Archive for the ‘conflicts’ Category

Jealousy —  it is the reaction no one admits but everyone has. It is like an old, ugly piece of clothing that we refuse to throw away. We keep it at the back of our closet. A few of us have tossed it under the bed. It is still there.

I lost a friendship once — jealousy. I myself once ran over the top of another person. My steamroller? It came thundering out of my own ugly jealousy. It feels shameful to admit this.

A young woman told me last week that one of her bridesmaids was throwing a fit about the dress that she was being asked to wear to the wedding. We talked about where the girl is at in life, what she doesn’t have that she wants to have. Her little hissy fit? It is about more than the dress.

I asked a friend recently,  “What do you think the cure for jealousy is?” I expected a platitude about humility, but she surprised me by saying, “Success.”

The cure for jealousy is success.

When we get to attending to what we want to do, what we need to do, with working out our happy hopes and exciting dreams, we will be too focused on our work to be jealous. True, but I think the curative doesn’t not merely lie within the distraction of focus, although that helps, it also lies within the abandoning of comparisons.

Someone will always be more favored, prettier, more powerful, wealthier,  smarter — no matter how much we succeed. We must refuse the comparison.

We must because we are not them, we are us, and we are where we are at, and we are who we are, and we will do well to  make the most of that, with no furtive glances — tinged with enviafication — to either side.

Nothing endures like helplessness.

Yup, helplessness just hangs in there and suffers, hopelessly, without taking any action, repeating the same narratives to explain the past, arguing for what happened, because helplessness believes it couldn’t and can’t change anything.

This morning I talked to a young woman trying to recover from her family’s bad choices —  substance abuse, addiction, divorce.

She said something like, “I am done with playing the victim.”

“Me too,” I told her. “I’m looking ahead not back, focusing on what I can do, not judging other people for what they did, or do. I’m done with judging people.”

She gave the “Amen” to that. I prayed for her. I believe God is all about moving on toward a good future.

But interestingly, last night I had a dream where I was trying to make clear to someone why a past relationship I had, failed, and I found myself explaining that in that particularly complicated version of bad blood — while I had clearly made mistakes — I had almost always been a positive force, an idea-crafter, a problem-at-hand-solver, a way-forward pointer, and that this was never, ever ungrudingly acknowledged by the other person. Instead it was turned to blame.

It’s a victim’s mantra, my explanation to someone else, my story retold, that narrative about what wasn’t acknowledged, what someone did to me or didn’t do for me or wouldn’t admit or hid so that they could villainize me.  My narrative may be true, (actually it is),  the damage done may have been real (it was), but it won’t help me much to tell it to that person.

I was reading in the Bible this morning and a verse stood out, “Do everything without arguing.” 


I don’t have to stand toe-to-toe with those who have offended me and argue my perspective in order for me to be okay, for me to move on, for my story to be validated.  Neither do you. And that wouldn’t likely work anyway.  Head-to-head, we most likely wouldn’t be heard by the other side — the two differing stories would compete, there would only be noise. Loud voices only deepen divides. I know. I’ve stood by and watched people do this.

In other words, I don’t need to argue for my version of my past. I don’t need someone else to affirm this. If my story is true, then it is true, and if it helps me to see it, then it helps me, but I don’t need to convince anyone else of it. There is no vindication in that.

This is not to say that victims don’t need to tell their stories in court or confront their abusers. They do. But when court is impossible and victimizers won’t listen, at some point it becomes counterproductive to keep going over and over the same narrative and not moving forward

What I need is to be self-affirming, to know who I am, and to keep building on that. I have always been a leader, a problem solve, an idea sharer. I always have been that. That is who I am. This is who I always will be. I am a vision leader, a path finder, a good team player, and my current role at my job totally affirms that.

I help other people be successful by seeing what is possible for them, by seeing what is next, for them, by seeing what is next, for us.

What I need to do is just keep doing that.

While nothing endures like helplessness, it is also true that nothing endures like essential character, and not playing the victim, and hope and authenticity, and knowing oneself and moving on.

I’m not helpless. I am not stuck in the past.

I like myself like that.

There is a some angst in the United States these days and it surfaces in the fear of strangers, and it takes on the language of “us” and “them,” and the language of our national “greatness.”

People say things like “We Americans need take care of ourselves first, we need to do what is best for us, we need protect our interests so we can be great again.” This makes sense to many people who aren’t doing well economically and to people who feel that they have lost power or place or status.

