When we are entangled in conflict, it is difficult to fathom that anything in the situation could be transformed, much less that there are spiritual dimensions to it. Yet I have worked with and lived with conflict long enough to have seen the reality of transformation, and to know that deeply spiritual threads run through the fabric of distress.

As Sue Monk Kidd writes, “Somehow the transformation you knew would never come, that impossible plumping of fresh life and revelation, does come. It manifests itself in unseen slowness. So it … will happen to all who set out to knead their pain and wounds, their hopes and hungers, into bread. Waiting is the yeast of the human soul.”1

Beyond Shame

For church people, though, faith in the possibility of conflict transformation is often hard to come by. In the face of congregational conflict, they often lament, “We shouldn’t be having this problem.” This is often the first myth that must be dispelled in congregational conflict work. I cannot stress enough that there is absolutely no shame in having conflict in the congregation. In fact, it’s counterproductive to become mired in shame in this situation. There are many structural and systemic reasons why churches are prone to conflict,2 and shame only undermines the Spirit’s movement in the midst of conflict as God seeks to guide us toward healthy engagement with our problems and the possibility of transformation—of ourselves, of the problem, and of our despair into hope.

Even the least observant observer will readily see that there is a penchant for disagreement among homo sapiens. As they say in a tiny Czech village I visited years ago, “In Pusta Rybna, we have five people and six religions!” Where two or three are gathered together there is trouble—as well as divine presence. In the church we have passionate people, people who care, people who have hopes and dreams. These are also people with needs and expectations, quirks and histories. And we’re all partners in this great venture, manifesting the body of Christ, trying to hold it together, to be what Ephesians 4:16 extolls: “joined and knit together, upbuilding itself in love.” Quite the calling! Quite the challenge!

In the church, we strive to be inclusive and welcoming, to be compassionate and forgiving, to be low-key regarding accountability, and to avoid conflict. We sincerely desire to be faithful and do well at being the church, and conflict seems out of sync with that vision, besmirching our cherished body of believers and its heartfelt mission in the world—or so we think.

A Troubled Context

Perhaps we forget that the church dwells in a turbulent context. We laugh when we hear the joke comparing the church to Noah’s ark—that if it hadn’t been for the storm on the outside no one could have tolerated the stench on the inside—but there’s a serious truth in this analogy. People bring into the church their fears about the state of the world, along with their experiences, patterns, frustrations, sense of power and powerlessness, and coping mechanisms from life outside the parish, and then they sometimes fall into a kind of “sanctuary syndrome,” seeing themselves as refugees from a secular society, seeking safety and support among like-minded church folk all hoping to live happily ever after within the fold, embraced by unconditional love. Once again, idealism meets reality when conflict erupts. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. There’s grace to be had in these times of friction.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12, he captures eloquently both the essence of the life of faith, as expressed by individuals living together in community, and the eternal invitation into the grace of conflict transformation. It is important to remember that Paul penned those dynamic words because the early church needed them—they were no doubt conforming to the world, creating a hierarchy of different gifts, failing to love genuinely, lacking hospitality, impatient, despairing, and forgetting to pray. It was no easier for them to live together as faithful children of God than it is for us. Ideals and realities must always be held together in creative tension as we seek God’s grace, again and again, on our way through the realities into the possibility of transformation and renewal.

To explore the anatomy of conflict transformation in light of the spiritual life, let’s examine the journey of one congregation with whom I worked.

A Tale of Transformation

Several years ago, I was called as interim care minister for a short-term assignment in a small, urban congregation in Minneapolis that was struggling in the aftermath of clergy misconduct. I chose, as my primary strategy, the creation of a design team to help shape the work within the congregation. Based on recommendations from the congregation, the 23-member Reimagining and Reconciliation Initiative (R & R for short, and for irony) came into being, the name chosen by the group. I was surprised by the number of people who wanted to participate and pleased that the diversity of the congregation and the factions within it were represented. At their installation, group members were invited to consider the following commitments: Will you commit yourself to work toward healing and reconciliation within the congregation, praying for its well-being? Will you seek to listen to God’s Spirit speaking in your own heart and soul, and speaking through others? Will you seek the good of the whole community, honoring the different realities? And will you seek your own spiritual nurture so that you may grow in faith and hope, in love and joy as you help to shape the future of the congregation? To each of these questions, the Initiative members responded: “With God’s grace, I will.”

And grace was indeed needed, for it was a volatile situation, with verbal warfare punctuating Sunday’s coffee hour, and members disappearing week by week. Before I arrived they’d brought their issues to several congregational meetings, which, according to participants, ended as free-for-alls, replete with verbal attacks, yelling, and people walking out. The congregation seemed to be suffering as much from the verbal warfare as from the clergy misconduct. Some feared there would be no end to the emotional and spiritual bloodshed, and that the church would not survive. So it was with some uneasiness and fear that the Initiative began its work.

