Arthur Paul Boers’ book, Never Call Them Jerks, serves as a guide for pastors and other congregational leaders on how to respond in healthy ways to difficult behavior. Elisabeth Kvernen spoke with Boers about why conflict happens in the church, and what both church leaders and lay members can do when faced with difficult behavior and relationships.
Is the church more prone to intense conflict and difficult behavior than other institutions? If so, why?
I do not know how one would prove whether or not churches are more prone to conflict and difficult behavior. I do know that over the years, a number of people have reported to me that they found the viciousness of church conflicts and issues to be much more intense and unhealthy than in other organizations, especially compared to how conflicts are handled within businesses.
There are a number of factors that make churches organizations particularly vulnerable. Churches are often concerned about being “nice,” and thus can be slow to rein in or curb difficult behavior; they often respond passively to bad behavior, permitting it to operate and even flourish. Churches are groups of people who want to be together, and sometimes assume that putting up with bad behavior is the inevitable cost of togetherness. People in church conflicts often feel that there is a lot at stake—their own internal values and worth, or even the eternal fate of participants—so they may be more willing to not only risk conflict, but to fight for what they believe to be right.
People who are convinced about being “on God’s side,” are not always the most cautious and discerning. When the Blues Brothers were convinced that they were on “a mission from God,” their risks and behavior grew worse and worse, and their discernment diminished. Churches can be hotbeds of conflict because the ethics of the gospel frequently challenge the status quo, and thus make people more anxious and reactive. Furthermore, volunteer organizations often use power inappropriately and do a poor job of holding people accountable.
You differentiate between difficult people, and difficult relationships and behaviors, encouraging church leaders to focus on the latter two. Why is this emphasis/framing important?
There are many important issues at stake here. It is a spiritual issue to label or judge someone else. Jesus warned against calling one’s sibling a “fool,” and also counseled against preoccupation with someone’s planked eye when we have a log in our own. Studies prove that when we label people (e.g. gifted or struggling students) we treat them by the label, whether it is appropriate or not. Similarly, people who are labeled often live out their labels whether or not they are appropriate (e.g. again, so-called gifted or struggling students).
It is healthier for us to focus on particular behavior that needs addressing. Behavior can be changed. As leaders, we can keep a calm, nonreactive focus on where change needs to happen, without dissing or dismissing people in our congregations.
What internal and external resources are available to church leaders for understanding and responding to difficult behavior?
It is important to be well-grounded spiritually and emotionally. The former calls for a disciplined spiritual life, usually in some kind of accountability with a spiritual director, peer, therapist, mentor, or small group. Christian spirituality also teaches us compassion for others, especially for those who aggravate us.
To be well-grounded emotionally means that we have a handle on our own issues and “buttons.” Where are we easily hooked? And why? We need to be in touch with our own emotional baggage. This can be addressed through prayer, journaling, or therapy.
It is also useful to have a theoretical framework for understanding what is happening. I find family systems theory quite fruitful here. Others may rely on various kinds of organizational theories. A respected colleague sees much of life through attachment theory. No single approach is going to give us all the answers. But often each one can help us step back, understand, be less reactive, have a “research stance,” and respond in creative, imaginative ways.
You say you favor a family-systems approach to understanding difficult behavior in the church. What does that mean, and could you give an example of how a church leader could use this approach to respond to difficult behavior in a healthy way?
I find family systems invaluable in understanding how I tick, particularly the way I function in relationships and groups. I saw how I was recruited and formed in my family to be a rescuer, how we channeled anxiety by developing complex systems among family members to bear that anxiety—what family systems theorists call “triangulation,” how we simply walked away from the emotional weight of conflict—what family systems theorists term “cut-off,” and how we generally feared conflict. All of these realizations helped me choose different ways of functioning. This empowers me not to react automatically, but to choose how I wish to respond in situations. I do not need to keep replaying scripts from my family of origin. The more that I am able to be healthy and nonreactive, the more likely it is that others around me will in the long run also be able to grow in more healthy directions.
Understanding family systems can help us deal more carefully, pastorally, and imaginatively with our organization and its participants. If we see that certain parties have patterns of fusion or triangulation or cut-off in their own families of origin, we might be more likely to anticipate and deal with such anxious behavior in the church. We might be more compassionate to people who appear to be stuck in destructive patterns. We might take less offense—and not get so anxious—when people’s odd behavior is perfectly explicable from a family systems perspective.
A family systems approach has also been helpful in my work with others. When I know that people are undergoing substantial distress, I am not surprised to see their anxiety play out in church. One church I pastored became embroiled in an intense conflict. I helped them see something that they had not recognized before: they had huge fights once a decade. This gave us a chance to make choices about different ways of dealing with conflicts.
What habits and practices can church leaders and church members cultivate in order to build healthier relationships within the church?
All the disciplines that contribute to self-understanding and self-care are hugely important. Therapy, journaling, and spiritual direction are helpful in moving toward self-understanding, and thus toward taking more responsibility for one’s behavior. We also need disciplines that contribute to self-care: practices of Sabbath, prayer, focal practices, hobbies, recreation. These keep us grounded and well-balanced, even in the face of difficult circumstances.
What, if any, good can come of conflict in the church?
Conflict is normal and inevitable in groups and relationships. Conflict can be debilitating and destructive of course, but it can also bring new life. Here are just a few ways in which good can come of conflict:
- Conflict can energize groups and organizations, engage their interest, and stimulate activity. Conflict can help groups to grow.
- Conflict can clarify and intensify cohesion and identity. It becomes clearer who is on the sideline and who is not.
- Conflict can help us move toward better norms for how to deal appropriately with destructive behavior.
- Conflict can show us a clearer understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.
- Conflict can lead to creative solutions to difficult problems.
- Conflict can produce new leaders.