As a result our national sentiment has grown in being against those who aren’t like us. It is in vogue to suspect the stranger. The thinking is that they keep us from being great.

People of another color, people from another religion, people from another socio-economic background, people from another country — too often, these days, they are suspect. If they are not of us then perhaps they are not for us.


But the facts are this; we are one humanity, one human family, all cut from the same cloth, all bearing the same needs, wanting many of the same things, and in truth — to be quite spiritual about this —  we are made, according to holy writ, in the same image.

I’m am not suggesting that there are not people to fear, dangerous ones  — there are — but I am suggesting that difference in culture, color, cult or cannon, doesn’t not mean that we can’t — even if we are strange to each other — respect one another, live close to each other, and even benefit from each other, and even help each other avoid harm from dangerous ones.

And, in fact, we do, benefit from each other.

I ran across a really interesting book a while back, The Necessity of Strangers. In it, the author, Alan Gregerman, asks the question, “What if strangers are more important than friends?”

He then explains that the advantage to strangers is that they can fill in the gaps in our knowledge. They can teach us stuff, and thus help us be more innovative and help us create more value and help us make our world great.

Is this true?

It has been for me.

At two points in my life, I have been overwhelmed by difficulty.  At both those times, I have gone to counseling for therapy. The two best counselors of my life were both Chinese women, both with PhD’s, one a Christian, one not. They helped move toward greatness, if my greatness is defined as surviving and triumphing in the face of difficulty, if greatness is defined as being more loving, if greatness is defined as being more understanding of emotions and becoming more skilled in handling conflict.

These strangers, these wise, educated women, from other countries, helped healed my heart. They did me much good. Professional counseling — think about it  —  it is the knowing and unburdening our hearts, to strangers, who can perhaps be more objective than family and fiends, who have been trained to have more skill in responding to relational hurt and difficulty.

This is not all. This is not the sole example of strangers who help, who have helped me, who help all of us.

Many, many strangers, people very different from us, have benefited each of us in the United States.

Strangers, in the form of farmers, grow our food. Strangers, in the form of doctors — virtual strangers, many from other countries — have treated and healed our diseases. Strangers from other countries — and strangers here in America  —   they have made and perfected the the technology we drive and the advanced tech we work with and communicate with. Strangers, from the past and present, have written the books that have influenced our thinking, they have made the great discoveries that has given us better lives, advanced the best political systems, furthered civilization, done us all much good.

It is endless. Our lives are enriched and sustained by strangers. Our scientific, philosophical, cultural, psychological, sociological, historical and spiritual knowledge has been built up and perfected by the work of strangers, both in other countries and in ours

And economic peace and prosperity —  if that is one of our standards of greatness in our now globally dependent system — will very much hinge on the cooperation of strangers.

I have nothing against striving for greatness, but as we do, we would do well to remember this: strangers, they have made us great, again and again.

“Thanks for your openness to fix this issue,” I said, “It’s refreshing.”

“You make it easy,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied

I could feel us both relax, sooth and groove into a glassy-smooth pool of safe relating   — which, by the way —  we had generated by not letting relational anxiety ruffle our water.

It was two bullfrogs, easing off a low rock together, and slipping into a calm pond for a good swim.

Our conversation involved fixing something that wasn’t working well, it involved change, it involved moving from a mildly shaky and a-tad-bit-risky to more orderly, professional and reliable.

And we did move there, without criticism, hurt, blame or drama.

Conclusions can be drawn from this.

When anyone makes a mistake, fails to perform, does something other than what is the best practice, the way forward is though simple honesty about what didn’t work, and simple candor about what we can do together to improve the situation.

To all supervisors, bosses, spouses, teachers, parents and various and sundry knuckle-headed leaders of all kinds —  as you oversee your team, your family, your staff, as they make mistakes, as you make mistakes, as all of us forget to do things or fail to act out the organizational culture that we want fostered —  do the following ten things to keep things good:

  1. Stay calm; quell anxiety; slow down; slow time.  
  2. Avoid making quick assumptions and impulsive responses.
  3. Proactively and bravely initiate face-to face discussions of problems; ask questions; understand what happened; circle up and investigate together.   
  4. Through the use of neutral verbal tones and a relaxed verbal gaits, create a conversational atmosphere where it is safe to be imperfect and safe to talk about that. 
  5. Don’t blame or criticize, rather be gentle, be kind.
  6.  Own the problem together, suffer it with each other, take it on as a team.  
  7. Look forward, not back. You can’t change the past; you can change the future. 
  8. Explore and suggest solutions that work best for everyone. 
  9. Stay humble; be reasonable; keep in mind that better (not perfect) is still good. 
  10. Finally, keep it real, keep it located on the planet, no one is perfect — not even you. 

