most of the deacons accepted Mr. M’s explanations and appreciated the dialogue.
Some time after the meeting, Mr. M. suddenly became ill and shortly after he died. I had participated in a committee meeting with him just a week earlier and was shocked to hear he was in the hospital. He had seemed so alive and strong at the meeting. But just a few weeks later he was gone.
Although he could be cantankerous, I enjoyed working with Mr M. on a committee that I chaired. We had our disagreements, but I appreciated his desire to serve others and do what he felt was best for the church. I didn’t always agree with his methods, but I understood the heart behind them.
This is why I’m thankful for the process we journeyed through together. It wasn’t complete. It could have been better managed. And, it was by no means easy. But, it gave us as members of a church family several opportunities:
- To express care and respect for a fellow member we disagreed with
- To identify our common ground in both faith and the desire to serve our church family
- To begin, if not complete, the foundation for stronger relationships and inclusion of all voices in decision-making processes
I also learned that in spite of my academic and practical experience in restorative justice, I wasn’t really prepared for this journey. But that background had helped me understand that a process of some sort was needed. I am grateful I had the opportunity to participate in it and to learn again that while it may be difficult, it is important part of following Jesus’ command to “love one another.”