Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 2

Path Broken Between People

There are three dimensions of conflict:

  1. The perceived issue
  2. The often unhealthy ways in which people interact with one another
  3. The capacity of people to talk in non-distorted and non-anxious ways to resolve the root issue.

In these posts I will consider a systemic view of conflict and a biblical response to each dimension:

  1. How to identify and address the root issue
  2. How to establish scriptural guidelines for healthy interaction
  3. How to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of conflict to help people listen well and own their own issues.

A Systemic View of Conflict

Systems thinking is a framework for seeing the interrelationships and behavioral patterns within a church or organizational culture rather than (simply) seeing a collection of individuals. A systemic view of conflict (and the goal revitalization) seeks to identify root issues, not just symptoms – and leverage them with well-focused actions and changes that can produce significant and enduring improvements.[1] When the interconnected systems of a human body (e.g., circulatory system, skeletal system, respiratory system, central nervous system, digestive system, etc.) are all working well together we call that health. When these are systems are not working together we call that disease. Organizations are similar; when the interconnected systems are not functioning together it creates dis-ease. Wherever a church experiences dis-ease it is a systems issue.

Congregations are organizations that are multiple, complex families made up of smaller family units. People bring their family problems and backgrounds into the mix of church life. For that reason, everything that happens is related to everything else. When leaders understand this, their perspectives on situations change. They can no longer accept simple, single-answer explanations for church behavior. They must look at the whole and see the parts as affecting the whole. Scripture is replete with examples of family systems issues and patterns of sin that were passed down from generation to generation (Exodus 20:5). For example, Jacob’s sons functioned deceitfully throughout the course of their lives because Jacob himself had been deceitful. Jacob was deceitful because Isaac had been deceitful and Isaac saw deceit first hand in the behavior of his father Abraham (Genesis 13–50).

The antidote is found in Leviticus 26:40-42:

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

In his book Making Peace: A Guide To Overcoming Conflict, Jim Van Yperen makes some sweeping statements:

  1. Church conflict is always theological, never merely interpersonal. Efforts to restore and reconcile personal relationships without addressing the underlying systemic and theological roots will always be inadequate.[2]
  2. All church conflict is always about leadership, character, and community. Conflict reveals who we really are. A leader will respond to conflict out of his or her own character far more than knowledge – revealing the true character of the leader.[3]
  3. To be redemptive we have to think and discern systemically. To change the system the underlying structure, or system dynamic must be changed (or leveraged) or the “fix” won’t last[4] – and homeostasis[5] or “snap-back” will occur.

For revitalization to take place (at least) five biblical mandates need to be implemented:[6]

  1. Examine, identify, confess, and repent of past failure/s
  2. Identify root needs, causes, or flaws in character, behavior, or thinking
  3. Through gospel clarity unlearn negative habits and dysfunctional behaviors practiced over time
  4. Through gospel clarity relearn new habits of behavior and thinking
  5. Reconstitute personal character and church culture

A model of organizational change that many have found helpful is the (Kurt) Lewin 3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing –> Changing –> Refreezing.

Seven basic family/congregational concepts that have particular relevance:[7]

  1. Resist homeostasis (see footnote #5)
  2. Resist overfunctioning
  3. Become a non-anxious presence
  4. Resist triangulation attempts
  5. Resist becoming the identified patient (i.e., The ‘scapegoat,’ ‘symptom-bearer’ or ‘presenting problem.’ The shame and toxicity of the dysfunctional family system is ‘dumped’ on the identified patient.  An example, on a large scale, would be the Jewish people who became the identified patient of the Nazi regime.)
  6. Resist becoming part of the broken system/s
  7. Expect sabotage

[1] Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday; Rev & Updated ed: 64, 114.

[2] Van Yperen: 24.

[3] Van Yperen: 24-25.

[4] Van Yperen: 38.

[5] The tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes.

[6] Adapted from Van Yperen: 37-38.

[7] Adapted from Friedman: 202-219.

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