Recently, a most precious family member and I dove into a common problem of precarious proportion.

We were very honest about our feelings, and our preferences, and we were very tender with each other regarding our imperfections.

We made it easy on each other, or as easy as possible.

Partial solutions came to mind over several days — not several minutes — they were coated in kindness, drizzled with gentleness, and baked in love.

We were pilfering old wisdom, plundering ancient relational truth, “above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Colossians 3:14

Since the November election many savvy American commentators have sagely noted that we are a divided country.

“Do ya think?”

The odds of running into people who think the opposite of what you do about politics are about fifty-fifty.

So what do you do when faced with a person espousing different views from your own?

How about if you say, “Will you tell me more about that?”

It’s a great line, the kind of verbiage that can help us all immensely, the kind of language that can help us to just get on with it, with the understanding part, without someone getting hurt.

Not every adversative is a casus belli.

When people say something that we disagree with socially, epistemologically, theologically — or God forbid, politically — when inside we react to that dissonant point-of-view fast-breathingly, jaw-clenchingly and froth-mouthingly, then I suggest that we all — including myself — stay seated, and that we lean in toward our perceived opponent, that we place our forearms on our knees in an open and relaxed posture, that we nod in a positive and inviting manner and looking straight into their ignorant, narrow-minded, uninformed eyes we say gently, “Tell me more about that.”

Here is the deal, for me and for you, oh wise ones,  first just, “Be quiet!” Do that to protect your hearts — and to give space for understanding and to protect other people’s sense of safety in our presence.

There will be plenty of opportunites to say what we think — which of course is okay to do, and which of course we will do at appropriate times — but first let’s take control of ourselves, first let’s stop thinking of what we want to say back, and then let’s go at it by asking questions, so we can breathe again. First let’s go into listening mode, first try to understand, first be curious, open, calm, investigative, smart.


We tend not to understand the other side — too much. We tend to think we are right — too much. We tend to argue when we should learn — too much. To get smart, to do well, to keep our friends — our work or school colleagues —  to keep our families together, to keep our churches together, to make new friends, to not have stress disorders and to get more wise and sagey, we need to open ourselves to people who think differently than we do.

It is a mark of maturity to listen to, to like, to love and even to adore people we disagree with. It is a mark of a good thinker to listen to all sides. The ancient, trustworthy and wise Holy Scripture itself tells us that true wisdom is “open to reason.”

Listening doesn’t mean we have to change our perspectives, our opinions or our values. It just means that we are open to understanding someone else’s viewpoint. This so helps; it helps us not to run off the steep and scary cliff of trying to make everyone else think like we do.

They won’t, much, or they will, sometimes, or not.

Give it a rest.

How do we survive the divisions in our country?

We get smart; we get back to learning from and about each other.

We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than us, to accept you as our king and soverign lord, provided you observe all our liberites and laws — but if not, not.”

This was the oath of allegiance sworn by Catalans and Aragonese to the Spanish monarch in Madrid in the 15th Century.

I love it!

It’s in-your-face; it’s respectful.

It’s got commitment in it; it’s got a brash sense of liberty hanging around it; it has boundaries.

This oath respects that we take on different roles, but that those roles don’t make anyone better than any one else. That’s right.

Mutual respect, mutual value and mutual good are at the core of all good relationships. For love to exist, both sides must honor and value the other.

This fits us; it squares with democracy; it squares with our modern marriages; it squares up nicely with modern society.

Men and women must equally honor each other. Races must value other races. Rich and poor — mutual respect. Parents should respect their children, the children respect the parents.

Differing faiths are fine to differ, but they must not hate and attack each other. Political parties exist to put forward contrasting opinions, but hate, disrespect and personal attacks will ruin both. Having differing ideas doesn’t necessarily  make either side evil, it just makes them different.

The best relating is a confident, everything-on-the-table negotiation. It is dialogue, with respectful boundaries — well put.

If yes, yes; if not, not.

We make a pact to honor.

Let’s not let it get to not.

“She’s a liar,” he yelled, staring at me super-intently, as if intensity would convince.

