The Next Faithful Step

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Conflict Avoidance

A Pastor's Reflection

From childhood I have always had a strong aversion to conflict. And looking back I can see how I developed a variety of strategies to help me avoid it. Toward the top of the list of strategies was being good. Fortunately I had an older sister who made most of the standard mistakes three years ahead of me and so learning to be good wasn’t too difficult. And I was good. As a result, I was successful at generally avoiding conflict growing up and into adulthood. At least, conflict directly involving myself. Watching others’ conflict from a safe distance wasn’t too bothersome.

And then I became a pastor. Suddenly conflict became a regular reality. I found myself unable to avoid being directly involved in conflict myself, and the luxury of watching others deal with conflict from a safe distance quickly became a thing of the past. What first comes to mind are the way I was railroaded by an angry parent of one of our youth and the blowup between Joanne and Elaine. It was through both of these crises that I learned the way in which the pastor gets sucked into a variety of types of conflict.

I don’t remember why I called Candie. The only thing I remember is being blindsided with her anger at me. I had been at the church five months or so and had talked little to Candie or her family, as they hadn’t attended church for quite a while even before I came. I imagine I was calling about the youth group—at least that is what she was angry about. Her daughter, Tanya, was in high school and had been involved with some youth events in the years past. When I started up the youth group again after beginning my ministry at the church I had sent out a general invitation to all the youth who had been active in the past. As usual, some showed, some didn’t. Tanya was among those who did not show and I really wasn’t surprised, as I hadn’t seen her family at church at all in the months I had been there. I mentioned something to Candie about an upcoming event and that I would love to have Tanya come to our gatherings. I thought I was being good. After all, here I am, the pastor, calling on a family that doesn’t even attend the church to check on them and ask about their daughter. “Well it is about time someone asked about Tanya!” This was the response I got. “Those kids in the youth group there at church never invite her to anything and have always treated her as lesser. And now, a few months after starting youth group, now you call to ask about her.” I was dumbfounded. First of all, I was getting absolutely no credit for being good. And, second, I was being held accountable for things that had apparently happened years before I even came on the scene. This was definitely foreign to my successful avoiding of conflict in the past.

When I hung up the phone I was angry. I had apologized and said I had no idea that Tanya had been treated this way in the past (as it turns out, all these years later, I’m still confused about all this as most of the students in the youth group were fairly close friends with Tanya and they hung out together outside of church). But Candie was angry as ever. Looking back I think my anger was a protection reflex. I didn’t express any of this anger to Candie (of course not—that would just lead to more conflict), but I gave in to it in myself nonetheless. And the dismissive anger was, for me, a way of avoiding the conflict. What easier way to avoid conflict (when being good fails) than to set yourself up in your own mind as someone unjustly wronged by a loon? You can just leave it alone, and that is basically what I did. I was scarred by the conflict, but was able to avoid dealing with it by just leaving them alone. It turns out, no thanks to me, Candie and her family did eventually start coming to church again. Tanya came to the youth group. Everything was fine. It didn’t hurt that I was able to be there for the family at a particularly tragic time. It turns out that Candie could just be a bit volatile at times.

But there was no one as volatile as Joanne. She would get so angry about the smallest things that I seriously feared that she was going to have a heart attack or stroke at some point. Joanne was in her early 60’s, parents gone, only child, single, and not well liked. And she was involved in everything. I actually happened to really like her and we got along swimmingly. It wasn’t only because I felt bad for her. There was something really endearing about her that maybe I had special access to because I was the pastor. Anyhow, she was volatile and erupted often, and one such eruption happened after church on a Sunday morning toward the end of our annual Mission Event. Fortunately, most everyone had left. But the few that were still milling around heard a sudden burst of yelling and stomping out.

This was not my conflict. But the pastor gets invited into all sorts of conflict, whether it involves him or her (as with my run-in with Candie) or not. The first sign that Joanne’s and Elaine’s conflict (it was Elaine to whom Joanne’s wrath was directed) was potentially mine was that, after everyone watched Joanne storm out of the room, they all turned to look at me. It was clearly decision time. Of course I was expected to do something. But even then there are numerous sneaky ways to still avoid the conflict while appearing to do something about it. I could have tended to Elaine just long enough for Joanne to get in her car a speed away. I could have asked everyone there to gather around and pray for Joanne (that would have been particularly sneaky). Fortunately, I met this conflict head on and followed Joanne out to her car in the parking lot for a long conversation before she had a chance to get away.

Conflict is frightening. I got lucky with Candie—I generally avoided further conflict and the situation just diffused itself. But the rift between Joanne and Elaine, two members of the Body of Christ, could have gone very badly. This sort of disharmony can be spiritually damaging for individuals and the church as a whole. As much as I instinctively would have liked to find a way to avoid and distance myself from it, doing so would have been costly. As frightening as conflict may be, the price of avoiding it is, at times, even more scary.