Imperfect conflict is still healthier and more productive than fake unity.
Churches and Christian organizations that avoid conflict are not peacemaking or necessarily Christ-like. More often, this is anxiety-driven sentimentality. We often cloak relationship anxiety with words like empathy or unity. It comes from a fear of tension combined with almost no skill to have difficult conversations.
When was the last time you heard a sermon on how to engage in conflict?
The lack of healthy conflict inhibits our corporate effectiveness and presents an inauthentic veneer to the world around us. We have taught that to be different from the world, we must be nice and kind. Kindness is not the absence of conflict. Instead, what would distinguish us from the world is how we deal with conflict.
Differences are inevitable. Values often clash whenever we have two or more people in a community. So, what happens in our organizations when we don’t engage in healthy conflict? The tension builds without a way to process it and morphs into an elongated passive-aggressive stand-off. Fake unity still divides community.
The emotional toll of passive-aggressive leaders and organizations is far greater than the emotion spent on healthy conflict.
We build intimacy with others who think like us by having common enemies among those who don’t. This is classic triangulation in emotional systems. Just like in families, when we experience disconnection or anxiety in one relationship, we respond by building fake intimacy with others who are easier to connect with, rather than dealing with the difficult relationship. How many times have you heard someone saying to a Pastor, “There is a group of us who feel the same way.”? Enter the common complaint of “church politics.” All of this is far more emotionally and mentally taxing than engaging in healthy conflict.
So what do we do?
If we are going to harness the power of healthy conflict, we need to move past our hypersensitivity or addiction to comfort. These commitments compete with the creation of authentic communities, and these kinds of authentic communities will have a far greater impact than those who, in the name of our witness, try to preserve unrealistic false harmony. Let’s stop avoiding conflict by presenting sentimentality as the Christian virtue of love and trust the Spirit within us to answer Jesus’ prayer to make us one, as He and the Father are one.
Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. 2000. Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Books.
Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. 2011. Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and David Maxfield. 2013. Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments and Bad Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.