It didn’t.

“Do you have any issues?” I asked as calmly as I could manage.

“We all have issues!” he yelled back in a tone that implied, “You are so stupid for even asking me that; everybody knows that we all have issues!”

I paused thinking fast, taking a slow-fast motion pan over the entire scene in front of me.

It is interesting how much tone communicates.

It is also interesting how we can speak to it without even conscious awareness of what we are doing. In my brain there was a kind of automatic voice that told me, “He just deflected your attempt to help him, so you better try again.

I asked, “Might your issues be affecting your relationship with her?”

He blew.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun, and what he said next wasn’t true.

Standing there in the doorway of the church office, looking out at him — him so angry, in attack mode — it was vaguely clear to me that he was trying to get some truth out. So I helped him.

“I think she’s doing a good job,” I said, keeping my voice quiet. He waved me off, frustrated, threw up his hands, turned his back on me and strode off across the parking lot.

“Bless you!” I called after him. He just kept walking. I felt kind of stupid saying that, it was so cliched, but I was grasping for some way to end this well, to show that I wanted his good, that I wasn’t really mad at him, and that he did belong in our organization. I got it that he so badly wanted a bit of power and dignity. Who doesn’t? I don’t want him to lose value.

It was a conflict. I was mildly rattled — not much.

I have been thinking about this kind of thing lately. I want to learn how to go through conflict like I go through a good night’s sleep — turning over softly — so as not to wake my wife — breathing regularly, resting on my own firm but comfortable relational mattress.

How do I manage conflict well? How do any us?

First, in conflict with someone, it is essential to remain calm, so that we might do our best to bring them and ourselves no harm — or as little harm as possible — by always offering up careful, simple, helpful words — mostly questions.

We must figure out the truth together, gently, so we can at least remain at rest. And we must not duck, the way most humans instinctively do, and go get other people to do our work for us. We are responsible to enter into our own conflicts, thinking well.

This week I sat in my office looking at a letter I had just received from someone I am trying to help. Here it was again. Conflict. This person had their own issue to work out, but they were turning on our organization!

It’s interesting. If you try to help some people, they bite you! You become the problem — so they can avoid their problem.

In the moment, in the first wave of emotion, harsh responses to them easily come to mind. I am learning to dismiss those.

If I have learned anything about conflict, I have learned that my first reaction to people is usually one that needs some work. I am responsible to do well by them, no matter how hostile I initially feel.

In conflict, at first I am upset. That’s normal. I have learned not to act on that kind of normal. My upset needs time, and self-coaching — sometimes just seconds, sometimes days — to cool. I need just a bit of time to sort out how I should best respond.

I am learning, slowly, through managing conflicts in several organizations which I now help lead — churches and counseling entities– how to do the work, in the moment and later, required to stay calm and clear-headed.

Having a good conflict is like repainting an old room — the prep, the self-prep once you get going, is the biggest part of the job.

This week a high-level leader I work with made a decision that limited another one of the many young leaders I oversee. I was frustrated by how this might cause several of our organizations to lose traction.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I shared the issue with several of my colleagues, several wise, business-savvy, senior leaders. It was good. Nothing is yet settled, but we are starting some good process to bring a win-win solution to the many different professional organizations these matters effects.

A big part of the work needed in successful conflict resolution comes in creating calm space in which we can all clarify the real issues, focusing only on the areas that really need renewing, and then proceeding very carefully, with the good of all in mind — and with lots of clarifying questions handy.

In conflict, I must ever remain the learner, learning as I go how to bring healing words to everyone.

In tension with people, back-door work, stair-work, padded-room work, reflective-work protects us and everyone else from the stupidity of blaming and shaming each other.

Good process, in the midst of conflict, process well done, with skill, is something that minimizes harm, maximizes healing and becomes something we can later stand back and admire.

I’ve seen poor conflict resolution. The root issues were never even mentioned. People didn’t process their own emotions or each other’s. There was only an effort to blame each other for some superficial problems, to cover up the real problems and to ultimately create a loser and a winner. Nobody took much responsibility for themselves. I hated it. I think it can go better than that.

It helped me, however, learn to adore slow-motion, good-outcome, self-reflective, completely candid, win-win conflict resolution.

Here is the bottom line. To have a struggle between us go well, we must first do the work inside ourselves, we must take control of ourselves, and we must learn to sit back — in a relational easy chair that we pull up to the conflict — and relax, and gather self-knowledge and wise words and discover good questions.

