Change, Challenge, and Conflict:
Through Struggle, We Grow

Pastor Jeff Wells
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost •
August 26, 2018

Scripture Lesson: Acts 15:1-14, 19-22, 30-33 (adapted from The Message)

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     Imagine, for a moment, a community – a church community – in which there is no conflict. What would that be like? If you are having a hard time envisioning what that would be like, there is a good reason: it doesn’t exist. It cannot exist. And, in fact, it should not exist.

     There is no area of our lives which is completely free from conflict. It is present in our relationships, schools, workplaces, churches, government, and international relations. If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that there is even conflict in our inner lives – in our thinking and our emotions. Sometimes, we even experience conflict in our relationship with God. Not only is conflict unavoidable, it is necessary. When we engage conflict well, it can provide the impetus for learning, innovation, growth, new insights, and deeper relationships. Conflict even opens the possibility of coming to know God in ways we have not experienced before. It has the potential to be a very constructive part of our relationships and community building. So, to paraphrase the Gospel of Matthew, “Wherever two or three are gathered [to transform conflict], Jesus is present.” [1]

     God desires that human beings use our freedom to make choices, individually and together. God calls us into relationship with one another – locally and globally. Out of our great variety of backgrounds, experiences, and histories, arise differences of perspective, understanding, opinion, and feelings. This is the source of conflict and tension. Conflict, then, is a natural part of God’s good creation. So rather than dreaming of the absence of conflict, our task is to seek the presence of peace and well-being for all as we try to engage conflict well.

     Whether conflict will lead to destructive or constructive outcomes depends on how we respond to it. If we believe all conflict is negative and inevitably destructive, we are going to react to it with defensiveness, fear, and anxiety. The feelings that often well up in us when confronted with conflict can cause us to run away or put up our defenses. These reactions typically create even more tension and a fighting posture from which only one winner can emerge. We end up building walls between us and other persons that can become almost insurmountable.

     That was a danger faced by the church in Antioch in the first century of the still very new Jesus movement. Members of this early church found themselves in the midst of a big theological and scriptural conflict – at odds over the rules for inclusion in the community of Jesus’ followers. The Spirit of God had already been at work among them through Paul and Barnabas and among the leaders in Jerusalem – opening them to a much broader understanding of who God wanted to reach through them. But the question of whether or not to require circumcision went to the heart of what vision each side thought Christianity ought to present to the world. We have been engaged for decades in a similar theological and biblical struggle in every Christian denomination over the inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons. That is the level of conflict that was posed in the early church.

     In the Bible, we get only an abbreviated version of this story and one written from the perspective of those whose position prevailed. But we can easily imagine that the dialogues and debates were much more involved and lengthy than what is recorded. The groundwork for the decision arrived at in the Jerusalem council must have required many long hours of meetings, debates, conversations, listening and sharing alternate perspectives. What we hear in the retelling is that each side had its proponents and detractors. The positions for and against circumcision were shared. They listened to each other and to the voice of God. And, ultimately, they came to a compromise – to include uncircumcised gentiles, with the provision that the gentiles refrain from actions that would offend their Jewish sisters and brothers. What we do not hear, but can also assume, is that some people did not go along. Some could not stomach the compromise. For some, circumcision was too important theologically and emotionally. Some left the church over this. Their story did not get recorded. Perhaps they returned to the synagogues or became a small sect of Jewish followers of Jesus that faded away without a trace. We need to be realistic when we listen to this story. We need to admit that not every attempt to transform conflict is going to make everybody happy. Just as in any other relationship, sometimes a separation is necessary.

     The church I served on Long Island experienced two major splits in the 1960s. The first was precipitated by the what was then called “open housing” – the struggle to make it possible for African-Americans to live in this very white community. The second occurred from differences over the Vietnam War. In both cases, more than 200 persons quit the congregation. I know from having read the documents and heard the stories that these conflicts were not handled in ways most likely to make everyone feel heard or open their hearts to compromise. The result was that it left a large part of the leadership prone to avoid any kind of conflict. There was actually an explicit agreement among much of the older leadership to never again allow a pastor to bring up a controversial subject that might highlight differences and create the potential for another split. Well, then I came along….

