by Kelly O’Donnell
Doing conflict resolution better requires understanding both human dysfunction and biblical discipline.
What a mess! A respected ministry is losing lots of its staff. Good folks are leaving and good folks are staying. Many are broken and disillusioned. People have taken sides. Some say the departing staff are insubordinate and not a good fit for the ministry; others believe there are significant personal and organizational problems that are not being addressed. Mutual friends try to stay neutral. The governing board wants to maintain the ministry, but is confused as to what is going on. There are no written policies for grievances, dismissal or discipline. No safe forums exist to share personal and work-related concerns as a group. No exit interviews are done; no independent review is done. A few well-meaning individuals plead for reconciliation. Something is definitely not right, but no one seems capable or willing to do anything. Over the next several months the toxins continue to take their toll as unresolved relational discord and ministry distraction spread maliciously to others. What a mess!
How many relational conflicts have you experienced in the last couple years? How much time, energy and sleep have they taken from your life? Perhaps ten percent of my work life—part of my unofficial job description—is devoted to working through various conflicts. I believe this is true for many of us. Research also supports what we know from painful experience: struggles with colleagues stress us out (Gish 1983, Carder 1999). And although conflicts can lead to personal growth and closer relationships, they do not always.
In this article I review two important areas for conflict resolution in Christian mission: (1) the role of human dysfunction (problems resulting from significant weakness and wrongness) and (2) the role of biblical discipline (correction helping to restore people and organizations). Upgrading our skills in these two areas is fundamental for resolving conflicts better. How do we help people and organizations that negatively affect others? And what type of help or discipline is appropriate? We must look realistically at our “relational reality” in Christian mission so we can learn from our impasses and struggles. The goal is not to blame; rather, it is to build “relational resiliency.”
“Dysfunctional” is a term that when used carefully can help us understand people and organizations better. By dysfunctional I mean a consistent pattern of relating to oneself and others that is hurtful or “toxic,” characterized by such things as authoritarianism, closed/secretive communication, high control and denial of what is actually happening (see box below). Such dysfunction can be compounded when no one sees it clearly, when it is imbedded in more functional behaviors or when no one wants to or can do anything about it. It can be further compounded by the various ways that all of us from different cultural, theological, generational and organizational backgrounds “do conflict resolution” (e.g., how to be “respectful” when discussing concerns; or how direct and emotionally expressive to be in sharing concerns).
|Signs of Organizational Dysfunction
(based on Hay 2004; Aterburn, Felton 1998)
Poor leadership and management as evidenced by:
High control, withholding information, rigidity, legalism, intolerance of questioning, punitiveness, blaming others, not admitting one’s problems, keeping up the image of the organization at all costs, high priority on giving money to the organization, limited accountability, influential people with pervasive character deficits, narcissistic traits, bruised backgrounds or addictive behaviors and a poor history of staff retention/relationships
Lack of satisfaction and optimism in staff as evidenced by:
DISTORTIONS AND DISCERNMENT
We all tend to see ourselves as right in the face of interpersonal tensions (and see the other party as being wrong!). Friends can become fiends; leaders can become lepers. Organizations become ogre-nizations. Labeling others’ differences as being dysfunctional, although a “normal” tendency for us all, is clearly dysfunctional itself. We need to be grace-oriented disciples rather than judgement-oriented derelicts. Who are we to call down fire from heaven on our brethren, as James and John wanted to do upon the cities that rejected the apostolic band (Luke 9:54)? The psalmist asks in 130:3, “If the Lord numbered our sins, who could stand in his presence?” And Paul warns, “Who are we to judge one another’s servant? For before his or her own master he or she will stand or fall” (Rom. 14:4). Conflict, more often than not, is a two-way street. God help us, because we are all sinners.
But hold on. We must also be concerned about the other side of the distortions—downgrading clear dysfunction and referring to obvious deviance as merely being “differences.” Surely we must not make a mountain out of a molehill; yet we should not make a molehill out of a mountain. The tricky part comes in trying to discern who has the clearest perception of what constitutes a mountain or a molehill. It is also tricky when things are not so black and white. As Proverbs says, “All the ways of a person are right in one’s own eyes, but the Lord weighs the motives” (16:2, 21:2). And again, “The first to plead one’s case seems just, until one’s neighbor comes and gives input” (18:17).