In tension with others, we must first cover, we must first softly blanket the struggle with the gorgeous, quilted masterpiece our own self-quieting work.

A while back, the latch on my side gate fell off. Don’t you hate it when you lose your latch?

The wood two-by-four that the metal latch was screwed on to had rotted. The gate wouldn’t stay closed.

So I went to work. I knocked off the old wood, replaced it with new wood, screwed back on the latch — all good. My gate stays closed again — nice and solid.

I was talking to a friend a few years ago who had a conflict with someone else I knew. The latch was coming off their relationship.

She said to me, “I’m a runner!”

What she meant was that when relationships got hard, she ran from the conflict. This time, true to form, she ran — clear across the country. When she came back, it wasn’t to the same place. I miss her.

I was talking to someone else this week. There is conflict on the team which she oversees in our organization. She told me, “Don’t worry! I’m not going anywhere!” She’s a stayer. She is willing to mend a latch.

Rot, difficulty, conflict — it’s normal, expected, certain to come, at home, work, community and church. But usually, with courage and some skill, and the willingness to stay through it, something broken can be repaired.

What is absolutely necessary to get a fix is to not run. To mend our relational gates we must stay for honest conversations, risk expressing underlying emotions, come to workable solutions, craft action plans that create win-win solutions.

The other day I spent some time deleting some contacts from my mobile phone. Many of them had moved. People come and go. We always have a few special ones to delete from our contacts, maybe even some people who have harmed us, whom we shouldn’t talk to anymore. They don’t get us. They limit us. Perhaps they dominate us. We delete them. That’s okay. Its protection.

But here is the deal: Delete who you must. Especially be courageous in deleting those who bring you ruin with their bad choices, but don’t delete the precious people who God has given you to love — family, team, coworkers, therapists, fellow students, friends — even when they aren’t perfect. With them, be a stayer!

Your people, those within your yard, those protected by your gate, your magnificent messes, all your sweet ones, all your fragile precious ones whom God has given you, when it comes to them — mend the latch.

Our governing leaders have had some significant difficulty working together lately.

It gets me to wondering: Why aren’t we doing better thinking and leading in the United States?

A simple explanation comes to mind. Good thinking and good leadership don’t happen when we operate from inside of a limited mindset, within a tightly closed box of ideas, within only one perspective, when we have to win at all cost. To take an extreme point of view on an issue, and not to be able to see the two or three sides of a problem — such narrow, reductive, boxed-in, political-party kind of thinking — it doesn’t usually solve problems.

Yesterday my cats started licking each other, then they began wrestling a bit. I told them to stop. That kind of thing — it always results in the end in some hind-leg kicking and some sharp-tooth biting. I don’t want a vet bill.

Whenever I find myself disagreeing with someone, having a conversation within my own mind about how messed up they are, having gotten myself upset over something they have said, done or not done, then I find a need right away to begin to calm myself down, to remind myself that they have reasons for what they have said or done. This must be done, in order for my brain to keep working well, and to keep me from biting them!

To think well we must calm down our revved up.

Calm, me calm, you calm — it  means we can actually have a safe conversation where we do something very needed in the midst of human discord. We can invite the conflict. We can have the conflict, instead of isolating, hiding, polarizing, running, in panic, and gushing it all out to someone else who can’t do anything about it. We can talk it out, instead of digging in and refusing to bend and wrecking the relationship.

Someone told me yesterday, “We have some differences.” I invited them to lunch, stayed calm, and over food we had the best conversation. They left feeling heard; me too. While we don’t think the same way on everything, we were reminded of how much we are alike on the really important things, and I am looking forward to working well together in the future.

If I can invite you to tell me how you really feel, and I can really listen, then perhaps you can invite me to talk a bit about how I really feel, and you can listen, which might result, in time, with some decent dialogue in which we actually understand each other and work out a solution.

We need in this country, our leaders and ourselves, to better learn the art of negotiation. Marriage, friendship, parenting, work teams, friendships — all social groups must negotiate differences to survive. They must sit at the table, left-wing and right, liberal and conservative, extroverted and introverted, emotional and rational, black and white, poor and rich, big and little, young and old, this and that, up and down, in and out and they must talk, listen, respond, listen, talk some more and come to an understanding.

My wife told me recently that she wanted to get away to a resort, relax together —  in Temecula.