We wondered how in the world we could foster healing in such a fractured situation, how the congregation could ever move forward. But we forged ahead and worked hard, and what followed was a remarkable experience of collaboration, creativity, and grace, four months of bimonthly gatherings that challenged and moved us, nurtured our spirits, and deepened our connections with each other, with ourselves, and with God. Who would have thought it possible? But gradually people began to share their questions and dreams, fears and hopes, and pieces of their life stories as we took small steps toward unfolding the things that were closest to our hearts.

Reimagining and Reconciling

Our gatherings began with check-in, where we shared food, jokes and cartoons, and personal stories about unusual happenings since we’d last met. We then took turns leading a centering time, in which we offered scripture, readings, stories, and prayer.

Though various tasks came our way, our primary focus was a series of questions I invited the group to explore, questions designed to deepen their reflection on their experiences and values. Because we discussed the questions in dyads or triads, one question at a time, the process also helped Initiative members rebuild connections, because some had not spoken to each other—out of loyalty or opposition to the previous pastor—since the misconduct surfaced. We began with the following questions, with feedback later shared in the larger group:

  • What attracted you to this church and has kept you here?
  • How has this congregation and its ministry been important in your spiritual development?
  • Remember a moment in your experience with this church that has special meaning for you. What was that like?

Seeing that the group’s comfort level increased after these first few questions were explored, I asked if they would like to talk about their church experiences from the past year. They weren’t ready, they said, so we continued with more questions:

  • As you see it, what works well in the church at the present time?
  • To move forward in a positive way, what do you need and what do you feel the congregation needs?
  • What are your ideas about how the congregation can address these individual and community needs?

During this round of questions, I was pleased to note that people were beginning to partner with those from whom they’d been estranged. Great progress, I thought, confirming my sense that tension was easing and openness growing.

Then it was time to explore the future. “What,” I asked, “is your largest vision for the future of this congregation, and what are you willing to do to help the church move toward this vision?” But when I raised these last two questions, the group grew quiet and their energy seemed to dissipate. Finally, someone spoke up, “You know, I think it’s time to tell our stories. I don’t believe we can move forward until we go to the heart of what we’ve experienced this past year. After that, perhaps, we can engage the future.” Agreement came quickly from the whole group, and we made plans for a dialogue process I call “Circles of Understanding,” which I developed through my work in restorative justice and a Yukon-based training. To help the group prepare for this dialogue, I asked them to consider a number of reflective questions about themselves, the congregation, and how they would want their conversation to proceed (see box at left).

A Relational Covenant

As we gathered for our first circle process, some apprehension was evident, but it subsided considerably after we reached consensus on a relational covenant, an agreement about the nature of our conversation. The covenant was developed by the group members themselves through consideration of the question: “What do you need in order to feel safe enough to tell your deepest truth?” Each participant’s ideas were recorded, then negotiated and rewritten by the group as a whole. Ultimately, we arrived at the following covenant, which we read aloud together.

  1. We will speak and listen with respect.
  2. We will speak and listen from the heart.
  3. We will allow everyone to speak without interruption.
  4. We will speak from our own experience.
  5. We will hold this conversation in confidence.
  6. We will continue the conversation if necessary.
  7. We will pause for a “heart check” (moment of quiet), as needed.
  8. After everyone has had a chance to speak, we are free to speak again.
  9. We will seek to act and speak out of love for each other and the community.
  10. We will share responsibility for adhering to this covenant, and for creating a respectful, caring culture in this congregation.

The relational covenant served as a powerful symbol of common ground and mutual commitment for the group, and it later came to be used at all of the church’s board and congregational meetings.

  With the relational covenant serving as the foundation and frame for our circle dialogue, we began with an exercise designed to create a safe space for participation. In this opening exercise, each person was asked to consider the question, “What is one value, important to you, that you bring to this conversation?” and to write that value on a piece of paper. Then we agreed that we would use a “talking piece”—in this case a turkey feather, made into a talking piece by a local Ojibway tribe—to indicate who had the opportunity to speak while the rest of us listened. As the talking piece was passed from one person to another around the circle, each participant in turn explained the value he or she held as important and placed the piece of paper on which it was written in the center of the circle in such a way that each value remained visible. This exercise built commonality as everyone silently recognized that they shared the same values, such as respect, honesty, compassion, and trust.

