By Laura Mae Gardner
Handling conflict within the Great Commission Community amid complex human behavior and social media.
As part of my graduate studies in counseling, I was required to do various practica, one of which involved setting up a safe house for battered or abused women. I completed this practicum, all the while thinking this training wouldn’t be very useful in missions. Little did I know how much conflict there is in missions! Later as part of my assignment leading Wycliffe’s International Counseling Department, I was asked to help with leadership development. I did so and enjoyed preparing and equipping leaders and prospective leaders. Reflecting on that leadership development exercise I realized that it was focused on the assumption that all leaders are healthy and they will be leading only healthy people.
Usually mission leaders are healthy, but not always, and so are many Christian workers but some are not. Further, there is conflict in missions, quite a bit of it.
That’s why I was asked to write this, suggesting ways to engage more adequately with people in conflict.
Conflict management or resolution is difficult, but when complicated by culture, self-interest, authority, greed, emotional health of participants, societal status, and/or communication styles, it is more than difficult!
The Bible illustrates many kinds of conflict: John the Baptist chiding the governor for his immorality (Matthew 14:3–5), two of the inner circle disciples posturing for position (Matthew 20:20ff; Mark 10:35–45), the felt injustice of widows in Acts 6, charging discrimination, strong leaders with strong opinions go separate ways (Acts 15), chiding for inappropriate behavior (Paul and Peter, Galatians 2).
There are two challenges about conflict which I will address, both of which are usually overlooked in discussions about conflict. These are: (1) Psychological dysfunctionality, and (2) The rise of the Internet and social media.
Psychological dysfunction is not new but we have recent and significant insight. The scriptural references indicate God knew about these matters all along while we are still gaining insight into the damage such behaviors can inflict.
Let’s consider some psychological dysfunctions. Some behavioral aspects of dysfunctionality include narcissism, extreme egotism (the alpha male or female leader), sloppy position on truth, insecurity, vindictiveness, passive aggressiveness, personality disorders, grandiosity, defensiveness, avoidance, victim-hood, hiding behind authority and position, latent emotional issues, and reliance on politically correct language.
High-ego strength and psychological health are necessary for someone to admit wrong or to seek input or reconciliation. These include Biblical principles engrained in one’s thinking and behaviors such as humility, forgiveness, speaking the truth in love, valuing harmony and unity, honoring authority.
For example: highly trained and experienced, gifted people can fall into a trap of thinking “I am right; I am the only one who is right; I have no flaws; there is no middle ground.” When their wrong behavior or thinking is pointed out to them, it is not accepted. The possibility of their being wrong or mistaken is not well received.
On the opposite end of this continuum is the ‘poor me’ victim syndrome—“I’ve always been a loser and here we go again,” “I am never listened to; I don’t deserve better than this; it will never be different; I’ll never trust a leader again. I will suffer in silence—but they sure will know that I am suffering!” A Japanese proverb (tongue-in-cheek) says, “Of the 36 good ways of handling conflict, running away is the best.” Passive aggressive people know how to do this well! (Passive aggressive people also know how to attack and often do so viciously.)
Add cultural differences to this mix, often camouflaged by stereotypes, and conflicts become almost impossible to resolve. “That’s just the way honor/shame societies work;” “That’s the way Brits/Canadians/Aussies/Americans/Asians, Europeans are—and that’s the way they will always be.” “There is no good culturally appropriate way to handle this!” “Face to face ways of handling conflict (Matthew 18) won’t work with Asians,” etc.
A further ingredient in this sad brew has to do with Biblical illiteracy. The Bible is filled with narratives about conflict and its resolution or management or failure to resolve. The Bible also gives clear guidelines on handling conflict. It says a great deal about humility and seeking forgiveness. If God’s Word is not in our minds and hearts, and if we are not committed to obeying it as well as offering it to a needy world, we’ll say, as one person said to himself, “Here is God’s Word in your language; it doesn’t work for me, but maybe it will work for you.”
Into this complex setting comes Facebook.
