After one particularly frustrating performance by his Green Bay Packers, legendary coach Vince Lombardi called his team together.
He was determined to get them refocused on the things that made for winning. As they knelt before the coach, he held up a football. “Gentlemen, today we start over. This is a football!”
I feel the need to call the local church around me and make a similar pronouncement: “Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we disagree, Jesus said we are to talk to one another, not about one another!”
Matthew 18:15 has not been excised from Scripture: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
In the midst of a series of direct teachings about how his followers are to relate to one another and the world, Jesus gives us crystal-clear instructions on how to manage conflict. He goes on to suggest follow-up strategies for dealing with disagreements.
Unfortunately, we rationalize and justify ourselves as exceptions to this foundational component of New Testament community.
In our work at the Center for Congregational Health, we find ourselves invited into many opportunities to witness conflict firsthand. We do so willingly, as we believe that conflict is an opportunity for God’s people to come to grips with issues that often are ignored or glossed over.
However, we are constantly amazed at how this basic component of congregational health is ignored or willfully violated.
Rather than deal directly with those they disagree with, clergy and laity alike frequently have managed to triangle, sabotage, ignore, gossip about, manipulate and generally mistreat those they disagree with.
On more occasions than I can count, I have asked someone, “Have you gone and talked with this person about your concerns?” Sadly, the vast majority confess they have not.
Why not? What makes this level of conversation so difficult? Part of the reason is our natural tendency to avoid conflict. Most of us were raised to be polite, respectful and non-argumentative. Thank God for those traits.
However, throughout the Gospels, Jesus invites us to a deeper level of relationship that delves into honest disagreement as an opportunity for greater intimacy rather than division.
Some of the people I loved best as a pastor and who taught me most were those who had the gumption to disagree with me agreeably. I can name them and recall many a day when they came to me with a concern, and I found myself having to admit they were right, or arguing against them with all my might.
Whatever the outcome, I knew we would walk out of the study as better friends than we entered.
Those relationships were marked with some common threads: We did our disagreeing in private, we had a shared love for our church, we respected one another deeply, and we refused to talk about each other to others.
I am a far better minister because those men and women took Matthew 18 to heart and overcame their reluctance to speak hard words to me.
Another, more common barrier to our taking this habit to heart is that we have not cultivated our own emotional and spiritual health to the point that we are comfortable practicing Jesus’ clear command. It takes significant ego strength to confront someone in a healthy, anxious-free fashion.
Our culture seems to encourage indirect, malicious and mean-spirited conversation when we disagree with someone. Instead, the biblical call is to go to someone out of love, not anger, and to do so with an eye toward resolution.
Simply venting or “getting things off your chest” is more about our self-centeredness than about building up the body of Christ. It takes thoughtful self-examination to expose the mixed motives and personal agendas that cloud our thinking. Often, our outrage is more about us than it is about the one who frustrates us.
Spiritual and personal maturity is a prerequisite to managing conflict in a healthy fashion. When it is not present in one party, the biblical mandate still exists and requires us to work harder at containing and controlling our emotions.
Frustration, self-doubt and exasperation bubble up and gnaw at our spirit. Thankfully, Jesus encourages us to find others (Matthew 18:16) to help us amid the conflict.
Healthy churches will establish clear and well-communicated ways of dealing with conflict. Inviting the congregation into regular conversations about “pinch points,” areas of frustration and unmet expectations help keep emotions at a civil level.
A personnel committee should have as one of its primary tasks to keep staff conflict on the radar and closely monitored.
Dealing with conflict is an increasingly important practice of a healthy congregation. Jesus had it right. Now, we need to get back to the basics and follow his instructions.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.