I’m sure you have probably heard the old adage that says Baptists are like alley cats. You know what you get when cats fight an alley on Saturday night? More cats.
Conflict is similar to this because the more you focus on the existence of unhealthy conflict in a congregation or denominational organization, the more conflict you get. It’s a simple case of you get more of what you focus on.
Some years ago I was asked by a regional denominational organization to spend the day with them. They had a problem. Six years earlier they figured out that the greatest challenge facing their congregations was unhealthy conflict.
To address the situation the staff decided they would seek training and certification in various approaches to conflict mediation so they could assist their congregations. After half a dozen years of this focus on conflict something was not working. They were frustrated. They were overstressed. They needed answers.
In applying their newfound skills and certification, what they discovered was that the incidences of significant conflict in their congregations requiring outside intervention were steadily increasing.
The day I met with them, they were frustrated about our meeting. They knew that the morning they would spend with me they would have multiple messages for each one of them from congregations in conflict.
It turns out that over the past six years they had continually and regularly said to the congregations that they are experts in conflict. “If you have any conflict, we’re here to help.” They had taught their congregations that if you want the attention of the staff, then express it in terms of conflict.
I asked what questions they wish their congregations were asking them rather than always asking about conflict. They wished their congregations were talking to them about spiritual formation, vitality and vibrancy processes, or how to be involved in starting a new ministry or congregation.
My solution was simple. Start telling your congregations you are experts in spiritual formation, vitality and vibrancy processes, and church planting. Never mention conflict again unless they bring it up.
About a year later I saw a staff person from this regional denomination at a national meeting. I asked how it was going. He said that he now works for different regional denomination. No, he had not changed jobs. But that same regional denominational organization was a totally different place and atmosphere now. They had more positive, energizing talk among the staff and with the congregations.
They planted more churches in the last year than any previous five year period. They were deeply engaged in issues of spiritual formation and strategic planning with multiple congregations. The incidences of unhealthy conflict in the congregations had dropped dramatically.
Their situation reminded me of a story about the early days of the USA presidency of Richard Nixon. He and Henry Kissinger were meeting together in the Oval Office of the White House. The Nixon family dog was in the Oval Office. There was new carpet in the room that still smelled of the dye and other chemicals.
The dog scratched at the carpet as it moved around the room. Nixon kept telling the dog to quit it, but the dog never stopped. Finally Nixon reached into his desk and pulled out a box of dog biscuits and threw one at the dog who took it to a corner of the room and stop scratching at the carpet.
Henry Kissinger, then turned to the president and said, “Mr. President, you have just taught the dog to scratch at the carpet.”
When I meet with congregations to talk about their vitality and vibrancy, and when we enter into a process of a spiritual and strategic journey, very quickly they want to begin telling me what’s wrong with congregation.
I proactively express disinterest in this, indicating that I will not have any difficulty discovering the problems and weaknesses of the congregation. I want to change the script. I want to talk about the signs of health and strength in the life and ministry of this congregation. If we begin by talking about the problems we will never be finished enumerating them. Likewise, if we start by talking about the signs of health and strengthen the life and ministry of the congregation, we will never finish enumerating them.
It is signs of health and strength that give new life to congregations. It is not the signs of weakness or the things that are wrong, or the places of unhealthy conflict. Do not hear me suggesting we avoid unhealthy conflict when it is obviously present. Hear me saying that the signs of health and strength when applied to the unhealthy conflict in many congregations diminish their influence, and at times resolve the issues.
If you want more conflict, talk about conflict. Focus on it. Emphasize it. If you want less conflict, talk about the signs of health and strength in the life and ministry of your congregation. It is amazing what you and God together will be able to do with this.