Os Guinness described our era in the following words:
“… Our wired world and our global era are a time when expressing, presenting, sharing, defending and selling ourselves have become a staple of everyday life for countless millions of people around the world, both Christian and others. The age of the Internet, it is said, is the age of the self and the selfie. The world is full of people full of themselves. To such an age, “I post, therefore I am.”1
He goes on to say: “Communication through the social media in the age of email, text messages, cell phones, tweets, and Skype is no longer from ‘the few to the many,’ as in the age of the book, the newspaper and television, but from ‘the many to the many,’ and all the time.”2
Another comment by Guinness: “From the shortest texts and tweets to the humblest website, to the angriest blog, to the most visited social networks, the daily communications of the wired world attest that everyone is now in the business of relentless self-promotion—presenting themselves, explaining themselves, defending themselves, selling themselves or sharing their inner thoughts and emotions as never before in human history.”3
As a vehicle of communication, social media is fantastic. As a mechanism for resolving conflict, social media is pitiful and inadequate. It is also too public which violates God’s Word which says to go to our brother … take others if he won’t listen … etc. There is no such thing as really secure email/Facebook even with security measures and any email/Facebook can be forwarded or distributed without regard to unforeseen consequences or the damage that can be done. If you can’t resolve in person, you can at least talk on the phone.
The advent of social media offers new complexity. Facebook gives instant connectivity and wide superficial friendship circles to anyone. It feels like a very caring group of friends, people with whom I can share my hurts, the injustices I have experienced. So the grievance with one’s supervisor is poured out electronically, and instantly the messaging goes around the world, in effect, lobbying for support. There is no defense, no opportunity or mechanism to set the record straight, to tell the other side nor could an administrator do so even if he or she wanted to. From their perspective, this grievance is a confidential matter, and most quickly solved when the fewest people know about it or are involved.
When the conflict goes out via Facebook, there is no correcting it, nor can it be called back. Like feathers from a split pillow, the story will never be recovered. It is too late. However, the Facebook involvement is only a symptom of a long-standing problem. Deeper issues must be resolved if this one can be remedied.
Forbidding members to use Facebook and other social media is not the answer. Millennials are just one group of people who do not respond well to legalistic leadership—other generations don’t either. First, a rule such as that is unenforceable. And second, I believe it is unreasonable. (Biblically based guidelines can be developed.)
The Internet offers great benefits. Recently we heard a story of translated Scripture materials being put on Facebook (Personal correspondence with Jim Leonard), and the resulting delight and wide distribution pointed out that this is a useful way to introduce God’s Word into homes and hearts of needy people. Furthermore, the connectivity it provides meets emotional needs in a generation which is experiencing great deficits in relational areas. The speed of communication is greatly enhanced by using the Internet and more creative ways of using it are being found all the time. Forbidding workers to use Facebook probably won’t work.
Daniel J. Lohrmann in his 2008 book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, has invested several years of research investigating Internet behavior around the country. While acknowledging this great resource, his concern is: “How can we bolster the likelihood of doing the ‘right’ things and stop doing the ‘wrong’ things?” He believes we can do that by surfing our values but we need help. He continues to say, “The solutions need to start with our beliefs and values. Faithful navigation of the brave new Web involves changes in people and processes, as well as technology.”4
What then is the answer?
First, let’s look at the issues: In general, there is a diminution of societal (and personal) restraint, little emotional intelligence or impact awareness, a lack of discernment about outcomes of sharing grievances on Facebook.
In contrast, some healthier strategies include being certain of the facts before taking action; seeking additional information from those involved, practicing wise discernment and compassion as one approaches the situation, keeping the circle of those who know to the smallest possible number, consulting wise advisors and counselors beforehand, and then problem-solving together. It is almost impossible to achieve these solutions by using social media.
