Church conflict: The role of the third voice

The value of intentionally having a neutral voice in conflict situations.

Scilla Wahrhaftig is an active member of the Pittsburgh Friends Meeting (Quakers) with a long-term interest in conflict resolution.

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into the process of being healed, for they will become healers. Blessed are those who recognize their own inner violence for they will come to know nonviolence. Blessed are those who can for give self, for they will become forgivers. Blessed are those who are willing to let go of selfishness and self-centeredness, for they will become a healing presence. Blessed are those who listen with compassion, for they will become compassionate.  Blessed are those who are willing to enter into conflict, for they will find transformation. Blessed are those who know their interdependence with all creation, for they will become unifiers. Blessed are those who live out a contemplative life stance, for they will find God in all things. Blessed are those who strive to live these beatitudes for they will be reconcilers.

—Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, Used by permission

One of the greatest needs in conflict situations is to nurture the decision-making process. It becomes sorely tested because strong advocates for and against an issue are seldom able to concern themselves with the process. The group most able to do the nurturing consists of those whose voices are least heard. These are the people who are less tied up in the outcome and more with their struggle to find truth in the conflict situation. I call them the Third Voice. They are likely to be the key to resolving the conflict.

For example: After five years of turmoil, a small Jewish congregation nearly broke apart. Meetings had broken down into harsh debates and contests between the two main factions. One group wanted the congregation to stay the way it always had been—small, intimate, and based on volunteer help. The other wanted a professional rabbi and a Hebrew school. The congregation became ungovernable—no one would run for office.

They finally brought in a conflict resolution consultant who understood that a major part of the problem was that the strong advocates for and against these proposed changes had dominated congregational meetings. An important part of the congregation had become painfully silent or silenced.

This congregation was like most faith bodies in that it had a problem-solving procedure in place. This may be a formalized disputing process, congregational meetings, grievance procedures, prayer sessions, or board of trustees meetings. A common element is that these procedures handle difficult conflicts better when all voices are heard: not just when adversarial factions are considered.

When a Friends (Quaker) Meeting recently was locked in conflict, a member, Ruth Dymond, observed: "I believe people should come to a Business Meeting with strong convictions and that the expression of those views leads to a strong Meeting. It is important to the process and will help, if those who are neutral, as well as the clerk (chair of the meeting), make sure that all are heard. If this is not done, it leaves members not only feeling unheard and angry, but we also miss the joy and excitement of a decision made by true unity." This was a spontaneous plea for Third Voice participation.

The role of the Third Voice

The role of the Third Voice is not easy. One is likely to feel buffeted and indecisive when faced with the strong convictions of others. It is tempting to withdraw or just wait and see. The key tasks of the Third Voice are to reach out to both sides, to ask questions, to listen, to keep the dialogue open in any way they can, and again to listen. This approach is vital because members of the vocal faction often feel isolated, lonely, and estranged from the congregation. They feel that no one is interested in their views and that their perspectives are not heard or understood. Additionally, opponents lose their identity as individuals and become subsumed in the will of the group. The Third Voice can help to remind everybody that people have names; that they are still the persons we knew and loved before the conflict. By doing so they help to separate the problem from the person, and remind fellow members of the presence of the Divine Spirit. These activities help break through the paralysis caused by the strong positions articulated and help open up avenues of communication. Without Third Voice involvement the congregation will probably stay divided and polarized.

How did the consultant for the Jewish congregation involve the Third Voices? She organized a series of small, well-facilitated living-room meetings to discuss the future of the congregation. Every member was expected to and did attend one. The home environment, a prayerful beginning of each meeting, and the small size of the groups created a less threatening atmosphere. That encouraged the Third Voice members to participate.

The consultant also conducted a written survey of each member's thoughts about the synagogue's future. This established a non-threatening way for the less vocal members to express their views. Further, she monitored membership and board of directors meetings so they would encourage Third Voice participation. Their commitment to the continued existence of the congregation as a top priority led the members to find win/win solutions.

They agreed to establish a religious school with limited funding, to expand the role of the cantor (liturgical singer) rather than hire a rabbi, and, most importantly, to establish a reconciliation task force to assure that all voices would be heard in future meetings. This synagogue's attitude toward conflict is now much healthier.

What the Third Voice accomplishes

Ron Kraybill, a Mennonite conflict resolver, in an article entitled "Conflict in Groups: The Cross Stitching Effect,"1 points out that "what people expect in conflict happens. The key is [the] member's attitude to conflict." He goes on to say that in a healthy congregation, "Members know that conflict is inevitable, even necessary to healthy group life. Disagreement in a group is evidence of caring and involvement. When issues arise, members move toward each other, not away, and they enjoy the vigorous exchange of views that follow." The middle, or Third Voice can help the congregation to be less afraid of conflict and to welcome it as an opportunity.

Any reconciliation process is a continual search for divine guidance. Out of that search will come creative and new ideas. Often with strong voices all around, and with an exaggerated sense of urgency to find resolution, we lose faith. It is the job of the Third Voice to remind us to allow time and patience for the process to work.

In the long run, the Third Voice provides stability and a sense of security to the congregation. The people of the Third Voice keep the institution going. By their presence they reassure people that, even though things seem in chaos, the congregation will survive. A solution will be found, and they are there for the long haul. They are also there to remind their fellow worshipers that a conflict buried destroys. A conflict resolved brings new depth and growth to the congregation as well as drawing the group closer in love and friendship.

Blessed are those who strive to live these beatitudes for they will be reconcilers.

1 Ron Kraybill, "Conflict in Groups: The Cross-Stitching Effect/' in Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual, Ed. by Carolyn Shrock-Shenk. (Akron, Penn : Mennonite Conciliation Services, 1999), 247.


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Scilla Wahrhaftig is an active member of the Pittsburgh Friends Meeting (Quakers) with a long-term interest in conflict resolution.

May 2001

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