However, there are many examples in scripture when sin is identified, whereby some form of Christian discipline is clearly needed (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6,14). According to Ken Williams, “Scripture teaches us that in some cases our relationship with others must be secondary to the issue. We need to know when to put the issue first, even if it means the relationship is harmed or broken” (2002, 114). Similarly, Henry Cloud and John Townsend say, “The necessity of separation is a grim reality. God wishes it were not so (2 Pet. 3:9); so do all of us. But the truth is that some relationships are not workable if someone is not willing to change and reconcile” (1995, 197).
The problem is further complicated when there is no proper accountability in place, or when there is not enough history with a person or an institution to really confront the issue and require verifiable changes. I am not talking about how to handle situations where individuals simply have different opinions (which is usually the case fortunately); rather, I am talking about the times when there is significant personal and organizational dysfunction. Organizations and people, whether they are aware of it or not, or willing to admit it or not, can have a “toxic” influence on people. Unless we are (1) spiritually discerning, (2) “street wise,” (3) well-versed in the behavioral science areas of systems, recovery and clinical disorders and (4) grounded in the full counsel of scripture regarding the conflict resolution process, we can end up being “wise as doves” as we interact with others who may be “innocent as serpents.” Truth without grace may be brutal, but grace without truth can be lethal. Unfortunately, many times we can be seriously “duped” by dysfunction. Here’s how:
• The first task of dysfunction is to conceal itself. “Don’t ask about problems, don’t tell about problems” is a pervasive, core, unwritten rule.
• If that does not work, the second task becomes getting people to minimize it by downplaying its negative impact, stating that the group or person is going through a “normal” stage of adjustment, or simply changing the subject. Relational unity/conformity takes precedence over relational truth/connection.
• If that does not work the third task is to admit that something is “not exactly right” and perhaps refer to problems as being largely a matter of having different perspectives or preferences. There is little commitment to acknowledge real issues and little capacity to address them.
• If that does not work, the fourth task, which can occur simultaneously with the previous three, is to discredit those who point the problem out, no matter how sensitively they try to do so. A common mistake of leaders and consultants who are trying to help is to overestimate one’s ability to understand and deal with dysfunction.
RESOURCES TO HELP
There are many materials on how to help people resolve differences. Yet these usually assume that people are playing fair and that there is not significant dysfunction in one of the individuals or organizations involved. Helpers and mediators usually default toward wanting to stay neutral, helping people agree to disagree, believing the best in each other, preserving unity, increasing mutual understanding and arriving at a “win-win” outcome. However, there are times when this approach is inadequate and confrontation and discipline are required. Robert Schreiter’s sobering comments on reconciliation at the societal level are also applicable at the interpersonal level:
Truth-telling, struggling for justice, working toward forgiveness: these are three central dimensions of the social process of reconciliation. In all situations I know, they are never undertaken on a level playing field; the consequences of oppression, violence, and war are not predisposed to honesty, justice and even good intentions in all parties. Nor are the processes, for the most part, orderly. And they never seem complete. In fact, we usually experience them as truncated, prematurely foreclosed, high-jacked by the powerful….We can find ourselves acquiescing to half-measures, half-truths, compromised solutions. (Schreiter 2005, 4)
There are three ways to upgrade our conflict management skills. First, by taking the one-week “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills” course, which is designed to help apply scriptural principles in preventing and working through some of the more typical problem areas. When significant dysfunction is present, the use of additional approaches (as summarized in the box below) will be needed.
Second, we need to develop clear, written guidelines for handling conflict. Rather than simply having an end goal of reconciliation (see Laura Mae Gardner’s Tool One on page 46), be sure to include the place of biblical restoration and discipline, along with justice issues. Where there are no clear or thorough guidelines, we may tend to make them up, often to our own advantage rather than with others in mind. Our organizational guidelines also need to stand the test of conflict or discipline situations that are ambiguous and/or where there is toxicity. There are some internal organizational documents that can help. One example is contained in the By-Law 10.6 and 10.7 of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.1 Another is the Reconciliation and Justice Guidelines (found at http://www.ywam.org) by Youth With A Mission.
Third, organizations need to have clear guidelines for handling grievances and for “whistle-blowing” (recognized procedures for pointing out serious problems in an organization). These guidelines are part of good management practices, and are in addition to those used for conflict resolution. Check out the helpful material from People in Aid in the United Kingdom (found at http://www.peopleinaid.org), especially the brief “policy pot” document which discusses whistle-blowing. Also, look at the detailed mediation approach (found at http://www.hispeace.org) used by the Peacemakers consultancy group. Such guidelines reflect Charles Handy’s appeal for good management: “Virtue does not have to be so painful, if it is sensibly organized” (1988, 9).
