When I took Luke, my five-year-old, to his first major league baseball game, I knew that he might have a short attention span, so I chose to layer on a small bit of “inside” stuff each inning. We would, therefore, have a fascinating extended conversation for nine innings.
What an illusion that was. My plan crashed in the first inning. I asked, “What do you think I should do?”
Luke pre-empted the rest of the conversation by saying, “I think I’d have a talk with him!” He might just as well have said, ‘Step aside, Doctor Kruse!’
What is the point? In conflict management, a basic principle is “Don’t make the conflict more difficult than it is. It may be amazingly simple to resolve.”
On the other hand, conflict can be difficult, and even impossible, to resolve. All it takes is the refusal of either party to be open to conversation. I say facetiously, “I am the best conflict manager in the world for those who want to resolve the difference; and I am the worst conflict manager for those who refuse to participate.”
It has been my privilege to design a somewhat unique approach to managing conflict in the church called “Peaceforming.” Peaceforming is a narrative approach to conflict. That is not to say that it works with every conflict, nor is it intended to limit its transformational potential to resolve any conflict, at least in the church. Arguably, it is not the traditional way.
Traditional Conflict Management
There are many ways to address conflict, depending on the severity of the problem, the number of participants, the risk, the urgency, and variance of power in the parties involved. For example, on the severity of the conflict, the traditional approaches in ascending order might be: capitulation, mediation, reconciliation, collaboration, negotiation, non-binding arbitration, binding arbitration, litigation, and separation.
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. For example, mediation has an excellent success rate—IF both parties agree to put every aspect of the conflict on the table. On the other hand, negotiation depends on withholding factors from the conversation in order to get the best possible settlement. Both approaches have potential in different contexts and even more so if participants have different intended outcomes. The church is no exception.
Conflict in the Church
Some churchgoers fancifully believe that the church is immune to the conflicts that are so prevalent in society. But the fact is that all churches are made up of human beings who have all the tendencies of society.
Sometimes their faith serves them well and they go forward in unity to make a difference in the world. And sometimes the baser impulses get the best of some of them. The results are conflicts of all sorts that are as real and serious as any in the non-church culture.
This understandable condition led me, throughout my adult life, to learn every way possible of dealing with conflict. I find it tremendously fulfilling — or, if I may I say, transformational — to learn all I could about how marriages and families afflicted by conflict can be healed. The approach I identified is known as narrative theory.
History of Narrative Theory as an Approach to Conflict
Narrative theory was initially developed by marriage and family counselors in the mid-1980s. A key founder was Michael White of Australia. I studied narrative theory in the United States intensively from two marriage and family practitioners, Gene Combs and Jill Friedman, who published a textbook, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities.
The narrative theory movement gained momentum with Bob Stains and Susan Roth of the Public Conversations Project in Massachusetts. They successfully used narrative theory with group leaders who were key proponents in the strongly contested abortion debate. The approach brought healing to the culture and all key spokespersons were able to relate in harmony without changing any of their positions. These were truly transformational results through narrative theory.
I then experienced narrative theory in the Public Conversations Project with Stains and Roth in Colorado at The Power of Dialogue, a conference simulating narrative approach to the sexuality crisis in the church. The issue handcuffed churches, and to some extent, still does.
For me these experiences were formative, and I have used the narrative approach consistently for 20 years in conflict-ridden contexts in churches. I utilized the approach in my work as a “peaceformer” in congregations, and recorded case studies whenever I could.
Case studies in Conflict Resolution in the Church
Two case studies illustrate the potential of the narrative approach to conflict:
1. A mid-sized congregation in Kansas
The conflict had escalated to the point of separation if the issue was not resolved soon. The issue was traditional worship services v. contemporary worship services. One vote separated the two sides.
Eight representatives of four points of view agreed to participate in role-play as guided narrative conversation. Facilitating such a conversation was transformational, and it occurred in one weekend.
Those transformed included not only the eight participants, but also the 400 congregation members who sat in the gymnasium bleachers and heard the narratives that came from the hearts of all the points of view. The congregation thrives today because it discovered a transformational way to address conflict.
2. A small congregation in South Dakota
The six leaders in the rural congregation, located in a cornfield, 15 miles from a small town, realized the future was gloomy for the congregation to be sustainable.
Their narrative was transplanted into the lives of the children with transformational results. The leaders decided, “We will give the church to the children, and they will be given voice and vote to any decision before it would be implemented.”
The children developed a sense of ownership; they thrived, and they developed leadership skills that tripled the number of worshipers in just over nine years. Unheard of? Yes. There was a town congregation that stayed flat those same nine years. Maybe they had a different pastor? No, the same pastor served both congregations. Unheard of? Yes, transformational.
Summary and Recommendations
Two observations emerge for me. First, the narrative approach, as I discovered it from a social perspective, was biblically consistent with the New Testament church, where all citizens and churchgoers were expected to be accountable for their feelings, thoughts, and actions.
In Galatians 6:2 and 6:4-5 we are called to help carry others’ burdens, without taking responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions. At the same time we are totally responsible for carrying our own burdens, without blaming others or making excuses. Perhaps in our day, the church might revitalize the culture to responsible living, a culture in which all of us might communicate and manage conflict, including our collective feelings, thoughts, and actions.
My second observation is that narrative theory, as transformational as it is, does not have transformational powers in itself nor does it provide the answer to all forms of conflict in all contexts. That limits our applications of narrative theory and at the same time frees us to experiment with congregation renewal that could transform the world, with God’s help.
I welcome all critiques and suggestions that might solidify and deepen the value of narrative theory. Deepening the discussion is important especially because the world has discovered the fallacy of pat answers and is open to an approach that maximizes the God-given potential that each of us has—the miraculous potential we all possess—in our stories. That’s worth looking into.[/private]