|Putting Professionals in their PlaceThis article originally appeared in the November 1993 issue of Covenanter Witness.by Ken Sande, Founder of Peacemaker Ministries
Resolving Everyday Conflict
Small group Bible study that’s perfect for use in the church or workplace. Ideal for Sunday school classes, membership classes, mission teams, or neighborhood Bible studies—any group that wants to learn, discuss, and apply the principles of biblical peacemaking together.
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Americans are infatuated with professionals. Every year we seem to turn more and more of our lives over to people who are perceived to be experts because they have obtained special education, certification, or recognition in their fields.Obviously, professionals are a blessing in many ways. They have taken the time to study and master principles of science, medicine, law, finances, and other fields that the rest of us do not have the time or inclination to fathom. Whether they care for our bodies, businesses, homes, or cars, the professionals’ expertise often allows them to discern problems and implement solutions more quickly and effectively than could the average layman.
Our dependence on professionals has created some significant problems, however. The more we depend on others to manage certain aspects of our lives, the easier it is for us to delegate to them responsibilities that we could and should handle on our own. This is particularly true when it comes to conflict resolution.
This point was vividly illustrated in a video I watched that promotes “peer mediation” training in public schools. Recognizing the serious problems our schools are having with violent conflict, the organization that produced this tape has developed a program to teach grade school children how to serve as mediators. After their training is completed, these children are turned loose on the playground wearing green vests and carrying clipboards. When they observe a conflict between two of their peers, they are trained to walk over and say, “Pardon me. I am a peer mediator. I see that you have a conflict. May I help you resolve it?” If the “parties” are willing, the peer mediator then leads them through a five-step process designed to help them settle their differences in a constructive manner.
Such training can be of real value to students and their schools, and we should recognize its potential. But if this is the only education that children receive on resolving conflict, we are doing them a grave disservice. We are teaching them that the first (and perhaps only) response to conflict is to call in outside help.
This attitude diminishes a sense of personal responsibility and inhibits the development of personal conflict resolution skills. Moreover, it leaves students unprepared to handle conflicts that arise outside of school with parents, siblings, and after-school playmates.
I am sorry to say that many of us in Christian conciliation ministry have fallen into this same trap. When we developed our training programs in the early 1980’s, our attention was devoted almost exclusively to training people to serve as mediators and arbitrators in others’ disputes. In effect, we looked at Matthew 18:15-16 and saw only, “If your brother sins against you,… take one or two others along.”
We gave lip service to the words “go and show him his fault, just between the two of you,” but we did little or nothing to equip rank-and-file Christians to resolve disputes on their own. Instead, we devoted our energies to the creation of a new corps of professionals. In the process we fed the notion that conflict, even among Christians, is best handled by the experts.
This lopsided approach to conflict resolution seems to be spreading within the church. I have been contacted by a number of people representing churches and denominations that wish to develop in-house conflict resolution training programs. When they initially described their goals to me, most of these people spoke exclusively of mediator training. Even after I described the benefits of educating entire congregations on how to resolve conflicts personally and privately, a majority of the people declined to expand their vision beyond the training of a select corps of mediators. Whether it is because of a conditioned dependence on professionals, a general lack of confidence in lay people, or the perceived immensity of grassroots training, many church leaders are far more enthused about training mediation teams than they are about equipping ordinary people to serve as behind-the-scenes peacemakers.
This unhealthy dependence upon professionals has become so ingrained in some churches that they have abandoned in-house peacemaking activities altogether. Over time, these churches have concluded that it is preferable, if not necessary, to rely on professionals when dealing with any complicated conflict. As churches delegate more of their peacemaking responsibilities to people outside the church, they can eventually come to believe that conflict resolution falls exclusively within the purview of lawyers, psychologists, and independent counselors. When this happens, churches don’t ask for assistance from outside professionals only in select cases; instead, they automatically refer all difficult conflicts to outsiders and have little further involvement in those matters. As a result, many Christians do not receive the guidance and support of the church at a time when they actually need it most.