“Temecula,” I fumed, “I never thought of that as a destination!”

We are going this week.


I want her to be happy, and if I can see the validity of her perspective, “We are working too much; Temecula is close; they have some nice places to stay; it will be warm,,” then I’ll have fun and get a much-needed rest too.

It helps, as we try to live together, to give ground a little. We meet the need of the other. It isn’t a win-lose we are looking if we are to keep liking each other. We are looking, in conflict, for a win-win, for a we-do-this-that-you-want and a little-bit-of-that-which-I-want. That’s good relating. That works; it makes people happy.

Our political issues need such an approach; otherwise, we are going to have too much kicking and biting.

Saving money is wise; so is spending  money when something needs to be bought.

All human beings need to see doctors; but medical care must be managed in ways affordable and fair.

The use of force is sometimes needed to stop evil; it is also often essential to lay down arms and find peaceful solutions.

Making sure everyone is responsible is good; and it is also good to care of those who can’t take care of themselves.

I could go on. Life is never simple. There will always be competing perspectives. But what we need to do is to calm down, dialogue more, listen more and really work on understanding each other. If we are to ever grow up, become mature, gain social ground, then we must learn to care for and even have affection for people we disagree with.

We must nuance our thinking more, understand competing points of view better and come to shared solutions that work, that help, that lead the way forward to getting along.

“They’re wrong!”  and “I’m mad” — that won’t get us to the right place.

It will just result in a big vet bill.

The World is Flat, claimed Thomas Friedman in his 2005 national best seller.  The  book is  now seven years old, but it is still relevant, particularly in the competitive, dog-eat-dog world of economic stagnation and global competition and conflict.

For Freedman’s “flat” is about creating collaboration in the marketplace. He points out that in the international business community, people are working together as never before, wired together through the Internet. Freedman explains how economic cooperation between businesses all over the world has bulldozed a new, level playing field. Tutors in India now collaborate with American school children on their homework. UPS is now synced with Toshiba, fixing Toshiba’s laptops to save shipping expense and time.  People around the world build software together. Things are changing – fast. Are we?

When I read Friedman’s book, a few years ago, it got me to thinking hard about the spirituality. Is the spirituality growing more flat too? There is evidence for that. Many religious leaders now network internationally by email and mobile phone. Short-term missions’ trips to other countries are the norm in many churches. Megachurches are creating huge associations of thousands of churches that plug and play their curriculums. Globally, religious leaders of differing backgrounds are working more together to engage social issues like the HIV pandemic, poverty and addiction.

 And yet, while the concept of collaboration is inherently spiritual, and it is in vogue today, the religious landscape worldwide,  is still too often a rocky and jagged land of conflict and division.

 Knocked Flat

Christianity, the faith I know best, unfortunately, has a splintered look. Differences in belief and practice preserve deep canyons. A while back, I talked to a worship pastor who was told he couldn’t serve communion in his own church because his ordination was from another Christian denomination. And we often see little collaboration between churches in local communities.  The churches in my community too often do little more than rent rooms to each other. Sometimes it seems as if they are competing for attendees.

 In the upcoming presidential election, on some of the most significant issues, Christians are not likely to present a unified front. Four years ago, during our last Presidential election, instead of seeing Christians speak with one voice, we watched as fellow Christians handed out voting slates that followed party lines. On some issues, allegiance to the party seemed more important than allegiance to the body of Christ.

 On a very personal, pastoral level, flat is too often tragically missing. I once sat with a group of pastors openly discussing the high and low points of their careers. The low points? They all came when a decision was made by a church, a board or a colleague who ran over them. The stories all had messy endings. No eye-to-eye, on-the-same level, collaborative decision making here. It was the worst kind of flat, knocked flat.

 Sometimes it seems that companies like UPS, with their amazingly unified army of workers, process their conflicts better than the church. Starbucks seems to have created more shared culture between its stores than we have within our denominations.

 In our churches there are racial divides, political differences, belief barriers and hurt pastors. All this has gotten me to thinking. The church needs to flatten. I mean by this that we Christians need to humble ourselves and begin to better plough together through our differences. We need to learn to honor the value of a well-managed conflict. This is not naïve. A grand agreement won’t be possible on everything, but we can do better than this to beautify the bride of Christ.

