|Competition or Community? A Story of Peacemaking in Papua New Guinea
by Molly Routson, Assistant to the Director of International MinistriesWho gets the building when a church splits? What if it wasn’t their building to begin with — who has the right to continue using the facility? Two churches in Papua New Guinea recently faced this very dilemma, and the pastors were gridlocked in conflict as they tried to protect their congregations’ rights to the building. But with the help of peacemaker Mick Bandy, these pastors learned to channel their leadership energies toward a peaceful solution that would model God’s reconciling power for their congregations and their community.
When Pastor Paul and more than half of the congregation of the Papua New Guinea Bible Church broke off to form a new church, they wished to continue holding their services in the community’s meetinghouse. However, their plans for using the hall competed with Pastor Michael and the original congregation’s plans for the same space. Eventually, their disagreements became so heated that they erupted into verbal and physical violence, and the frustrated village leaders closed the meetinghouse completely.
Both sides recognized the damaging impact that their conflict was having on their Christian witness and on their own congregations, but they had reached a point where neither wanted to concede to the other. And so the meetinghouse remained closed until missionary Mick Bandy offered to try to help them work out an agreement.
Although Paul and Michael were the leaders and spokesmen for their churches, Mick recognized that they were not the only individuals involved in the conflict – in fact, this was a conflict between churches! So, Mick appealed to both pastors in terms of their responsibility as shepherds; he asked them to lead as peacemakers, so that they could lead their flocks through reconciliation of the conflict over the meetinghouse.
“They appeared to be acting more as advocates for their congregations, not unlike attorneys representing their ‘clients’ in an adversarial court case…. I felt the best way to approach the issue was to appeal to them as pastors and peacemakers, affirming them as shepherds of their respective flocks and encouraging them to work together, as God’s ambassadors, to solve the issues.”
When the pastors and several other leaders from each church came together for a face-to-face meeting, Mick wanted to make sure that each person had the opportunity to tell his story. This was particularly important because storytelling is highly valued in Papua New Guinean culture. Mick also felt that it was important for the church leaders to know that they were responsible for this process — he wasn’t there to make a decision for them, but to help them find ways to glorify God and to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4), even in the midst of conflict.
With this in mind, the group evaluated the situation and searched for potential ways to resolve the property dispute. Even though the two sides initially disagreed about how to use the meetinghouse, they did agree on one crucial thing: “The fact that the village leaders had been forced to close the meetinghouse because two churches were fighting over it was a bad witness and not pleasing to God,” said Mick.
As the meeting proceeded, Mick and the church leaders wondered if there was a way for both churches to use the meetinghouse. They eventually settled on a schedule that allows each church to hold services in the meetinghouse until the congregations are able to construct their own permanent church buildings.
Even more importantly, they agreed to stop the fighting between churches and families in the village, so that the community will again have two strong churches and their community meetinghouse. As the day progressed, the tension between Michael, Paul, and the elders seemed to melt away; they even discussed the possibility of having occasional joint worship services!
These church leaders closed the meeting rejoicing at how God had brought about reconciliation between them, but they also felt it would be important to communicate this reconciliation to the community — especially because of the way that their conflict had impacted the rest of the village.
Mick explains the significance of this decision:
In Papua New Guinea, a conflict is not considered settled until there is a “reconciliation ceremony” in which the persons or families in conflict share food together, apologize to each other and make an outward demonstration of reconciliation to the entire village. Therefore, the six church leaders agreed that it was necessary to perform such a ceremony in the village in order to bring both factions together in peace. It was also agreed that the two sides would equally share any costs involved in the reconciliation ceremony. With this resolve, the six leaders agreed to go back to the village and make arrangements for such a celebration.
Indeed, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). Thanks to Mick’s intervention, Paul and Michael are again enjoying the blessings of fellowship as brothers in Christ and of bearing witness to their community that Christ is working in his church in Papua New Guinea.
Mick Bandy is a missionary in Papua New Guinea who works with the Scripture Application and Leadership Training (SALT) Project. The goal of the SALT Project is to train and equip local leaders in Papua New Guinea.