How do we respond to these problems? Of course, we cannot simply reject all reliance on specially trained people. The Bible itself indicates that some people are better prepared and equipped than others to deal with certain problems. When Moses realized that the people of Israel would sometimes need assistance in resolving their differences, he “chose capable men” to serve as leaders and judges (Ex. 18:24-26). Knowing that even the best of these appointees had limitations, he made himself available to handle “the difficult cases.”
Likewise, when Joab, the commander of Israel’s army, found himself surrounded and vastly outnumbered, he did not assume that all his troops were equally skilled and send them forth in an arbitrary manner. Instead, “He selected some of the best troops in Israel and deployed them against the Arameans. He put the rest … against the Ammonites” (1 Chron. 19:10-11; see 2 Sam. 23:8-39). This pattern of recognizing and carefully using special gifts, training, and experience continues throughout the New Testament (see Acts 1:21-22; 6:1-6; 13:1-3).
Therefore, we should continue in our efforts to identify people who are naturally gifted peacemakers and do all we can to enhance their gifts through careful training. As we do this, however, we must guard against the problems described above. In other words, we must put professionals in their place. This will require a number of steps.
||A TALE OF TWO CONFLICTS
||Note: The following stories are true, but the names and certain facts have been changed to protect the identity of the parties involved.Story 1
After serving as an associate pastor for four years, Joe Smith was excited to be called as the pastor of a small church in a rural community. He eagerly poured himself into the ministry and within weeks most of the people in the church were beginning to appreciate his outstanding preaching and teaching abilities.A month after his arrival at the church, his wife had a disagreement with another woman in the church. When she described the situation to her husband, Joe said, “It sounds like it’s more her fault than yours, so I think you should wait for her to come to you to talk about this.” As it turned out, the other woman was getting the same advice from her husband, who was an elder in the church.Since both women were waiting for the other to take the initiative to be reconciled, time passed and the resentment between them grew. More and more people took up sides, and soon the two women and their husbands were entrenched in their positions and were even less inclined to move toward each other or admit any wrongdoing. Before long the entire church was infected by their dispute. Two months later the pent-up antagonism finally overflowed at a congregational meeting, and to Joe’s shock and amazement he was asked to resign. He and his wife left the church angry, embittered, and questioning whether they wanted to continue investing their lives in the ministry.
When Gordon and Dee Clark decided to build a new house, it was natural for them to hire Rex Madison, a fellow member of their church who was a respected contractor. The construction went smoothly, and Rex was able to complete the house more quickly than he had projected. Shortly after the Clarks moved in, however, they noticed that there were some problems in the construction of the house. The floor in the living room was noticeably unstable when people walked across it, and several cupboard doors would not close properly. When they told Rex about these problems, he became defensive and accused them of being overly critical. After that their discussions quickly went downhill, and Rex refused to correct any of the defects.
Gordon and Dee became so frustrated that they believed they had to file a lawsuit against Rex to force him to pay damages for the construction defects. When the elders of their church discovered what was going on, they moved swiftly to deal with the problem. Two elders visited the Clarks and helped them to understand that filing a lawsuit against a fellow Christian was in direct violation of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. As a result, the Clarks dropped their lawsuit and agreed to submit the matter to mediation or arbitration before a panel of “wise men” from their church (1 Cor. 6:5). Rex also agreed to the process.
Within a few days both sides met with a conciliation panel of two men from the church and a third man from another church who had experience in construction. After the Clarks and Rex had related their sides of the situation and the conciliators had inspected the house, the panel was able to help Rex see where he had been negligent in his construction. The conciliators also helped Gordon and Dee to understand how their handling of the situation had aggravated the problem. As the Holy Spirit worked in all of their hearts, their attitudes softened and they confessed their wrongs in the situation and forgave each other. Having resolved their personal differences, they worked out a plan for repairing some defects and agreed to a financial offset to make up for the defects that could not be remedied to the Clarks’ satisfaction.