     I challenged the congregation in many ways over the ten years that I served there. I think that is part of a pastor’s responsibility. As an old adage says, we are called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” From the very first meeting I had with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, I made it clear that I was in favor of same-sex marriage. Actually, that was the only question about anything controversial that anyone asked me in that meeting. I said, “I am not here to impose my views on the congregation, but I hope that, as we get to know each other better, we will have the opportunity for conversation about this.”

     Someone recently accused me of being conflict avoidant. I don’t think I am. I think I am conflict patient. I think I have a high tolerance for being able to engage difference and tension and try to patiently persuade people over time. So, in the Long Island church, I continued to patiently challenge folks on going deeper as followers of Jesus, on integrating social justice and spirituality, and on becoming a radically inclusive church. In my fourth year at the church, two members put together a letter against me with a long list of complaints. They circulated it and got a total of 15 members to sign on. I found a lot of surprising names on that letter – persons with whom I thought I had a good and honest relationship. Of course, I was hurt by this. A few of those in the lay leadership who supported me were furious. But instead of becoming defensive or going on the offensive, we tried to use this incident as an opportunity to help the congregation learn how to engage complaints and conflict in healthy ways. The two lay leaders, members of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and I spoke in pairs with every signer of the letter who was willing. We sought to listen carefully to their concerns. We addressed those issues that we could. We started a monthly meeting after worship at which anyone could come to raise a concern, ask a question, or just complain. We installed two suggestion boxes. We repeatedly encouraged members to be as open and honest as possible about their feelings and concerns. We said, “If someone has an issue with the pastor or someone else in the leadership, please bring it to that person directly.” We taught, “If you can’t do that or you aren’t satisfied, go to one of the lay leaders.” We offered a version of the most basic conflict transformation teaching in the Bible, which says:

“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him – work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” [2]

We held a leadership retreat that focused on how to deal with conflict in healthy, loving ways. It included training in the circle process of conflict mediation. Some of you may be familiar with that. The result of all of this was the great lessening of tension and much more honest and open sharing of concerns. There was more intentional listening and forgiveness. That did not mean the congregation was suddenly free of conflict, but we had learned how to handle it with more cooperation, collaboration, and grace. We were grateful that no one left the church over this.

     I continued to preach and teach that I believed the church needed to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons in every aspect of church life, including ordination and marriage. In 2013, we assembled a committee that led a year and a half long conversation around becoming a more welcoming congregation. We brought in guest speakers, including former members of the congregation who had come out. We held several study groups. We held church-wide forums. Once we had drafted a welcoming statement, we made circle process gatherings available to every member who want to attend, facilitated by persons outside of the congregation. Parents had the opportunity for the first time to openly talk about their gay or lesbian adult children, who felt alienated from the church. Everyone had the chance to have their say, although many of those who were opposed to this direction refused to engage in the process. After this very thorough, though imperfect process, a Church Conference, open to the entire membership, voted overwhelmingly to endorse the new Mission and Welcome Statement.

     A handful of persons stopped coming to worship or moved to other churches, but many who did not agree with the vote remained active. I am convinced that we could not have carried out this process or gotten this result in 2015 if we had not responded to the conflict in 2009 with so much grace and education about engaging conflict well. We had lain the groundwork for a much stronger, healthier congregation.

     Conflict transformation demands openness, honest engagement, a willingness to really listen, and a willingness to make accomodations for our differences. In the Long Island church, we relied on our imaginations and the Spirit of God to envision together a new reality that none of us could yet see on our own. And we did our best to love one another through the process.

     I took so much time to tell you this story because I believe it is a powerful example of how a congregation can move from being conflict avoidant to being able to handle conflict in healthy ways and avoid factionalism or a split, even when the dealing with significant controversy.

     The Church of the Village already practices a high degree of collaboration, cooperation, and grace in addressing conflict among us. I simply want to urge us to continue to be as open and honest as possible with one another. If you have concerns or complaints, don’t share them only with other members who are your friends. Bring them to me or others in the leadership so that we can address them together in ways that will build beloved community among us.

     God is constantly working toward transformation of conflict, healing of brokenness, and establishing communion and community. God calls us to this work and can only accomplish it through us. A lot is demanded of us in this work. We have to be willing to yield to others. We have to approach it with persistence and patience. We have to act in a spirit of love. Conflict transformation is a risky business, but it is a noble purpose that is ordained by God and is worthy of all of our efforts.

 

[1] adapted from Matthew 18:20
[2] Matthew 18:15-17 (The Message)

 

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
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