Controversies great and small

Controversies great and small: Seventh-day Adventists and conflict management

Principles for handling conflict in the local church and elsewhere.

Helen Pearson is a communication consultant in Berkshire, England.

I work with the business of reconciliation on two levels. As a public relations and communications consultant, I am usually concerned with enabling an organization to communicate better with its external audiences via mass media and other means. As a counselor, I work in communications on a micro-management scale, supporting people's attempts to improve both intimate and professional relationships.

In the course of my work, I've seen clear parallels between the business of reconciliation on the corporate and on the individual level. Almost always, when an organization is having difficulty communicating its work out side the organization, some of the problem is that the organization is driven by conflict inside.

Good communication inside means the same outside

In my work as PR consultant I have developed the maxim: "An organization's external communication is only as good as its internal communication."

If there is unity at the heart of an organization—a clear shared vision, good working practice, support and supervision of staff, transparent, regular and mutual communication—if all these things are valued in its culture, an organization will have few problems in creating a strategy for communicating with those outside the organization.

The same principle applies on the individual level. Internal conflicts hamper effective external communication. People at peace with themselves are less likely to have problems in communicating with others.

People who know their own strengths and weaknesses, people who are ready to recognize and acknowledge their own problems, are less likely to blame their own weaknesses on others, and less likely to apportion blame where it does not belong.

So when we come to talk about reconciliation, the heart of the matter is that internal and external communication in the individual and the group are vitally connected.

Identifying the unwritten rules of conflict

As Seventh-day Adventists and their fellow Christians work to improve their communication with what are sometimes viewed as unreceptive publics outside the church, it may be helpful to look at the dynamics of relationships inside the church. What sort of conflict resolution do we practice?

First of all, conflict is an everyday experience in every Seventh-day Adventist church or conference I have ever known. How do we relate to these conflicts? What are the internal messages—the unwritten rules about conflict and its resolution in the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

The Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach1 invites churches to examine their own dynamics and design their own versions of "The Unwritten Rules of Conflict Management in Our Church." I've accepted that invitation and asked myself: What are the unwritten rules when conflict arises in a group of Seventh-day Adventists—in an Adventist institution, on a church board, in a Sabbath School class, and even in a Seventh-day Adventist family?

The unwritten commandments are, it seems, as follows:

1. Thou shalt be nice. Niceness is the essence of Christianity.

2. Thou shalt not confront others in public. The church is our home and conflict belongs in the outside world; out there, not among us in our home.

3. Conflict is nasty and unmanageable, it is painful and messy. Yes, it is evil and raiseth thy blood pressure.

4. If challenged or confronted in public,thou shalt not listen to thine enemy but prepare thy speech while thine enemy is still speaking.

5. Thou shalt not speak with nor look at contentious persons who are likely to disagree with thee. Those who have raised thy righteous anger are to be avoided. As the apostle Paul says: Have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions (see Titus 3:10, 11).

6. Thou shalt not speak to those with whom thou dost disagree lest they lead thee into the sin of anger.

Thou shalt rather get angry with them and talk about them behind their backs.

7. Thou shalt not show emotions in public—if thou art a man, it is better to maintain a remote silence than to show controlled emotion. If thou art a woman, thou shalt not argue.

8. If conflict arises, thou shalt not discuss thy problems face to face. Go to thy home and write a critical letter or email.

9. If someone disagrees with thee, tell him or her to go home and pray about it until he or she sees that you are right. We have no time to resolve conflicts. We must finish the work.

10. Thou shalt keep the peace at all costs. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Where does it say anything about those with concerns for truth and justice in the Beatitudes?

11. If thou must confront, save thy energy for the church business meeting where thou canst argue about money.

12. If thou dost not like the way things are going in the church, blame the pastor, or the church board, or the General Conference, or "the brethren." And if all else fails, find another "they" to focus upon.

Familial dysfunction

There's a lack of synchronicity between what we say and what we do. Like a dysfunctional family, we avoid conflict at all costs until it blows up. And it usually does. Then there is pain and schism and division. As the conflict erupts, people inevitably sustain wounds which, if they are not treated and healed, get inflamed again in the next round of conflicts.

As I mix with other Christians, and as I read John Paul Lederach's commandments for the Mennonites on which those above, for the Adventists, are based,2 I am slightly comforted to see that Adventist behavior is not unlike that of other Christians—we are all only too human!

If we are to take the first step in any real reconciliation and be honest with ourselves, we may need to look first at our behavior and then more fundamentally at our theology.

New beatitudes

As my contribution to a discussion of these issues, I would like to suggest twelve beatitudes for peacemakers:

1. Blessed are those who are pre pared to move toward a difference of opinion, not away from it.

2. Blessed are those who see conflict as a problem to be resolved, not a battle to be won.

3. Blessed are those who are pre pared to give a full hearing to the other side of the question without worrying about what they are going to say next.

4. Blessed are those who can give equal hearing to the demands of the four great values: truth and justice, mercy and peace.

5. Blessed are those who can listen to an outpoured can of worms and identify the real issue.

6. Blessed are those who when confronted by someone who dis agrees with them avoid saying directly or indirectly: You are the problem. Your ideas and behaviors are wrong.

7. Blessed are those who, when confronted by someone who dis agrees with them, are prepared to say: "We have a problem here. What can we do about it?" 8. Blessed are those who see people not problems—who work with individual concerns, not stereotypes.

9. Blessed are those who are pre pared to acknowledge their own uncertainties, defenses, and hang-ups.

10. Blessed are spouses and friends and colleagues who are prepared to ask each other, Do I have a problem? Is something I am doing contributing to this conflict?

11. Blessed are those who are pre pared to abandon roles and position and then acknowledge and speak from their common humanity.

12. Blessed are those who are frequently heard to say: Please, Thank you, and I'm sorry.

Theology and conflict

Finally, and most importantly, we must come down to the theological underpinnings of our ideas about conflict. If we are to make headway with reconciliation over the issues in our churches, institutions, and families, there are four areas we may need to look at:

1. Our understanding of truth as a process. Do we need to revive the Adventist pioneers' concepts of "present" truth? Do we need to find, as they had to, truth for ourselves, hammered out among us at personal cost?

2. Our concept of God's words as comforting. The apostle Paul reminds us that God's Word—the Word that brings comfort—is also a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). Coming to the truth is not always an easy or comfortable process.

3. The implications of our belief in the Incarnation. What did it mean and what might it mean to us, to live alongside those with whom we disagree?

4. The object of our worship. What does it mean to worship the Servant King alongside the High King of heaven? We must beware of hierarchy in all its ecclesiastical and institution al forms and pursue mutuality in our dealings with each other. In our church organization we should pursue forms of participative management long understood and practiced in secular organizations.

At the heart of everything, we need to find ways of constantly refreshing our belief that the truth about reconciliation is rooted and grounded in the good news of the gospel, which teaches us that we will never be forgiv ing people unless we first know ourselves to be forgiven people.

Reconciliation is more than a policy or a strategy or a process; it is the gospel way of life.

Yes, of course we want to communicate better with the world. Fine. Then we first need to communicate better among ourselves.

1 John Paul Ledeiach, The journey Toward Reconciliation (Herald Press, 1999), 101.

2 Lederach, op.tit, 101-103.

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Helen Pearson is a communication consultant in Berkshire, England.

April 2004

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