Identifying the Conflict Level
If you have read the first two articles I posted on finding truth in times of deep conflict, you know that two critical components are an honest and humble assessment of what you think you know, and the reality that your preferred conflict style is getting in the way of discovering truth. Let me combine these two areas, as we look at five different levels of conflict. As I do, let me ask you to honestly identify what level of conflict you are in as it relates to THE most important conflicted relationship you have today.
Level I: Problem Solving
We have conflicting goals, values, needs, and plans. But we are problem-oriented not person-oriented. We are collaborating to seek solutions. Our language is clear, specific, and descriptive. Our strategy should be to seek resolutions by working together as we define the problem, gather information, and seek consensus on the best solution.
Level II: Disagreement
We have begun to protect our position and are now shrewd and calculating. Our language has shifted from specific to general. Instead of talking to one another, we begin using phrases like “There is no trust;” “We have a communication problem;” and “People should just act more Christian.” We have become reluctant to share all we know about a situation, withholding information that might hurt our position or enhance someone else’s position. Hostile humor is often present. Our strategy should be to work to reduce fear and increase trust by encouraging broader participation in decision making, empowering parties in their participation beginning at the lowest possible level of the organization, helping people to be open and honest; teaching communication skills, and seeking ways to encourage compromise.
Level III: Contest
Our objective has shifted to winning and we are unwilling to compromise. Factions have emerged and problems are now clustered into issues and causes with people taking sides and seeking to gain control. Language shifts and perceptions become distorted by magnifying every issue, becoming polarized, making false assumptions, and distorting time. We are reluctant to make peace overtures because that would appear to be losing. Our strategy should be to reduce the effects of fear; intervene as needed to address distorted thinking that is hiding the truth; encourage trust by reminding each other that we have gotten through tough times before; highlighting similar goals and interests; promote clear communication, and carefully structure the whole process. This usually will require outside consultation.
Level IV: Fight/Flight
Our emphasis has shifted from winning to removing all opposition through fighting or running. The dominant themes have become fighting for what is right and punishing wrong. Factions are solidly established with strong leaders emerging and we declare that getting our way is the only way to maintain the health of the church. Language has jelled into an ideology with members talking about principles more than issues. People have become detached, unforgiving, cold, and self-righteous. Our strategy should be to get outside help; lay careful and if necessary somewhat arbitrary ground rules; and appoint a monitoring or arbitration team.
Level V: Intractable
The goal is to remove the other parties from society. It’s not just good enough for us to win; the other side must be obliterated. We are now fighting for an eternal cause or for universal principles. The strategy now requires us to use outside arbitration.
In my opening article, I mentioned that the number one thing I have been invited to do in my soon to be 27 years of ministry as a DoM is to come into a church in the midst of conflict. The problem is that by the time I get the call, the church is at level IV or V conflict. By then, the genie is out of the bottle, the lid has blown off the pressure cooker, and all I can do is help churches pick up the pieces.
My prayer is that through better self-awareness and honest diagnosis of what conflict level you are in, you will be able to take the right steps and avoid further escalation. It also helps to approach difficult situations with the right heart. In addressing a polarized situation in Philippians 4, Paul exhorted them to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” and to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Next week, I’ll point out the specific steps Paul suggested in that passage.
Distilling Truth in Deeply Divided Times Part II
Last week I quoted Jesus’ statement to Pilate, “I came into the world, to testify to the TRUTH. Everyone who belongs to the TRUTH listens to my voice” (John 18:37). I also mentioned that even those of us in the church will struggle to identify TRUTH during times of conflict. I then pointed to the assumptions we make, and the time distortions we use to inform “our perceptions of truth.” Let me point to one of the biggest challenges we face as we seek to see things as God sees them: our conflict style.
A great tool that I ran across years ago is the Conflict Style Assessment developed by Jim Van Yperen and published by ChurchSmart Resources. I have used this piece and have seen the significant impact it has on staff development, pre-marital counseling, and general church leadership settings. The assessment identifies four primary ways that we will approach conflict. It has been extremely helpful in developing self-awareness. And the bonus part is that it doesn’t leave us hanging with our baggage, but it also lays out a Biblical seven-step process on how to practice peacemaking. Jesus stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers; For they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Here are the four primary conflict styles:
A quick sidebar—because of foundational Christian principles on forgiveness, the majority of churches will be filled with people who have these two responses. That is unless the church has a history of conflict. If that’s the case, then the evasives will simply leave and the majority of those left will be passive. Ultimately, when passives and evasives get their way, truth is diminished because no one is willing to confront falsehoods.