TOOLS FOR ORGANIZATIONAL HEALTH
Following are two other materials to help us strengthen our organizations as we deal with actual or potential dysfunction. These tools require committed people with integrity, who have “soft hearts, sound minds and skilled hands,” in order to use them well. The first tool, by Laura Mae Gardner with Wycliffe International, identifies three broad steps for restoration in cases of moral failure or other serious sins. The second tool is used by Rob Hay, with Generating Change in the United Kingdom. He provides a list of key questions adapted from the ReMAP II study on staff retention that organizations and their staff can use for monitoring their levels of health and toxicity.
Tool One: Restoration for Colleagues by Laura Mae Gardner. Under what circumstances can a person with significant struggles, who has sinned greatly or committed a moral lapse, be restored to full membership and a position of responsibility within a Christian sending organization? I would like to suggest the careful consideration of the following three steps. These steps are offered in the spirit of “corrective grace” and with the understanding that organizations, like their staff, also have areas of weakness.
Step 1: Discipline. The leadership within the organization should institute some form of discipline which would probably involve some change in status, public statement or loss of position. It may or may not include reporting to the member’s home church. Counseling would not be done at this point.
Step 2: Recovery. Recovery includes five steps.
1. Repentance. The circumstances surrounding the coming to light of the sin must be addressed. Was it confessed in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, evidencing that the person is responsive to God and wants to live a holy life? Or is this sin one in which the person was “caught,” in which case the tears might well be tears of remorse, shame and embarrassment of exposure? In this latter case the person’s repentance is in serious question.
2. Restitution. Does the person demonstrate awareness of the pain his or her sin has caused others, and has the person taken all possible steps to make amends and bring healing to those he or she has hurt? This would mean the person has “owned” the sin—he or she is the one who did this, and it is the person’s responsibility to help his or her victims as much as possible. One’s willingness to enter into restitution in the event of getting caught rather than confessing the sin is one way to measure true repentance.
3. Rehabilitation. The person is willing to take a hard look inward and try to identify the areas of vulnerability and susceptibility in his or her own life to see what triggered the sin, where he or she needs to be careful in the future and how he or she can strengthen his or her own life. Again, one’s willingness to engage in this sort of thing will be a manifestation of repentance.
4. Time. All of the above will take a good amount of time. Healing, developing self awareness, taking responsibility for behaviour and developing biblical standards of right and wrong will take time, and probably is best engaged in the company and under the guidance of a godly counsellor.
5. Willingness to re-earn credibility. People will naturally be skeptical and have a “show me” attitude, and the person who has sinned must not condemn them for it but instead be willing to take whatever steps and time necessary to win back the respect and trust of others. Far too often we see the person who has sinned become angry at others for not forgiving him or her right away or for imposing some discipline. This certainly does not demonstrate a repentant heart or a broken and contrite spirit. It does not evidence an ownership of the sin, or an awareness of how much the person has harmed others or brought shame on the Lord’s name or on the organization.
Step 3: Restoration. Galatians 6:1 commands the body of Christ to work toward restoration. But what exactly does restoration mean? Is it a full return to status, position and privilege? I am not sure. Many leadership responsibilities are based on trust gained through character and proven trustworthy godliness, and this has been destroyed. It is doubtful whether the person can ever fully gain back the original confidence of his or her followers; certainly the only means of doing that is through a demonstration of godly sorrow, repentance and a humble walk with the Lord, along with relationships of accountability and strategies for maintaining spiritual vitality and holiness.
Tool Two: Organizational Life, adapted by Rob Hay. This is an exercise to do individually or preferably as a group. Spend a few minutes reflecting on some of your organizational practices. For each of the thirty-two statements found in the box at the end of this article, enter a score between 0 and 6 where: 0 = not done, 1 = not done well, up to 6 = very well done (as evidenced by time, effort and effectiveness). Add up your scores and enter the total in line A, then divide A by B and enter this number in C. Which scores are highest and which are lowest? What is being done well, and poorly? How can the quality of work and life be improved? “Members of great teams improve their relationships by holding one another accountable, thus demonstrating that they respect each other and have high expectations for one another’s performance” (Lencioni 2002, 213).
