Bringing peace to the pews
By Myra Holmes
It’s one thing to talk about “making peace” on a national or international level—quite another when it comes to a difference of opinion with the person sitting in the next pew.
As the USMB Board of Faith and Life (BFL) leads a review and revision of Article 13 of the Confession of Faith, which deals with peacemaking, it seems fair to ask: “What does it mean to be peacemakers within the church walls?”
BFL chair Larry Nikkel points out that whenever Mennonite Brethren talk about the “peace agenda,” the discussion seems to center around national and international issues. That’s good, Nikkel says. “We need to address issues of international conflict. And we need to be involved in peace-building initiatives around the globe.”
But he points out that conflict—and peacemaking—isn’t limited to these large-scale examples. “Conflicts in families, congregations and communities are very real for all of us,” he says. “Issues related to being a peace-seeking people should be applied to the full spectrum of peacemaking.”
Resolving conflict in church
So as BFL opened the national discussion about Article 13 at the January 2013 study conference, they set aside time to focus on local peacemaking. CL followed up with several congregations represented at that study conference discussion to ask how they deal with conflict, especially conflict within the congregation.
Dwight Carter is pastor of Zoar MB Church, Inman, Kan., where a Pastoral Relations Team acts as a sounding board between the pastor and congregation. College Community Church MB (CCCMB), Clovis, Calif., has established a similar mechanism, “Listening Groups,” to facilitate communication between the pastoral staff and congregation; Bill Braun is senior pastor there.
At First MB Church, Wichita, Kan., a Faith and Life Team serves alongside the congregation’s Leadership Team with the specific assignment of praying and working toward unity within the congregation. Glenn Lygrisse chairs that team, and Brent Warkentin is lead pastor.
CL also talked with Rick Eshbaugh, who serves as district minister for the Central District Conference (CDC), as a member of the national BFL and as pastor for Harvey (ND) MB Church. He has both formal training in conflict resolution through Church Resource Ministries, a ministry that works to empower leaders and revitalize congregations, and a wealth of experience helping congregations work through crisis and transition.
Remember that conflict happens
As these representatives talked about what it looks like to make peace within the church, several themes emerged.
Conflict happens. Perhaps it goes without saying that sinful people, including forgiven sinners within a church, will behave selfishly, disagree and hurt one another. First MB’s Warkentin states the obvious: “There is no relationship that lasts for any length of time that doesn’t have conflict.”
Eshbaugh says that often conflict stems from a difference of “culture” or worldview. He points to the writings of Barney Wells, Martin Giese and Ron Klassen in Leading Through Change, who identify two basic worldviews: Agrarians have a core value of survival and a deep-seated suspicion of change; cosmopolitans, on the other hand, value growth and embrace change. Both cultures are often present within a congregation, which can lead to misunderstanding.
At First MB, the Faith and Life Team tries to discern between a disagreement about strategy or vision—say, the direction of the youth group—and a relational conflict—say, the youth pastor doesn’t treat parents with respect. Their Faith and Life Team deals specifically with the relational conflicts, believing that Christians have a clear responsibility to demonstrate love in relationship, regardless of differing opinions.
Given that conflict is at some level inevitable, how the church deals with it becomes the crux of peacemaking. Warkentin says, “Conflict is not the enemy. It’s not dealing with conflict in a good, healthy way that’s the enemy.”
Conflict is an opportunity. Carter, of Zoar MB, goes even further to say conflict can be an opportunity: “The church needs to recognize that conflict is not something to hide from or sweep under the rug, but rather it’s something to use as an opportunity to build unity.”
Model and teach discipleship during conflicts
Eshbaugh says conflict can be the perfect time to model and teach discipleship. In the midst of conflict, forgiveness becomes more than a theoretical concept; love becomes something practiced, not just preached. “We learn how to love the Lord by loving one another, and it works itself out when we’re trying to resolve what color the carpet is going to be. Here’s where we get to practice it. And I think that allows us to become more like Christ,” Eshbaugh says.