Another sidebar—everyone knows who the defensives and aggressives are in their church. They are the loudest and often viewed as the initiators of conflict. To the passives and evasives, the defensives and aggressives will be described as steam rollers. Ultimately when defensives and aggressives have their way grace, love, and compassion get swept away in pursuit of truth.
Two processing questions:
“We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth… the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14 & 17
To reflect the love of God, we must be willing to become more Christ-like in our approach to difficult people and circumstances. Through the indwelling and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we too must become filled with both grace and truth.
Are the lines straight or angled?
The number one thing that I have been asked to do in my twenty-seven years as a Director of Missions has been to step in and help a church in a time of conflict. As I have listened, I have heard brothers and sisters in Christ describe what had happened in a deeply divided narrative. Their stories are so different that I wonder, “Can they really be talking about the same incident, on the same planet, in the same universe, in the same time-space continuum?” A statement I always make is “Although your perception IS your reality; your reality is not always TRUTH.” As I say it and then explain it briefly, I try to do it with a little bit of humor knowing that what I have just said carries a little bite with it.
Today we live in an entire nation that is deeply divided. If you listen to a variety of news sources, you will hear a very different perspective on current events. I have found it has become more challenging to have a good conversation with someone who has a very different perspective. All of us have become entrenched in our positions, and to one degree or another have been blinded by our perceptions to the absolute truth of any given situation.
In His trial before Pilate, Jesus stated, “I came into the world, to testify to the TRUTH. Everyone who belongs to the TRUTH listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Unfortunately too often we are like Pilate whose response to Jesus was, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
When I have encountered conflict in churches and in my own life, I have found that a huge contributor has always been a clouding of TRUTH by each individual’s perceptions. Stop and ask yourself, “What informs my perceptions?” Stay tuned for more to come, but let me suggest two biggies:
My counsel is to approach every challenging situation with a huge dose of humility, an abundance of prayer, and a desire to seek TRUTH from the Lord. Conflicts are a natural part of life, but we can learn to handle them in an unnatural way. A truly Godly way.
This weekend we celebrated the anniversary of our nation’s birth. It falls in the midst of a historic time when all things are being called into question. Many are questioning the spiritual moorings of our history—can a nation claim manifest destiny that legalized slavery for the first seventy-five years of its existence, and that treated the Native Americans so poorly? Historic monuments are being vandalized and removed in an effort to correct or re-write our history.
As my reflections are being sent out, I am actually enjoying a few days of vacation with my grandsons in the Black Hills where I was born and raised. One of the sites we saw was Mount Rushmore during a time when it was drawing significant national attention as President Trump visited it on July 4th. Not only is the area the place where I was born, but it is also the place where I was born again. As a citizen of the great state of Wyoming—the Equality State where women were first granted the right to vote—and of the United States of America—a nation unique in history in many ways—I also became a citizen of the Kingdom of God!
Now, as a seventy-year-old grandpa, I returned to my roots with a different perspective. I have been greatly enriched and unbelievably challenged by my life experiences. But maybe, more importantly, I have been encouraged and edified by spiritual insights gleaned from God’s Holy Word. Some of those passages that speak to the issue of being a patriotic American are:
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."
Part of my heritage is what we called the Mountain West mentality as I was growing up. I have described it as rugged American individualism on steroids. God’s word has both tempered and informed me to realize that I cannot live my life in isolation, but neither can I deny my personal responsibility and accountability to God for all that He has given me. Living out that tension is not easy. There are moments when I want to buy a little cabin in the woods and run from the chaos of society. But my responsibility to God and my fellow man tells me I am to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. In times like these, I am CONSTANTLY reminded by God of the simple, yet profound, prescription He gave us for times when Christian Patriotism is hard:
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
On this 4th of July week, like none other in your life, join me in humbling ourselves before God, praying and seeking His presence (knowing everything depends upon Him), and turning from our self-serving individualism. God has promised that if we will do this with pure hearts, then He will hear our prayers, forgive our sins, and HEAL OUR LAND!
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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