In our commitment to friendship, forgiveness and informality, I wonder if at times we are being too naïve, making ourselves too vulnerable and side-stepping good practices. I also wonder about our own remarkable capacity for self-deception, distortions and defensiveness when working through conflicts with colleagues. Above all, I wonder about the confounding toxins and nefarious schemes of the biggest troublemaker in the cosmos (Satan). God help us, because we are all sinners and in dire need of receiving and giving mercy (Gal. 6:1ff).
There is an Arabic proverb which says, “The greatest crime in the desert is to find water and remain silent.” I would like to suggest a rejoinder to this proverb: “The second greatest crime in the desert is to find poisoned water and remain silent” (see also Prov. 25:26). Sometimes people get into trouble because they blow whistles and because they confront poisoned water. They act with integrity both publicly and privately. This is not easy to do. Neither is it easy to do well, nor to do well by oneself. It is often scary and risky. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to back away or to move on. Other times we must stand firm and say to dysfunction what Gandalf said to the monstrous balrog in the Mines of Moria: “You cannot pass!” (Tolkein 1973, 429).
1. These can be attained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arterburn, Stephen and Jack Felton. 2001. Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Shaw Books.
Baker, Ken. 2005. “What Do You Do When Sin Seems Ignored?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 41(3), 338-344.
Carder, Joan. 1999. “Missionary Stressors and Implications for Care.” In Journal of Psychology and Theology, 27, 171-180.
Carder, Dave, et al. 1995. Secrets of Your Family Tree: Healing for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Chicago, Ill.: Moody.
Cloud, Henry and Jack Townsend. 1995. Safe People. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Gish, Dorothy. 1983. “Sources of Missionary Stress.” In Journal of Psychology and Theology, 11, 238-242.
Handy, Charles. 1988. Understanding Voluntary Organisations: How to Make Them Function Effectively. London: Penguin Books.
Hay, Rob. 2004. “The Toxic Mission Organisation: Fiction or Fact.” Encounters Mission E-zine, 2, 1-8. Accessed July 28, 2006 from http://www.generatingchange.co.uk.
Hotchkiss, Sandy. 2002. Why is it Always about You? Saving Yourself from the Narcissists in Your Life. New York: Free Press.
Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. 1996. The Prince. New York: Bantam Books.
McIntosh, Gary and Samuel Rima. 1997. Understanding the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
McLemore, Clinton. 2003. Toxic Relationships and How to Change Them: Health and Holiness in Everyday Life. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
O’Donnell, Kelly. 2002. ed. Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Reconciliation Network 2005. “Reconciliation as the Mission of God: Christian Witness in a World of Destructive Conflicts” (paper from forty-seven Christian leaders from across the world). Accessed July 28, 2006 from http://www.reconciliationnetwork.com.
Reddix, Valerie. 1992. Millie and the Mudhole. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepherd Books.
Roembke, Lianne. 2000. Building Credible Multicultural Teams. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Schaef, Anne and Diane Fassel. 1988. The Addictive Organization. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row.
Stahlke, Les and Jennifer Loughlin. 2003. “Governance Matters: Balancing Client and Staff Fulfillment in Faith-based Not-for-profit Organizations.” Accessed July 28, 2006 from http://www.governancematters.com
Schritier, Robert. 2005. “Reconciliation as a New Paradigm of Mission.” Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, May 9-16, 2005, Athens, Greece.
Tolkein, J.R.R. 1973. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books.
Wilson, Earl. et. al. 1997. Restoring the Fallen: A Team Approach to Caring, Confronting and Reconciling. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
White, John and Ken Blue. 1985. Healing the Wounded: The Costly Love of Church Discipline. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Williams, Ken. 2002. “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills.” Accessed July 28, 2006 from http://www.itpartners.org.
|Ten Suggestions for Dealing with Dysfunction/Toxicity
1. There is a continuum of responses to carefully consider. It ranges from prudently withdrawing and protecting oneself (Prov. 27:12) to confronting and holding one’s ground (Prov. 25:26). Act with integrity, without wavering, based on convictions and wise advice.
2. Confrontation of serious dysfunction is done as a group, with solidarity, not by oneself. Get ongoing, experienced, outside consultation at times; this includes legal advice. Well-intentioned colleagues wanting to help, yet with limited understanding of dysfunction or discipline, can create even greater problems. Refer to any organizational policies for conflict resolution, grievances and whistle-blowing.
