by Peter L. Steinke

I doubt Sir Isaac Newton ever expected his theories to be used to explain human behavior, but in my experience working with more than a hundred conflicted congregations, two Newtonian principles do indeed seem to apply. When Newton declared “an object at rest remains at rest until a force acts upon it,” he might as well have been talking about human relationships, which generally create a pattern of behavior (or “homeostasis”) that remains consistent even when the relationship is unhealthy or uncomfortable. And, just as Newton concluded that “there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action,” any outside intervention into a conflict sometimes is encountered by resistance—a resistance to moving the relationship out of its painful yet familiar pattern.

The Survival Response
As Murray Bowen explains in his Bowen System Theory, we live in emotional systems—and congregations are such systems. The term “emotional” signifies whatever in our behavior is instinctive, automatic, defensive, reactive, even mindless. These behaviors are deep-seated, innate, and wired into our protoplasm, and they are incredibly powerful. The Creator has endowed all creatures with a basic drive to survive, and this drive becomes stronger during highly anxious periods—times when we feel threatened in some way.

While it may seem odd to suggest such a thing, some congregations in conflict feel threatened by intervention into that conflict, and they move into survival mode. The survival brain’s strength is quickness, but its speed is at the expense of the thinking brain’s accuracy. During anxious times, instinct overpowers intention and impulse eliminates reflection. People react rather than respond. They “pull the trigger” of the survival reaction quickly and thoughtlessly. Behavior is directed by emotion rather than by reason, love, or principle.

Further complicating the situation, churches typically are unprepared to deal with competing interests. Church members expect agreement to mark their relationships, and few congregations have clear, widely known procedures for handling dissension. Then, too, conflict is incongruent with the church’s highest ideals, often leading to avoidance and denial. All of these factors serve to increase the anxiety felt when there is conflict in a congregation, activating the survival reaction and the accompanying resistance to intervention (see the box below for some common responses to intervention).

Understanding that these sorts of emotional responses are normal behavior in the presence of vulnerability and threat can help anyone who is working to resolve conflict in a congregation.

Intervention Encounters Resistance
The common response of resistance from members of congregations in conflict can be heard in the following statements:

— This costs too much!
— We’ve tried this before.
— I don’t know why we’re here.
— I don’t know what is going on.
— I didn’t know we had a problem.
— Why can’t we handle this (fix this) ourselves?
— Since we started this process, things have gotten worse.
— You haven’t told us anything we didn’t already know.
— I don’t think the situation is redeemable.
— I don’t think you understand what’s going on here.
— Things will get better when we get rid of [person/group].
— I love the pastor, but…
— Leadership is weak.
— There’s a real easy solution…

The Role of Tension
It is also helpful to understand the role of tension in these situations. Where there is conflict there are opposites. By holding opposites together, tension is produced. This tension leads to stretching, potentially to new insights and fresh actions. It is important to recognize, though, that tension can just as easily lead to confusion as creation. It can produce new understanding and behavior or it may be regressive. That’s why two churches with similar problems and circumstances may have very different results to attempts to resolve their conflicts.

Usually we work to reduce tension. We have a low threshold for tolerating pain. We dislike ambiguity, ambivalence, or cognitive dissonance. We choose certainty, but this comes at the expense of learning. What many congregations fail to recognize is that tension, potentially, is a stimulus for change. It upsets homeostatic forces—the known and the habitual. Pain is sharp or prolonged precisely in order to receive a response. Pain is a teacher without which we cannot live. It incites our awareness. Nonetheless, awareness alone is not sufficient. The pain also needs to motivate a change in functioning. No emotional system will change unless the people in the system change how they function with one another. I always say to congregations that the reason they hire me is to help them not waste their suffering. If congregations don’t learn from their strife—and then adapt or change—they will merely repeat the old patterns.

Two case studies serve to illustrate this point. In both Ronald’s and Kathy’s congregations conflict developed when the senior pastors “asked” for the resignations of certain staff members. In both instances, friction between the senior pastors and the terminated staff members had emerged and efforts to move past their differences had failed.

In Ronald’s congregation, the rift was made public after the staff members’ departure. Blame was not assessed. This was in contrast to a cover-up that had occurred several years before when a lay leader had misused church funds. In that instance, people were not told what had happened, and rumor and irresponsible gossip ensued. Suspicion lingered, and finally the leadership presented “the whole story” and decided to be as open as possible with the congregation in the future, regardless of the nature of the information needing to be communicated.