In order to demonstrate their reconciliation, the Clarks invited Rex’s family to their new home for a barbecue. Before they arrived, one of the Clark children said to Gordon, “Dad, why are you being so nice to Mr. Madison? I thought you and Mom didn’t like him at all!” Gordon welcomed this question, because it gave him an ideal opportunity to explain to his son what forgiveness and reconciliation are all about.
First we need to promote a proper perspective of peacemaking gifts and responsibilities. We should never let our appreciation for specially gifted or trained people diminish the importance of what ordinary believers can do when faced with the typical conflicts of life. In this regard, peacemaking is similar to sharing the gospel. Even though God equips only a few believers to be evangelists (Eph. 4:11), he calls all Christians to be witnesses (1 Pet. 3:15). Likewise, even though he equips a few people to be mediators and arbitrators (1 Cor. 6:1-8), he calls every one of us to be a peacemaker in our own sphere of influence (Matt. 5:9; 23-24).
Second, we need to reorient our training programs to coincide with the full pattern for conflict resolution that Jesus himself has given us (Matt: 18:15-20). He taught that private efforts to resolve conflict should precede mediation. Therefore, we should devote much more of our training efforts to equipping individual Christians to settle their differences personally. In Sunday school classes and Bible studies, local churches can teach all of their members, adults and children alike, how to apply biblical peacemaking principles. They could participate in personal peacemaking seminars on a community-wide basis to equip large numbers of lay Christians to deal with their conflicts biblically and privately. Many conciliation ministries have developed materials specifically for these purposes, and they are happy to share them with others.
Having placed a proper emphasis on individual peacemaking, churches can identify and train members who have special gifts for helping others to resolve conflict within their own body. Peacemaker Ministries’ Training program is designed to facilitate this.
Although most conflicts revolve primarily around personal matters, some involve questions related to technical fields like engineering, agriculture, patents, and accounting. When a church lacks the expertise to deal with these questions, it should be able to draw on the gifts and experience of the wider Christian community for assistance. A local pastoral association or conciliation ministry can help to identify and train gifted individuals from a variety of vocations who would be available to serve as conciliators. If local assistance is not available, you may call the Institute for Christian Conciliation (a division of Peacemaker® Ministries), which is developing a national network of Certified Christian Conciliators.™
The third step for putting professionals in their place is to continually emphasize the fact that conflict resolution among Christians must take place under the guidance and authority of the church (see 1 Cor. 6: 1-8). When people within a church are not able to resolve a conflict, it may be appropriate to enlist the assistance of a professional such as an attorney, CPA, medical doctor, Christian counselor, or Christian conciliator. When such help is called for, however, it should be carried out under the canopy of the church, not in isolation from the church.
This is particularly true when legal issues are involved, because law by its very nature deals with moral decisions. Lawyers generally provide their clients with a variety of options for solving a particular problem. One option might be legally legitimate but biblically questionable, such as pleading the statute of frauds to escape a verbal commitment. Another option might advance financial interests but damage personal relationships. Still another option might satisfy short-term needs but destroy long-term opportunities to witness and minister. Some attorneys are not able to provide an adequate moral and spiritual evaluation of such options. Therefore, church leaders must be ready to help their people weigh legal advice carefully and make choices consistent with Scripture.
The same limitations and needs are present when a believer turns to a professional counselor for help in resolving a conflicted relationship. Here, too, many of the choices that must be made have moral implications. Without the counsel and support of the church, believers can too easily ignore or misapply biblical principles related to repentance, confession, confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Therefore, as David Powlison has written, we “must continue to repudiate the notion of a ‘counseling profession’ disconnected both structurally and intellectually from the nurture, instruction, love, discipline, authority, and friendship of the body of Christ” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, IX:3, 1988, pp. 54-55).