3. Confrontation is usually a necessary step (e.g., clinical/recovery interventions) prior to or as part of mediation and reconciliation approaches. This assumes there are people willing to take risks and that there is an authority structure in place for leverage and accountability. Always include a historical review to help identify pervasive patterns. In mercy, focus on truth and justice and do not get sidetracked or duped by anyone’s “pain.”
4. Core parts of the reconciliation process in dysfunctional or toxic situations include truth, justice, contrition, forgiveness and discipline. Prematurely seeking for reconciliation is never helpful. In certain situations the reconciliation process takes years. Without verifiable contrition and change, sometimes all we can do is “cut our restitution losses,” move on and entrust ourselves to our faithful creator (I Pet. 4:19). Remember, though, that forgiveness is a command in scripture to intentionally pursue (Matt. 18:21-22).
5. Impartiality and objectivity do not necessarily imply neutrality. Do not be afraid to take a stand. But beware of seeing any party as being “all bad” or “all good.” Truth, packaged diplomatically, is usually a good way forward. Talking in terms of behavior patterns rather than personality problems, and situational influences rather than dispositional inadequacies, may help make the process easier. However, remember to be realistic; certain pervasive and ongoing character/systemic issues are not so amenable to change.
6. Make room for cultural, generational, gender and organizational variation. Difference is not deviance. Preferences are not usually pathogens. In many cultures direct approaches may not be appreciated, no matter how diplomatic or respectful a person may be.
7. Expect there to be diverging accounts of “truth” and deflecting responsibility; expect misunderstanding, manipulation and blame. One must be willing to live with compromise, incomplete closure on important issues, minimal contrition and partial justice.
8. True trust is earned and not assumed. A person needs good reasons, over time, to deeply trust others where there is a history of dysfunction. Trust is slowly built, easily broken and slowly rebuilt.
9. If you think you are going crazy as you deal with toxicity, you probably are. Dealing with toxicity takes a high toll on a person’s sanity. Get outside reality checks and support. Do not overestimate your ability to repel toxicity or to avoid becoming toxic yourself. Bitterness defiles. Resist it (Heb. 12:15).
10. Maintain a solid biblical perspective. Our Lord cares for us often by refining us through desert experiences and through injustices. He zealously loves others, even dysfunctional people, as much as he loves us; we are all debtors in need of unmerited mercy (Matt. 18:23-35).
|Assessment of Organizational Practices
1. Vision and purpose are shared and understood throughout the agency
2. Plans and job descriptions are communicated clearly to staff
3. There is a free flow of communication to and from the leadership
4. There is effective communication between sending base and field
5. Staff are included in major decisions related to the field
6. Policies are well-documented and understood
7. Most leaders are a good example of the agency’s beliefs and values
8. Most leaders identify problems early and take appropriate action
9. Good on-field supervision is provided (quantity and quality)
10. Leaders conduct an annual performance/ministry review with each staff person
11. There are documented procedures for handling complaints from staff
12. Effective on-field orientation is in place for new staff
13. Staff are assigned roles according to their gifting and experience
14. Staff are given room to shape and develop their own ministry
15. Staff are commited to their ministry
16. Staff are committed and loyal to the agency
17. Staff are generally not overloaded in the amount of work they do
18. Staff regularly evaluate and seek to improve the agency’s ministry
19. Staff are actually achieving the agency’s goals and expectations
20. Staff are developing good relationships with the people they serve
21. The people our staff serve are becoming followers of Christ
22. The church on the field values the ministries of our staff
23. Staff are developing leadership among the people they serve
24. Staff experience a sense of fulifillment in their ministry
25. Staff are effective in providing each other with mutual support
26. Effective pastoral care exists at a field level (preventative and in crisis)
27. Interpersonal conflicts are resolved in a timely and appropriate manner
28. Emphasis is placed on the maintenance and growth of personal spiritual life
29. Healthcare services for staff and their families are satisfactory
30. Time for an annual vacation or holiday is provided
31. Risk assessment and contingency planning is in place in all fields
32. There is a financial back-up for staff with low or irregular support
Dr. Kelly O’Donnell is a consulting psychologist specializing in member care, based in Europe. He is with YWAM and is a WEA Mission Commission Associate. Kelly graduated from Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University.
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