Don’t ignore it. A healthy church is one that deals with conflict in healthy ways, not one that has no apparent conflict. Eshbaugh says that healthy conflict resolution moves through stages of confrontation, conversation and resolution to celebration. And that point of celebration, where those involved in the conflict once again feel free to socialize together, is rare.
Too often, people move away from the church or the relationship, allowing the conflict to fester. “We leave before we have the party,” Eshbaugh says. Such avoidance “leaves us toxic,” and the toxin spreads as unhealthy people move to different churches and relationships.
Nor it is healthy to shove the conflict under the surface, either by responding passive-aggressively or by holding a grudge. Eshbaugh compares that to holding a beach ball underwater; it’s bound to pop up again.
“We have to stay at the table, and we have to work it through,” Eshbaugh says.
The Listening Groups (LG) at College Community in Clovis are one way to make sure issues aren’t ignored. The need came to light in 1992 during the regular evaluation of pastoral staff, a process then done once every three years. “We found in the course of the review that some of the issues which surfaced had been in play for nearly the entire three years,” says Braun, who served as moderator during that review process and now serves as senior pastor.
The Listening Groups were developed to deal with potential issues in a timely manner. Each pastoral staff member has a LG, and each LG includes three members chosen from the church’s leadership council, a church ministry and the congregation “at large.”
The LGs field questions and concerns from the pastor and bring to the pastor’s attention any issues that have come to their attention. In this way, there is a venue in place for both pastors and members of the congregation to share and be heard.
Nip it in the bud. Unresolved conflict only grows. Those involved begin to exaggerate the offense, talk about it in the coffee shop and draw up sides. Logic gives way to emotion, and those who once worshipped together feel they can no longer share a pew. Zoar’s Carter aptly calls it “cancerous.” And, just like cancer, the sooner it’s dealt with, the better.
The Faith and Life Team at First MB, Wichita, Kan., keeps ears to the ground for potential conflict in the congregation—whether involving staff, church members or even families—and provides a way to deal with it early.
Team chair Lygrisse laments that people often wait until the relationship is already badly damaged before asking for help. For example, if the team is asked to help in a marriage after divorce proceedings have started, often the hurts are too deep for the team to offer effective help. Lygrisse points to the old adage: “Don’t worry about closing the barn door after all the cows are let out.”
Be proactive. While Eshbaugh says an intentional process is not necessary to deal with conflict well, the three congregations CL talked to have chosen to tackle conflict proactively.
When Dwight Carter transitioned from Zoar MB youth pastor to lead pastor in 2009, church leaders knew that some in the congregation would have questions during the transition. With an eye toward long-term church health, they established the Pastoral Relations Team to be a sounding board between Carter and the congregation, not unlike CCCMB’s Listening Groups.
Carter says that, while the formal venue has been used less frequently over time, just having something in place has been valuable and healthy. It communicates to the congregation that “it’s OK to not agree,” and that “there is an avenue in place to go through that is healthy,” Carter says.
CCCMB’s Braun suggests that if a congregation hasn’t thought through how to deal with conflict before it happens, they need to do so. Having a plan in place gives people a way to begin conversations rather than letting feelings fester. “My belief is that an invitational approach to conflict lessens its negative effects,” says Braun.
Ask for help. Even in churches that don’t have a formal conflict resolution process in place, resources are available. Here are a few mentioned in our CL conversations:
- Pray. Search Scripture.
- Ask a friend: On an individual level, Warkentin says that the time to ask for help is right away, “at the moment we’re feeling distant.” Seek out a church leader, pastor or trusted friend.
- Intentional interim: For congregations facing a difficult transition, Eshbaugh suggests an intentional interim pastor, like those trained through Interim Pastor Ministries.
- Following The Call: This leadership manual for Mennonite Brethren churches is a good resource for church leaders. The book is available from Kindred Productions.
- District resources: District ministers can offer assistance and point toward helpful resources. For a list of districts and district ministers, visit http://www.usmb.org/districts.
- USMB BFL: The national Board of Faith and Life can assist as well, especially if the issue concerns theological questions.
While these tips aren’t meant to be the final word, they can serve as discussion points in the larger conversation of what it means to be peacemakers as U.S. Mennonite Brethren seek peace within—as well as outside—the church walls.