As we carry out these steps, we must realize that we are going against the tide. Many Christians have learned to depend heavily on others to resolve conflict for them. Efforts to wean them from this support and to call them to greater personal responsibility will not always be welcomed. Nonetheless, this educational process is one of the most important tasks we face. Let us pray that God will guide and empower us as we reclaim and rejuvenate the ministry of peacemaking.
HOW CHRISTIAN CONCILIATION SAVED A CHRISTIAN MINISTRY: A TESTIMONIAL
Having been directly involved in the legal system as a litigator for almost twenty-five years, I have been in a lot of conflict. But I have also been part of a family, a church, a neighborhood, a partnership, and numerous other relationships. Being a professional advocate for others in conflict has undoubtedly affected my own conflicts, and I have surely failed to apply personally much of what I have learned professionally.
There is one representation that taught me a crucial lesson, and one that is the focus of Part One of The Peacemaker by Ken Sande: “Glorify God and trust him.” I have seen so many situations where the parties achieved “resolution” of their conflict embittered and permanently estranged. It seemed inevitable in those situations.
The vice president of an international Christian ministry was referred to me by a fellow member of the Christian Legal Society. There were questions about a corporate charter and bylaws, but the questions arose out of deep divisions among the officers, directors, and a related, overlapping ministry. The problems involved accountability, accounting, money, and trust.
As the issues developed and each “side” took action, the conflict escalated, resembling the 1989 dissolution of the Soviet Parliament. Although I had been retained by only one “side,” I felt a responsibility to the whole ministry, which looked extremely vulnerable. Repeatedly I modified and softened the letters and releases of “my side.” Repeatedly I reminded my clients of what the other’s motives and concerns probably were. Repeatedly I cautioned my clients of the consequences of escalation and did my best to hold them back. Accusations were so strong, the divisions so deep, and the power apparently so evenly divided that I also repeatedly counseled behavior like that of Abraham when separating from Lot (Genesis 13).
I was also the target of attacks as an “outside” lawyer brought into internal matters. But internal corporate and partnership litigation and disputes have been a major part of my practice since 1974. Surely God’s providence was at work in sending this dispute to me, involving parties many hundreds of miles away through a lawyer I had never met.
When special membership and directors’ meetings were called, to have a “show-down” and a vote, I asked our congregation to pray for peace. The most I hoped for was a peaceful separation.
Men and women in the ministry from around the world came for a cold winter meeting. The night before the meeting we met to plan and pray. Early in the morning I met with leaders of “our side” for breakfast at the special meeting location. I had the “other side” (I almost said “enemies”) pointed out to me as they came in. I had heard their voices in conference calls, but had not met any of them before. Before the membership meeting started, the other side asked for a directors’ meeting—alone. I was not included, nor was the lawyer for the other side or any of the other members who had come for the meeting.
There followed nearly five tense, but blessed, hours. The membership meeting began with devotions, but without the directors. After a time the formal atmosphere nearly disappeared. We shared testimonies and prayed and prayed. Meanwhile the directors talked and talked and changed—without us.
In the end I was blessed by the fellowship and prayers of my new brothers and sisters in the Lord. In the end the directors reached a solution that satisfied virtually everyone, and the day ended in peace. The attacks, moves, and counter-moves had not escalated too far and were not enough to withstand the peace of God that passed my understanding. But then neither had I ever expected to have a piece of the collapsed Berlin Wall in my office, to see the end of the USSR, or to see an Israeli prime minister shake hands with Yassar Arafat at the White House. In a few days my congregation would share in the blessing of answered prayer for peace, reconciliation, and continued fruitful ministry around the world.
Ken Sande is an attorney, the author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker Books, Updated Ed. 2003), Peacemaking for Families (Tyndale, 2002), and founder of Peacemaker Ministries (www.Peacemaker.net), an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically.