How many of you handle conflict well? Just raise your hand. One of my really good friends and I joke about each other’s conflict styles. She was raised in a family that was very vocal about differences. She tells me stories about disagreements within her extended family and it makes me feel nervous. And she can’t believe the way that we deal with conflict. We say nothing. As far as it is humanly possible. It’s sort of what I like to call the New England School of Conflict Resolution. We believe in the fine art of strategic procrastination – if you wait long enough the problem with go away, even if it means you have to wait until you go home to rest with Jesus.
It is apparently a very timely subject. The Wall Street Journal had an article titled “The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations” just this last Thursday. One of the most respected books on congregational conflict management is called Discover your conflict Management Style by Speed B. Leas. It was written particularly for churches and synagogues to help them deal with conflict – and to think about conflict management before conflict arises. It is much more easy to address conflict early – rather than to let it settle in because it is nearly impossible for a church or synagogue to recover from a major, destructive, and divisive conflict. Leas’ theory is that each of us has a go-to conflict management style. You tend to fall into one of six styles:
It was no surprise when I took the test that I came out high in the category of avoid and accommodate. And just to defend myself – there is a lot of conflict that we could run into in life that is not worth engaging in – like the nice person on Route 9 who gives you that nice wave like this when you have committed not moving motor vehicle violation whatsoever (aggressive hand signals insert here). Or the person who for some reason does not see that there is a line for the next available teller. Who cares? Life is too short to lose it over such things. Or sometimes you know that if you engage in a confrontation it won’t go every well, that you won’t be heard, or it will cause more harm in the end than good.
But I also came out equally high on collaborate which is the style that you acknowledge that there is a problem, and with all interested parties you try to come up with options and the optimal solution for the problem.
What this book is helpful in doing is helping people implement the style of conflict management that is most needed in any given situation –different situations warrant different styles of conflict engagement.
Conflict is hard in a church. If you have been in a church with a major conflict you will know how true this is. As we talked about a few weeks ago during the sermon about what we value about our faith and our faith community here at St. Michael’s – we said things like kindness, community and love. So the question is, how can we have this if there is conflict? But what the gospel lesson seems to suggest is that conflict in our lives is inevitable. Here the gospel talks about sins – but in the church it may be something as small as a difference in how a committee should be run, or where outreach money should go, or the content of a sermon, or Sunday Forum Topic. And the advice given in the gospels is not only good for church but for our lives in general. The lesson from Matthew is quite clear: Go directly to the person to tell them the problem. Talk, communicate, let people know how you are feeling, without blame, without shaming, just tell them. And here’s why – the person might not know there’s a problem. And if they do not know there is a problem, they are not all of a sudden going to self-correct their behavior for the very simple fact that they are not aware that what they are doing is bothering someone – even if you think the problem is blatantly obvious or someone “should” know better. Additionally, this is also great advice also because it’s one on one. Every effort is employed to avoid embarrassing the offender.
But this is hard isn’t it? Because we don’t want to offend someone. It is much easier to complain to a third party that you are upset or annoyed.
So what if that does not work? Then the scripture says, if you are not listened to, then bring in a couple of witnesses to help you. Maybe some outsiders can bring some outside perspective to work toward reconciliation. And then only after that attempt has failed should the whole church be involved.
So what is the point of all this? The point is that even as like-minded as we may appear to be within our churches, within our family or our friend groups, towns or schools, some degree of conflict is inevitable. And the most loving thing we can do is to always to work for reconciliation. And what is important here is that Jesus is laying down the rules of conflict so that everyone is on the same page.
And that is really at the heart of this Gospel lesson – the lesson is that when someone is wrong the Christian approach should be to amend that problem. We are taught to work for reconciliation and healing. What the end game in Christian conflict is never meant to be punishment, but rather love. And even when Jesus says – let them become like a tax collector or a gentile to you – he is not saying throw them out and never be concerned with them again – because remember what Jesus did with Gentiles and tax-collectors? He ate with them, he talked with them, he healed them, never gave up on them, never stopped reaching out to them, and he loved them into the kingdom.
It is tempting to think that Christ is mostly present when things go well. But the truth is that our faith teaches us that Christ is all and in all – so even when we are hopping mad about something, Christ is right there with us trying to help us, as in the words of Paul for our lesson from Romans today “[to live] honorably as in the day and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
To end, I want to tell you of a term I learned during the Wellesley College orientation. They had a whole session on “carefrontation”. Many students from Wellesley College, like many of our children in this church, have never had to share a bedroom before. It may be the first time that they have had to tell a relative stranger that having the light on past 11pm or talking on the phone or FaceTiming until 12am or working on their computer all hours of the night is interfering with their sleep. But they said to the students, when you talk to your roommate or a friend about a behavior that is upsetting to them, it is not confrontation, it is carefrontation. People seldom self-correct if they don’t know there is a problem. Holding our frustrations and anger in – whatever we may believe, is not loving – it will eventually accumulate and explode and be ugly. If we can confront in a spirit of love, just say what we need, and we ourselves are also willing and able to receive the same sort of feedback graciously, and on advisement, there is the potential for so much more love in the world, and spreading love is, at the end of the day, our primary mission as Christians.