One of SIL’s long-time leaders and trainers, Ken Wiggers, said, “Facebook is a very public place. Social issues get vented there but it’s not a place to resolve personal or organizational conflict issues. You might get some resolution using Skype or other programs for group video meetings… If, as research suggests, 80% of communication is non-verbal, any communication without facial and body observation is somehow lacking, especially where there is conflict. No opportunity for a handshake or a hug to seal the deal.”5
If conflict is to be resolved—all levels of conflict—face-to-face interaction is desirable. (I call your attention to the Bible verse Matthew 18:15–16, “go to your brother…”) This demands maturity and courage from both parties. Another foundational assumption is that both parties know and are committed to God’s principles for living even in today’s linked world. It calls for humility, inner security, reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Once the problem has been addressed and discussed, it’s not over. A growth strategy for moving forward with appropriate helpful input and accountability structures will be helpful.
What are corporate strategies that could be employed?
First of all, we cannot expect psychological wholeness from every person nor can we expect lives always to be aligned with God’s Word and principles but we will have a growth posture toward one another. That is, we encourage and promote growth plans, mentors, coaching, modeling, and sharing helpful materials. An example of helpful materials is “The Hardy Personality,” my document which has been used as a self-assessment instrument for new workers.6
We will have a new posture for leaders—we too are in process; we are learning to do our job better and welcome feedback. This demonstrates humility and a flatter organization, less reliance on authority and more on relationships. This will be attractive to millennials in particular but others as well. Jim Raymo’s book Millennials and Mission is a good resource.
We need to revise our screening procedures. Rather than using psychological instruments to identify and preclude people with personality disorders and other mental health issues, we will base our procedures on Biblically based growth and wholeness strategies, which ideally will begin the healing process. (Some instruments are valuable tests and can be helpful if incorporated into overall screening or training including Biblically based strategies.) Wholeness and growth should begin there with all new members.
With regard to serious mental health issues, an organization must acknowledge that, while psychological instruments are helpful, using them for employment purposes is illegal. I do not believe that spiritual strategies will replace psychological instruments, but I do believe spiritual growth and integrated Bible truth will help to bring people to maturity, and resolve many troubling behaviors. For more serious matters, we should thank God for mission-experienced, well-trained psychologists and counselors, and use them appropriately.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) should become an essential (and expected) leadership tool, eventually pervading the entire organization.
We must have specialists and use them! Ombudsmen and mediators, as well as counselors, can be very helpful.
Back to Facebook. Once we hear that someone has taken their grievance to their 500 Facebook friends, we begin by seeking a mutually convenient time to meet together. At such a meeting the facts must be presented, heard, and discussed. Options will be explored, and mutually agreeable solutions chosen. However, at some point, the person who aired the grievance on Facebook must be challenged with the amount of damage done with irretrievable information having gone to so many. Great harm may have been done to the administrator (and the organization) and forgiveness is needed for the healing of both parties. Future behavior must look different!
The Conflict Curve7 demonstrates value differences; it also shows immature and mature ways of dealing with conflict. While Facebook is not mentioned as one of the immature strategies, it is included in ‘telling others’; ‘lobbying for support;’ this is sometimes done by asking others to pray for ‘the situation’; telling our closest friends, or going on the Internet/Facebook. Another potentially damaging way of handling conflict is to air the conflict in front of our children. A basic principle for solving conflict is ‘the fewest people who know the better.’
To recap: conflict is a complex human behavior. In this article, I am speaking to two seemingly more recent and troubling aspects, psychological dysfunction and using social media to air grievances.
My suggestions are:
- A new, humbler, flatter leadership style that includes accountability, a Biblically integrated lifestyle, and appropriate transparency.
- As part of the selection process, a Biblical lifestyle and growth mechanisms (growth plans, mentoring, coaching, modeling) will be presented with commitments to these growth strategies expected and promoted.
- Access to and use of mission-experienced, Biblically integrated psychologists for addressing serious mental health problems but utilized apart from employment procedures.
- Corporate and personal covenants about interpersonal relationships and managing conflict will be illustrated, discussed, and complied with.
