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When the Conflict is Over—Let the Healing Begin!
by Abby Mendelson




This article is one of a series on Conflict Resolution in the Faith Community published by the Conflict Resolution Center International. For more information about conflict resolution contact:

Conflict Resolution Center International
204 37th Street
Pittsburgh PA 15206-1859
USA
Tel: 412-687-6210 • Fax:412 687-6232
E-mail: Paul@ConflictRes.org
Website: http://www.ConflictRes.org


When the Conflict is Over—Let the Healing Begin!

You know the scenario: the liturgy or the minister or the youth program rankled since time began. Finally, the issue came to a head, the offending party left, and the bitter meetings are finally gone—along with the members who quit in disgust. Well, you sigh, surveying the carnage, at least the conflict has ended. Or has it?

If you listen to professional mediators and conciliators—and the participants themselves—you hear quite a different story. Yes, the new minister is ensconced in the pulpit, and everyone seems happy, but there are those undertones about who cost the congregation what—and why.

Indeed, such feelings do not dissipate overnight—or perhaps even over decades. In the following case histories, see how the conflict ended, then consider how the healing might begin. The actual resolutions, as well as mediation techniques, follow:

My Book's Better Than Yours!
When one Pacific Northwest congregation was feeling its age, some newer members wanted to update the liturgy. Predictably, the congregation split along generational lines—the older members kept it the way they had always prayed, while the younger revisionists moved across town.

Not With My Dollars You Don't!
When one river city congregation split over writing an institutional budget, there was a great deal of misunderstanding—and anger—over new programming. "The budget was eventually passed," one combatant recalls, "but the real result was a lot of distrust."

My Minister Right or Wrong!
When one Midwest minister resigned under a firestorm of allegations concerning co-mingling congregation funds—and congregants' wives—a once-proud church was decimated. One-third left with him, another third simply left, and a third was left to deal with the acrimony.

Our Roots Grow Deeper Than We Know!
When one Great Plains congregation found its minister accused of ethical misconduct, and ordered a mandatory leave of absence while they straightened things out, they found that a seemingly straightforward conflict stretched back a quarter-century—and had to explode.

Come, Let Us What? Together!
When one East Coast congregation finally relieved its errant minister of his duties, they felt the healing would begin. An interim minister came to begin working on a conciliatory liturgy—but found strong pockets of resistance.

Don't Wash Me In Someone Else's Sins!
When one coal country congregation barely survived three ministers in eight stormy years, they hired a man with a reputation for healing just such wounds. Walking in the lion's den, he found angry congregants fuming over his predecessors' alleged misuse of time, funds—even computers.

Now What? How Does The Mediation Begin?
In every one of these instances, merely to stop the conflict was not to staunch the wound. Indeed, mediation specialist Mark Chupp, in Conflict Transformation: A Spiritual Process, defines intrachurch healing as “a deeply spiritual process [which] goes beyond dispute settlement to address internal needs and root causes. Transformation takes place only when the creative spiritual energy within each person comes to life and results in an internal shift in perceptions.”

A tall order? Perhaps, but many resolution experts claim the spiritual side is the only way for complete congregational healing. But how do such ideas work?

Let's see the aftermath of the six conflicts stated above—and what vital resolution lessons can be learned:

What happened?
Sometimes no answer is the answer. When the Northwest congregation reached an impasse, and couldn't do anything to resolve the conflict, they set aside acrimony and entered into an amicable divorce. The once-fractious group now gets along just fine, but in separate facilities with widely divergent liturgies.

The Lesson: Agree to disagree—and leave it at that.
As world-renowned author and lecturer Rabbi Yisroel Miller puts its, "It's a peculiarly American delusion to believe that every problem has a solution. Some don't—and never will."

Adds Roger Fisher in Getting To Yes, sometimes an outright split is the best for all parties—for only then can each side begin the healing process, each in its own time and space.

What happened?
They made a budget—and drew a blueprint for the future. Once the river city expenditures were approved, the warring camps began to talk to each other again. What's more, the pro-youth group wisely invited the anti-youth group faction to get involved—and they did. "It was spontaneous regeneration," one observer says.

The Lesson: Never be afraid to take a risk—for peace.
"Frequently," warns Ron Kraybill in The Cycle of Reconciliation, "the proper words may be spoken on every side, yet in people's hearts there is distance and bitterness [because] no one is willing to risk anything." Therefore, he adds, although building post-conflict relationships may be difficult, that hand must be extended—that risk must be taken—to move forward.

What happened?
Although the minister left, the congregation remained badly split. Some Midwesterners blamed the errant minister, others blamed the congregants who fought for his dismissal. But simply changing clergy was not enough: the laity needed to articulate their sense of betrayal—and learn from it.

The Lesson: Learn from your mistakes—and prevent a relapse.
"Focus on learning from the experience," counsels David Brubaker, a renowned mediator often brought in after a conflict is over to facilitate healing. "Congregations are like people," he adds, "in that they are not looking for change. That's why conflict is good: it makes people think. A dispirited congregation will ask, 'what's wrong with us?' That's precisely when they can begin learning how not to repeat the same mistakes."

What happened?
An outside mediator helped show them the historical nature of their conflicts. Under unflinching self-analysis facilitated by a professional mediator, the Great Plains congregation discovered that they tend to avoid conflict—until conditions go over red line and lead to an inevitable explosion. With help, they created an early-warning system to identity sources of potential conflict—and to defuse them before they become self-destructive schisms.

The Lesson: Bring in a mediator—or the wound may never go away.
"Because both sides only see anger, the key is to have them talk not to each other," says Larry Stone, a professional conflict mediator, "but to the impartial third party. The mediator does not play Solomon the Wise but instead pulls the anger out of each side and then validates what is important. Once each side begins to articulate exactly what they feel is important, and to listen carefully before reacting, they begin to exchange information instead of invective. That's when the real healing begins."

What happened?
The congregation continued to grope for a way to heal. When the East Coast minister's dismissal polarized the congregation, a recovery team worked on reconciliation, including a half-dozen congregational meetings for people to talk about their pain, informal get-togethers, intimate meals, even an interim minister to work on a liturgy of reconciliation. While factions still remained, and were considered inevitable, the final celebration of healing required that congregants write down the things they felt they had lost; then, as a way of putting the entire experience behind them, the cards were publicly burnt.

The Lesson: Accept polarities—and understand that you need both sides.
"After any conflict," comments Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, a Mennonite conciliator, "you have to accept the fact that people are at very different places. People have to accept those differences, have to understand that they experience things one way, but that people in next pew experience them differently. Healing does not mean that everyone thinks the same way. Instead, it means bringing people together, having both sides see their real need for each other."

What happened?
A calm, steady hand won the day. Determined to be his own man, the new minister was careful not to align himself with any faction. Speaking calmly, never revisiting the past, never blaming anyone, he set about doing his job, deliberately spending time with every group—until he became accepted by all of them.

The Lesson: be above it—and don't look back.
Healing, says Rabbi Isser Pliner, begins with clergy. A new minister "has to establish himself as an individual with a caring personality. He must demonstrate that he understands the congregation's mission, must see the congregants as consumers, and must prove that he is going to put out the best possible product for them. Simple humanistic traits are so important to heal wounds."

Copyright 1999 Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc.