Conflict Management in Staff and Internship Settings
CONFLICT MANAGEMENT IN STAFF AND INTERNSHIP SETTINGS
By Donald W. Welch
Pastoral Ministries Coordinator
Church of the Nazarene
Trying to avoid conflict many times propels us further into unresolved pain rather than the pleasure we yearn for through open, communicative, interpersonal relationships. Each of us could tell of a painful confrontation or subtle conflict, resulting in the loss of a friendship or that significant other, or even the change of leadership position. The word conflict conjures up different mental images in relation to individual experience. G. Douglass Lewis, in Resolving Church Conflicts: A Case Approach for Local Congregations (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), says, “Conflict is two or more objects aggressively trying to occupy the same space at the same time.” Many times, having survived a conflict, we have to learn how to pick up the pieces and live with the painful aftermath of heated conflict that we would just as soon forget.
To teach conflict management in an internship setting without understanding one’s strength and weaknesses as a conflict manager is as futile as trying to teach someone how to perform brain surgery without ever having attended medical school. It is an impossibility. Therefore, it is good to explore one’s personal biases, weaknesses, or lack of skill when trying to teach conflict management in the internship setting, and to investigate the process for handling and implementing appropriate conflict techniques.
Robert D. Dale, in Pastoral Leadership, says: “Broadly viewed, there are two types of congregational conflict: conflict over facts and conflicts involving feelings. Most disagreements blend both facts and feelings” (p. 159).
Having now served as a college administrator, associate pastor at one of our college churches, and senior pastor, I have come to realize that in the various facets of ministry, conflict is as natural to the church as breathing and eating are for physical beings. I’m not saying that all conflict is healthy, but neither am I saying that all conflict should be labeled “bad.” In any event, learning to deal with conflict in a productive manner can enable us to be more effective ministers.
This became more apparent to me the day I tried to purchase my first new automobile. I found the ideal car that, I thought, would meet all my needs as a minister: conservative in style (not too flashy), economical (very easy on my car allowance), it was large enough to transport five grown people and, in addition, the Consumer Guide qualified it as “dependable.”
Driving my old ’71 Toyota to the dealership with high hopes of purchasing my first new automobile was a momentous occasion. (My old car had been operating without a reverse gear for over a year.) With a smile and high expectation, I looked forward to the ensuing dialogue between the salesman and myself. I would soon be on my way in my brand-new car, with a reverse gear that worked. Up to that point the salesman and I were really hitting it off, and I sensed that we shared a real appreciation for each other. Having done research into the particulars of this car, I had a fairly good ideas as to what I could afford and what I was willing to pay for it. And then the big C happened. The price the salesman quoted over the telephone was not the same as he was quoting on paper. I gently questioned him. After a pause, and almost as smoothly as a pastor summing up his Sunday morning message with a powerful concluding illustration, he drove home his all-inclusive point. It was then I noticed his demeanor changing almost as quickly as Pinocchio’s facial transformation when he told a lie. (If Geppetto had been close by at that point, I would have asked him if this salesman was telling the truth or not.)
The salesman’s jargon from this point on was unfamiliar and, I thought, could have dissipated the most idealistic car enthusiast. His speech ran with pietistic overtones that made me think of certain times I wished to forget, when I had preached. Was my preaching being lived out in my daily experience? At that moment I began to notice my posture changing from relaxed and casual to stiffened and defensive.
As I questioned my own communicative abilities, I tried to reassure myself that I had taken significant communication courses in college and seminary, and I was no dummy. I had always been able to communicate fairly well with people. Perhaps I had misunderstood this salesman’s original commitment over the telephone. Not wanting to judge that salesman (why, with all of the pictures of his children, his wife, and their pets there on his desk, I could clearly see that he was a good family man), I tried to regain my composure. I wanted desperately to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the more I tried, the more I found myself bristling. Surely this isn’t happening, I thought to myself, though I had heard my friends relate similar experiences. I still believed I could overcome this conflict. Or maybe, even yet, I might see this salesman’s nose growing, giving away the secret that, yes, he was lying to me all along.
But I was already judging this man and doubted his honesty and integrity. I had been honest with him, and he was using my open, up-front approach against me (at least I thought so). He had attacked me where I was vulnerable, and there had been a deception from the beginning, as far as I could ascertain.
The conversation disintegrated into a nonnegotiable battle. He said that his boss wouldn’t come down any further on the price, which was nowhere near the price quoted over the telephone that initially drew me to that particular dealership. From his point of view we were only in conflict over price; from my perspective we were in emotional conflict over his lack of principle. I ended up leaving the dealership frustrated, angry, and determined not to be caught in such a dilemma again. Unfortunately, I have since found that such situations are all too common in life—two or more people seeing things from totally different viewpoints with (for whatever the reason) a lack of ability to effectively manage the conflict.
Too often we view conflict as something that leaves two parties caught in an impasse where the nonnegotiable stance (whether fact or emotion) takes its toll on the prevailing parties. Instead of learning to use the conflict for reaching a deeper understanding and personal maturity, we tend to bristle, become frustrated, and look for a way to avoid working through it. New wisdom and understanding are then lost within the parameters of conflict. It goes without saying that many times it is more profitable to avoid conflict than to become enmeshed in issues that are destructive in nature.
Jesus was involved in conflict. In Matt. 21:12-16 we see that He even initiated conflict. John 8:3-11 tells us that Jesus resolved conflict involving the woman found in adultery. At other times we see that He avoided conflict, as in Luke 4:28-30.
It would be optimistic and idealistic to say that conflict always serves as a stepping-stone to greater understanding. More often than not the converse is true. Too often we fantasize that our experiences have really made us into the persons we have become, only to realize that our experiences haven’t changed us. We may be lacking the inertia or energy to transfer our head knowledge into our moment-by-moment life experiences. Rather than internalize these learnings, making certain adjustments, and adapting these learnings into our style for relating to other(s) in conflict situations, we naturally bristle, hold tight to our personal convictions, whether or not they are valid. Our conflict approach then leaves us mythed, alone, and less than effective.
This may not be your situation. You may have learned and developed your strategy for healthy conflict management early on, and you may feel gifted in the area of managing conflict. If so, you are probably seeking new insights. The following tools may be helpful in teaching conflict management in an internship setting.
It is important to gain a self-awareness. Often in the ministry we are trained to be aware of and to understand what makes other people tick without really discovering who we are in relationship to conflict situations. Whether or not we create conflict, ministers find themselves thrust into a myriad of conflict situations that raise the prevailing question: “What do I do with this?”
Norman Shawchuck, in How to Manage Conflict in the Church, says, “Each of us has a set of working assumptions about God which influences our thinking and doing. The theology you hold about conflict (your assumptions regarding how God thinks and acts in the midst of conflict) influences the way you will think and act when confronted by a conflict situation.” If we view ourselves as weak, vulnerable, broken vessels before an ever-loving God, we will tend to view those with whom we work as vessels of the same standing and will approach conflict with sensitivity and understanding. Such an attitude will enable us to enter into the conflict situation with an understanding that no one wins or loses.
When we sense that we are being taken advantage of or our personal territory is being threatened, we are caught in a win-or-lose conflict. Let’s face it, no one likes to lose or be made to look bad in front of family or peers. If this occurs, we naturally look for someone to blame. It’s like the little boy who was having trouble staying out of the strawberry patch. His mother, trying to help him, said: “When you feel tempted to get into the strawberry patch, just tell Satan, ‘Satan, get thee behind me.'” “But then he pushes me into the strawberry patch,” responded the little boy. It’s too easy to resist taking responsibility for our faults. A natural tendency is to cast blame rather than to analyze and to face our contribution (positive or negative) to the conflict.
Norman Wakefield, in Solving Problems Before They Become Conflicts, says that the way in which we face problems and conflicts involves several styles of relating. “Learned behavior” develops from our experiences in childhood. We learn how to solve or avoid problems by watching others handle problems, especially our parents. Our personal approach centers around “goals and relationships.” Whatever style we adopt, we are trying to keep our goals and our relationships with people in balance with our feelings and desires. Most of us do not relate in the same style in every situation. We may have several backup styles that Shawchuck elaborates on in his material. He believes that as our experience level grows and expands, we tend to develop different backup styles. We discover different ways to handle problems that may seem similar in nature to conflicts of the past.
This leads me to believe that we are all in the process of discovering who we are. I would imagine that the disciples faced a different level of self-awareness after witnessing the resurrection of Jesus than they had prior to the Crucifixion. They thought they were prepared for what lay ahead, but no one really knows how he will react to a given situation until it happens. We know of only one person who really knew himself well enough to respond appropriately in every situation, and that was Jesus Christ. It may safely be said that the apostles were carnal, impotent, unfilled, and struggling for self-identity before Pentecost. They were conflict-prone before their anointing in the power of the Holy Spirit; but it is equally true that they were conflict-prone following Pentecost.
For instance, the great debate between Paul and Barnabas over young John Mark illustrates that even sanctified Christians can get caught up in conflict. Paul and Barnabas eventually ended up going their separate ways because a compromise could not be reached. Acts 15:36-40 tells us that conflicts will happen even among Spirit-led people. Acts 15:41 and 16:5 tell us a lot about God, His tolerance of our differences, and His willingness to bless our ministries even when we are in conflict. I think this story of Paul and Barnabas falls under the category of the promise given in 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (NKJV). David W. Johnson, in Human Relations and Your Career (Prentice-Hall, 1978), 247, says: “It is not the presence of conflict that causes chaos and disaster, but the harmful and ineffective way it is managed. It is the lack of skills in managing conflict that leads to problems. When conflicts are skillfully managed, they are of value.” Learning what leads up to conflict and how to handle it is of utmost importance.
Shawchuck says that conflict always involves (1) action, (2) threat, and (3) reaction. The action is the behavior of one party; threat threatens to take, damage, or destroy a “territory” that is claimed by another party; the threatened party reacts in ways intended to protect his claim on the “territory.”
I think that one of the more helpful things we can teach our interns is that conflict is very much a part of ministry. Recently, while meeting with an intern and his mentor, I heard the mentor say: “I never thought Christian people could act this way.” To come to an understanding that people will disagree and that it may even lead to conflict will help enable the intern to be a more effective pastor and leader. It is important to learn to manage the conflict, not whether or not we have to face conflict. Conflict is inevitable in the ministry.
Even perfect love, endowed by the Holy Spirit, will not protect us from conflict. There is a difference between managing conflict and perpetuating it for selfish reasons. Neither Paul nor Barnabas intended to become involved in a conflict that eventually led to the severing of their relationship; but neither did they try to resolve the conflict the best way. Where do we read that they prayed together about young John Mark, seeking God’s intention for his involvement in the missionary journey? Prayer is essential to managing conflict.
How do we help the young intern to address conflict when that conflict centers on and threatens to usurp the pastor’s leadership? When our leadership is threatened, or another person’s territory is threatened, the human personality naturally wants to protect that which he worked so hard for or for some reason he holds so dear. The natural tendency is to react emotionally rather than begin to approach the problem logically, dealing only with issues rather than personalities. Shawchuck asserts, “Conflict, however, is not sinful of itself. Sinfulness in conflict results from the way we behave in the conflict, not from disagreement or tensions between us.” Paul encourages us to “be angry, and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26, NKJV).
Wherever you have people interacting, there is possibility for conflict. Although conflict may indicate carnality sticking its head out, it does not necessarily mean there is a spiritual problem. It could mean that the conflict is being mismanaged. Many times we are too quick to assess conflict as a spiritual lapse on somebody’s part, rather than carefully analyzing the dynamics.
Relationships are dynamic and are always changing; in flux from day to day. Conflict is dynamic, too, and normally takes a cycle of (1) Tension development, where someone is sensing a loss of freedom in the relationship. (2) Role dilemma, where confusions develop as to why the tension developed, and so on. This is the crucial stage where the parties need to sit down and discuss the problems that have arisen. Unfortunately, this is also the stage where people are embarrassed to discuss the issues because they seem too trivial. (3) Injustice collecting, where people are convinced that things can only get worse, so they begin an emotional separating process in preparation for an inevitable “battle.” They begin collecting injustices and hurts that will be used as “artillery” later. (4) Confrontation is usually the next stage. Shawchuck says that “in unmanaged conflict persons confront each other. In well-managed conflict they confront the issues which caused the tension in the first place.” In the church we are more susceptible to conflict because of our investment in and personal relationship with others. It’s similar to the intensity of family negotiations involving private space, control, and meaningful identity acceptance, which most of us have faced at one time or another. This usually takes place when the parties are either at the point of renegotiating their relationship, or they move to sever the relationship. (5) Adjustments are the changes people make to end the confrontation.
Shawchuck suggests three steps to conflict management: The first step is to generate valid information about the conflict situation, and to share that information with all the involved parties. The second step “is to allow the conflict parties to make free and informed choices regarding their behavior, based upon the information. This involves joint problem-solving and decision-making. Joint decision-making involves two levels: a) Identify areas where there is sufficient agreement between the parties to enable them to collaborate in reaching resolutions and decisions. b) Identify the areas where there is no agreement or room for collaboration, so each party may reach his own decisions. These decisions are then shared with the other party, and collaborative decisions are made as to how the two parties will live and work together in spite of differences.” At this point it should be possible to motivate personal commitment to the agreements reached.
Paul and Barnabas disagreed and neglected to mix prayer and understanding with their disagreement, which eventually led to their going separate ways. They began posturing a win/lose situation, when beginning the initial stages of generating valid and useful information about the conflict. Paul said that John Mark had some good qualities but that he had given up on their last missionary journey. “Yes, he is a good man, but within certain boundaries.”
Paul said, “We don’t want someone who is going to flake out on us during one of our very important missionary trips.” Barnabas agreed but continued to say that he believed in young John Mark and was sure that John Mark had learned from his mistakes.
We see Paul and Barnabas sharing their conflicting views, but I don’t believe they entered into stage two, allowing the flow of free and informed choice, coupled with joint problem solving and decision making. They neglected to identify the areas of sufficient agreement that would enable them to collaborate on resolutions. Yes, John Mark made a mistake, but who hasn’t? They both knew there were no guarantees that anyone would make it through an entire missionary journey. I think this illustrates the problem that many good-intentioned Christians have when caught in a conflict. They find themselves so absorbed in the emotion of the moment that they are unable to pray genuinely for resolution. At this point most of us tend to do what the Scriptures indicate that Paul and Barnabas did. We confront one another rather than the issues that caused the tension in the first place.
In some instances it would be good for the mentor to suggest an impartial outside, possibly someone outside the local church who could bring a logical and unbiased approach, to act as mediator.