Sarah’s church covered up the split that had emerged between its pastor and staff members. This behavior conformed to the church’s previous practices. The explanation given for the staff members’ resignations was that they wanted to do other things with their lives. Unbeknownst to the congregation, the departing staff had been required to sign a statement agreeing to say nothing about their resignations; if they did, they would lose their severance packages. There was a lot of pious, polite talk surrounding their leaving, but it was deceptive. Some members of the congregation asked to know the circumstances surrounding the staff members’ resignations, but they were rebuffed. This merely strengthened their resistance. They started a “renewal” movement to replace the current leadership. In turn, the pastor portrayed the “renewal party” as being a group of “liberals” who had an “agenda.” Satan was invoked in written correspondence to the congregation as the great “divider,” implying that the unhappy people were in company with evil. The contest for control continues. In this church, tension has led to entrenchment, not enlightenment, and as long as the emotionally driven polarization continues, the chances of change in functioning are minimal.

Edwin Friedman taught that the hostility of an environment is equal to the response of the organism. In other words, it is not the strength of the hostility in an environment that determines the outcome of a conflict, but the response of the organism. If that response is not a change in functioning, the same old patterns persist. The tension bears no new learning. Survival negates shalom.

Competing thoughts and perspectives arise in any system, but the differences do not necessarily cause such entrenched conflict. In his research with married couples, John Gottman noted that couples volley criticisms at each other in automatic fashion. This happens not only among couples who ultimately dissolve their relationships, but also among those who stay together. The couples whose relationships survive, Gottman has found, tend to be those who end the cycle of recriminations more quickly. In the more disturbed couples, the partners cannot release themselves from their reactivity to one another. They are at the mercy of their own emotionality. How can there be change when the survival instinct says holding one’s ground against the other is paramount? The same predicament exists in churches.

Just as holding onto the unhealthy pattern of conflict in a relationship can stunt its growth and prevent its healing, so can attempts to stifle all conflict. Because conflict is incongruent with the church’s highest ideals, anxious souls are bent on eliminating it, but to extinguish anxiety’s motivating effect is to invite disaster. In opting to “keep the peace,” congregations often forfeit important information that might help them change their functioning.

Effective Leadership in Times of Conflict
If leaders are unequipped to take enlightened action when conflict arises, the conflict will not be a transformative experience. However, with mature, motivated leadership much good can ensue. But leaders must be patient. They must allow time for things to process. If they can maintain their perspective and not fall under the survival brain’s control, they can make measured judgments and decisions. While anxiety urges on the rapid reaction system, I have yet to see a congregation benefit from resolving things quickly. Immediate relief does little to contribute to long-term change.

Another key to effective leadership during times of conflict is adept handling of sabotage—attempts to interrupt or diminish the leader’s efforts at intervention and recovery (see the box below for a list of acts and behaviors that represent sabotage). Oddly, the more effective an intervention is, the more likely it is that saboteurs will try to undermine the process. Sensing a forfeiture of control over what happens, they attempt to derail efforts at addressing the problems. They have a stake in sustaining the fracture and want to influence the results in their own favor.

Greater benefits accrue, too, if the motivated leaders are considered to be the experts in solving the issues rather than the outside interventionists. To empower the congregation’s leaders is to give them the clarity they need in order to make good decisions. Loading up leaders with recommendations merely makes them dependent on someone else’s wisdom. To allow the leaders to form their own options is to provide a strength both for the moment and the future. These leaders are part of the emotional system that is disturbed. Their willingness to be decisive, responsible, and responsive changes the emotional system. They become the force that acts upon the object at rest—in this case, the congregation locked in perpetual conflict—and move it out of this paralyzed place of pain and into one of learning, healing, and renewal.

Common Acts of Sabotage in Response to Crisis Intervention
The common activities or behaviors that create resistance to or sabotage of the intervention process include:

— Failure to follow up on assignments made by the conflict manager (interventionist)
— Passive/aggressive behavior (e.g., feigned innocence, silence, underground anger expressed circuitously)
— Trying to co-opt the conflict manager by attracting or luring him/her to support one group over another by emotional, mental and/or physical means
— Blame (e.g., of another group, of office holders, of church executives, of the conflict manager)
— General misbehavior (e.g., shouting, childish reactivity, threats, ad hominem arguments, lying, distorting the facts)
— Secret meetings, petitions, questionnaires

Congregations, 2004-04-01
Spring 2004, Number 2

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