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October 1, 2012

Scott Benhase: Leading conflict

We live in a world of conflict. That’s no surprise to anyone. It’s part of life, given human nature. Conflict is unavoidable whether it’s between nations, in a church community or in a family.

Given that living conflict-free is unrealistic this side of heaven, our goal as disciples of Jesus ought to be managing conflict in such a way that it minimizes hurt to those involved and works as quickly as possible toward a resolution that reflects the virtues of God’s kingdom.

William Ury can helps us with that. He’s the co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard where he directs the Global Negotiation Project. He works with leaders around the world on transforming adversarial relationships into mutually beneficial ones.

Ury is no Pollyanna, but he also knows that destructive conflict isn’t inevitable. He uses the analogy of fire. Centuries ago people just accepted the fact of fire as a destructive force. In close quarters a fire was likely to burn down the entire town. But then people organized fire departments. They developed building codes for smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and fire-rated construction materials and building design. Now, when a fire breaks out, it isn’t inevitable that an entire community burns to the ground.

Leadership in conflict is similar. Destructive conflict isn’t inevitable. Ury argues that leaders need to first seek prevention. As tensions rise, they need to name them and get people talking to one another openly about their concerns and issues. If a conflict becomes manifest, then the second task is to work directly toward resolution before the conflict can become destructive. If the worst happens, and the conflict becomes destructive, then the leaders task is containment -- to make sure it’s contained and hurt is minimized.

Ury’s motto is: "Contain if necessary, resolve if possible, best of all prevent."

My experience as a Bishop is that I’m usually not invited into a church conflict until containment is needed, which is way too late. And often the conflict is so progressed that I feel like I’m witnessing the final act of Hamlet where there are nothing but dead bodies on the stage. What’s often most sad is that the Hamlet-like conclusion was completely avoidable, if only the church leaders had acted with courage and maturity sooner.

With Ury’s expertise in mind, I believe there are three things that inhibit Christian leaders from acting to prevent or resolve conflicts before all that’s left is containment:

1) In the church, we’re naïve about conflict, presuming that because we’re all one, big loving Christian family, we just won’t have conflict. So, we ignore tensions when they arise and pray they will go away. They rarely do.

2) Too many church leaders fear conflict. In Ury’s analogy of fire, we must know that fire is very useful. It’s even an important symbol of our faith (remember Pentecost?). Properly used, it is an amazing resource. So is conflict if we use it right. We need to get over our fear of it.

3) We don’t ask for help. Sometimes we’re so caught up in the growing conflict ourselves that we don’t have a perspective for what might resolve it. We have sisters and brothers in the church who can help us.

The church needs mature and courageous leaders to face conflict faithfully and effectively. The alternative burns down the whole town.

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