Conflict is a part of life. We have to deal with differences of opinions and beliefs. Sometimes our differences create conflict in our relationships, and churches are no different from any other social institution: conflict can be destructive, but conflict can also be constructive. Healthy conflict, where differences are shared, viewpoints expressed in ways that share one’s views rather than condemn others can help us to learn from each other and to grow. It can, in the long run, help us to grow closer together and work towards common ground.
However, more often than not conflict can bring out the worst in us, because we don’t know how to deal with it in a healthy way. We don’t know how to confront conflict, when we have a disagreement with someone, or if someone has rubbed us the wrong way. Bad behavior happens in every social gathering. Churches are no exception. Someone rubs us the wrong way. We tell another friend about it. Gossip gets woven into the fabric of the group. The hurtful words come back around to the person they were about and the damage is done. Rather than dealing with conflict head on, we go round about ways of dealing with it to the point we often create more conflict over other issues than the original issue that was at conflict.
Case in point: in one church a big brouhaha occurred over an extra cake making its entrance at a church lunch. The person in charge of the lunch said quite sternly that they already had a cake and didn’t need another one. The person who brought the cake was hurt by those words and told several others they would leave the church. Yes. Over a cake.
The issue was not the cake. The issue went far beyond and before my time at the church, but it came to a head over the cake and the bad behavior was going around and talking to others rather than addressing the person they felt offended by.
Since moving to the South, I have found another layer of defense: “The devil must be in her.” “The devil is in control of that church.” Satan gets a lot of blame for personal conflict and poor leadership. I’m not going to debate the existence of Satan here, but I do think we blame others, or we blame Satan, rather than looking at ourselves.
When we have been wronged or hurt by someone in the church, what is the best way to deal with it? All too often, we talk to others rather than talking to the one who has wronged us, who may not even realize their actions were perceived as hurtful (as in the situation with the cake). While there are times when actions can be purposefully hurtful, many times it is our own reaction, based on experiences of the past that causes us to overreact and make mountains out of molehills.
Maybe it’s a regional thing to blame Satan (I never heard that when I served churches in the Northeast) but whether we blame Satan or the other person, the only thing we truly can control is our own reaction. How do we respond when we’ve been hurt? Where do we go? Who do we talk to?
As a minister, it has been a slow lesson for me to learn over the years that yes, there are toxic people in churches. Yes, there are times people do things on purpose to hurt others, even ministers. But most of the time, it is our reactions that can make conflict a place of growth and learning or a place of division. We can only control how we react and manage our own emotional response. We can’t change others. We can’t change the fact that there are control freaks and “Lone Rangers” and all sorts of different personalities in our congregations, but we can change how we react to them, and by our model, we can perhaps show others how to learn from conflict.
Then in the end, instead of one person in control and another person hurt, perhaps we’ll learn that the miracle is there are two cakes to enjoy. Or at the very least, maybe one will learn how their actions cause negative reactions in others, whether it be the controller of the lunch or the cake baker. And whether or not one believes Satan was involved, let us all at least remember we have control over our own actions and reaction, and that is the one thing we can fix, we can change. We can learn from conflict and grow from it, rather than being paralyzed and watching it spin out of control. And by our lesson, we can model for others a different way to live with each other in true Christian community.