The circle dialogue that subsequently unfolded was profound, respectful, and thoughtful. We moved next to the heart of the dialogue, focusing on a question the group had been asked to consider prior to the meeting: “What has your experience been during the past year at the church?” First, participants drew pictures representing how they had felt, which helped them open to their own stories. Then slowly, one by one, they began to relate their experiences. A moment of silence followed each speaker’s remarks as we honored what had been shared. People spoke authentically and thoughtfully from their depths, expressing diverse experiences and perspectives, interwoven with common threads. Some insights and emotions surfaced and were voiced for the first time. “I didn’t know how painful it was for some of you to feel shunned within the church because of your association with the previous pastor,” one woman commented. And one man said he had never realized, or admitted to himself, that he felt responsible for some hurt in the community because he had taken the issue to the denomination before the congregation had a chance to address it directly. A sense of reverence and awe seemed to grow silently among us, until someone named what others of us were feeling: “This is holy ground.” As the circle came to a close, everyone had a chance to reflect on what they had learned. After a closing, people connected further, sharing additional responses and hugs.

With the Circle of Understanding process behind them, the group was ready to move forward on their own to explore ways of bringing healing to the congregation, and to include others in the kinds of experiences they had shared.

Touching Grace

Shortly thereafter, as my work with the group was concluding, I asked them what they felt we had accomplished. Some said that telling their stories had helped them heal, that it had cleared out the cobwebs of their unclear thinking and made them ready for action. They told me they felt they had created raw material and energy and were now ready for next steps. Others reported gaining a deeper understanding of what it meant to be church and to be willing to risk. Many said they had reestablished trust with one another, building it in small steps. Participants also reported having experienced personal healings through being vulnerable, naming their hurts, and stating what they needed. “The Initiative work gave us hope,” one person said. “We have grown hope and leaked it out to others.” “We touched grace,” said another.

Awed by their responses, I asked what it was about our process that had made their progress possible. Here’s what they said:

  • We had time to process. It allowed people to catch up so they could make good decisions.
  • There was structure, but it was flexible, so we were able deal with emotions as they arose. There was a balance between structure and organic flow.
  • We created a safe environment where we felt able to speak our truth. 
  • The talking piece/circle process gave each of us an opportunity to speak and listen, and made spiritual space.
  • We each made a commitment to the process.
  • We started with nonthreatening questions and built up to deeper ones.
  • We felt good about our progress and our pace.
  • We recognized our commonalities by telling our stories.
  • We remembered the Spirit was at work, too; meetings were grounded in scripture.
  • We remembered to have fun together; we looked forward to the meetings.
  • We were able to come to the meetings as our authentic selves.
  • We were able to provide each other with ongoing support.
  • We had a chance to share in the leadership.

A Work in Progress

After my departure, the group continued on with the work they had begun, addressing questions and challenges as they arose, because their experience as part of the Initiative did not generate utopia, just a bit of grace along the way toward health and wholeness for the individual participants who had come together in this effort and for their community of faith.

At its core, conflict transformation is an experience of grace, a gift along the spiritual journey. We can and must prepare the way for conflict to be transformed, but we cannot predict or promise. Nurturing and strengthening our own spiritual lives and cultivating a vibrant spiritual life within the congregation help prepare the way for the transformation of conflict.

When we are in the midst of conflict, it is an act of faith to believe that conflict can be generative, that it can be the raw material for growth, a catalyst for positive change. But it truly can be. Conflict is always a call to renewal. It invites us to take another look, to remember who we are in our essence as children of God, beloved and loving. It gives us an opportunity to redefine who we might become, to refresh and enhance our connections with each other, and to revitalize our relationship with God. By listening to our experiences—where the Spirit dwells—and to our hearts and souls, we can come to trust the movement of the Spirit and to open ourselves to grace.

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Questions for Reflection 

  1. In order to understand the potential for good and ill within conflict, remember a recent episode of conflict:

    • What outcomes were destructive. What was lost or harmed?
    • What was positive, helpful, gained, learned, or changed?
     

  2. What strengths and limitations do you see in the process described in the above article?
     
  3. What tools and strategies for addressing conflict have you used, and what are their strengths and limitations?
     
  4. How do you bring your best self to a difficult situation?
     
  5. As a church leader, in what ways can you bring your skills and tools to a conflict when you are a participant in it?
     
  6. How can you utilize conflict as an essential tool for your own spiritual growth, and how can you lead the congregation in doing so?
     
  7. How does your view of God and the nature of life influence the way you understand and address conflict? For instance, if you understand God to be directive, facilitative, or fully present, how is that view reflected in the way you approach conflict? How do you feel about the outcomes?
     
  8. Who do you notice is effective in dealing with conflict, and what makes them effective?