- Organizational goals will not be limited to achieving particular ends, but will include widespread commitments to winsome and Biblical lifestyles.
Dr. Laura Mae Gardner is Vice President of Personnel for both Wycliffe and SIL International. She holds a DMin. from Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary.
What personal and corporate principles will guide us?
Some corporate principles include:
- Transparency among leaders that enable values-based leadership to flow across and downward throughout the organization.
- Credibility based more on relationship than authority or title.
- Pervasive strategies of accountability from the top downward.
- Humility and a welcoming attitude. We would rather be talked with than talked about.
- We will not damage people! “The authority God has given me is not to tear you down but to build you up” (2 Corinthians 13:10). “Those who having the power to harm will do none” (Shakespeare).
- We are committed to reconciliation (not just peace or superficial harmony). God has given us the task of reconciling people to Him—and to one another (2 Corinthians 5:18b).
- We will aim to promote unity. (John 17).
- We will not fan the flames. (If we only hear about the conflict, we will avoid voicing opinions or gossip or talk about either party.)
- We will not take sides. “Any story sounds true until someone sets the record straight” (Proverbs 18:17).
- We will keep the circle of those who know small.
- When the conflict is resolved, we will be sure that all who knew about it have now been advised that it is over and resolved.
For personal principles, perhaps a self-covenant would be helpful. For example, my personal covenant with regard to relationships includes these commitments:
- I will live without antagonism toward anyone. I resolve to resolve my conflicts.
- To the best of my ability, with God’s help, I will be free from grudges, memories of old hurts, grievances with anyone. I want to be able to look everyone in the eye and greet them warmly, without constraint.
- I will be an agent of healing in any relational situation. “Do you trust John (generic name)?” “Yes, I do, and this is why.”
- I will promote unity and demonstrate trust.
- I will choose not to take offense. (I endeavor to live with an un-offendable heart).
- I will solicit feedback on my behavior from trusted friends.
- I will be cautious about my words, aim to build people up, not tear them down. Redemptive communication could describe my communication style.
- I will be careful about my efforts at humor.
- Where there is obvious injustice, I will speak clearly and kindly with the intent of promoting justice. Even if I am treated unjustly, that will not be an excuse for bad behavior on my part.
- I will aim to listen well, and grow in my listening skills, and hearing heart.
- I will update my memories about people. They may have grown beyond that long-ago offense, and be different. By God’s grace, I am different too.
- Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 15.
- Daniel J. Lohrmann, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 13.
- Personal correspondence, 7/12/2016.
- Laura Mae Gardner, “The Hardy Personality” (Dallas, TX: Wycliffe, 1995, 2013). Available on request from email@example.com.
- Conflict Curve. SIL’s International Management Training Dept. Dallas, TX.
Baker, Philip. 1998. Wisdom: The forgotten factor of success. South Perth, Australia: Authentic Lifestyle.
Barthel, Tara Klena and Judy Dabler. 2005. Peace Making Women. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Bradberry, Travis and Jean Greaves. 2009. Emotional Intelligence 2.0. San Diego, CA: TalentSmart.
Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 2001. How People Grow. Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan.
Guinness, Os. 2015. Fool’s Talk. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Livermore David A. 2009. Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Lohrmann, Daniel J. 2008. Virtual Integrity. Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress.
Meier, Paul and Robert L. Wise. 2003. Crazy Makers. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
O’Donnell, Kelly. 2011. Global Member Care, Vol I: The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. 1995. Not the Way It’s Supposed to be: A breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing.
Raymo, Jim and Judy. 2014. Millennials and Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Roembke, Lianne. 2000. Building Credible Multicultural Teams. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Shelley, Marshall. 1985. Well-Intentioned Dragons. Carol Stream, IL: CTI. Also, Waco, TX: Word Books.
Conflict Curve. SIL’s International Management Training Dept. Dallas, TX.
Gardner, Laura Mae. 1995, 2013. “The Hardy Personality,” Wycliffe: Dallas, TX. Available on request from firstname.lastname@example.org