 John M. Gottman in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work says that marital conflicts fall into two categories: solvable or perpetual. Perpetual conflicts are ones that remain in a relationship in some form or another. Gottman says 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual. In unstable marriages, these problems kill the relationship. In lasting relationships perpetual problems are acknowledged and discussed, again and again. The couple is constantly working them out, but they are always, for better or worse, working them out.

 The church has many perpetual problems. And on this planet, it always will, but is the bride of Christ doing its best to work them out, again and again?

 What Does Flat Look Like?

 While it is true that the business community is flattening, it is also true that it is still full of leadership hierarchy — CEO’s, supervisors, managers. Such authorities often make and drive key decisions. Of course this is also true of the church. Denominational presidents, committees, boards, executive pastors, senior pastors — such top-down leadership is often the source of vision and change. And it is precisely at that level that strong leaders should begin to affect needed change toward more collaboration.

 Act 6 shows us first-century, Biblical flat. And it evidences the effective use of collaborative decision-making among a leadership team.

 There was a problem. The Greek-speaking (or cultured) Jews complained to the Aramaic-speaking (or Palestinian) Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve and all the disciples chose seven to take responsibility for the concern. Dr. Luke records that, “This proposal pleased the whole group, that is the twelve and all the disciples.” (Acts 6:5)

 That’s flat decision-making. A fairly good-sized, top-level leadership team met about a social problem. They talked openly and made choices that “pleased the whole group.”  They collaborated. The text doesn’t report that two sides polarized, that there was a split, that a new denomination formed, or that anyone left mad. Acts 6 flat was good; it produced a unifying decision. What pleased the group must have pleased God too.

 In the sacred places where we make decisions, we need such processes. We must not avoid dialogue, because if we do, we will avoid collaboration. And we must not avoid collaboration, for if we do, we may fail to take responsibility for “the Greek concern.” A few years ago the church I now pastor formed a new, outwardly looking vision statement. The process? Our leaders collaborated to hammer our vision out.  Swinging the hammer together worked.

 It is possible to get this right. But to do so, we must go to that sacred space where we sit down at the table and talk very honestly. This can happen, but first we will need to flatten our egos so we don’t flatten our neighbors, especially our neighbors from other backgrounds.

A while back I made friends with a young Muslim woman studying to be a lawyer. She told me of a tough incident in her life. One day, at the American University where she was studying, she stopped to help a student who was crying. The student looked up, and seeing my friend’s head covering, the crying student asked, “Are you going to hurt me?”

 “Why did she say that?” my Muslim friend asked me. “Ouch!” I winced inside over the insensitivity of her encounter. Then I tried to reassure my new friend that many Christians don’t hold this stereotype of Muslims. She invited me to her mosque. I went. I invited her to my church. She agreed to come. Dialogue built paths.

 Flat can be learned

 There is hope. Acts 15.1 shows the early church at an extreme impasse over differences between Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews. It was no shallow conflict. It involved issues of Jewish law, the process of transformation, even of salvation.  

 It is fascinating to note how the dispute was handled. The disputing parties met together and they talked. They vigorously presented their views. One judge didn’t decide the case. Together they worked out an agreement that pleased, that worked for the group. They would accept differences. They wouldn’t require the non-Jews to be Jewish!

 And while the outcome was dramatic and defining, so was the process. The Jerusalem council modeled how the church should resolve its differences. Now we know from Paul’s letters that the Judaizers kept this battle going, lobbying for  Jewish law in Christian life to be continued. And really, the tension over the role of law, of rules and of traditions within the Christian faith has been perpetual, and it is still an issue today. But in Act 15, an environment was set up where people with differences talked. And this talk allowed a way to go forward in a manner that was highly productive. Gentiles were included in Christianity. It changed Chrisitianity from a small sectarian group into a world religion.

How did that work? The decision-making process was face-to-face. It involved the disputing parties. It was honest. It involved collaboration. It listened to feelings.  In these ways, it strikes me as similar to facilitative mediation, a process now offered to disputing parties, (with say family or business conflicts) who are seeking an alternative to court.

 The steps of facilitative mediation are roughly like this, as I learned them from the National Conflict Resolution Center training that I have gone through.

  • The sides meet.
  • Ground rules are set.
  • Both sides state the issue.
  • An area of shared value or experience is discussed.
  • The blocking emotions (anger, hurt, fear) are heard.
  • Together, the sides brainstorm solutions.
  • An agreement is written that fairly represent both interests. 
  • A win-win is achieved.

To have such a process, a wise mediator is crucial to help the sides listen, paraphrase and interpret how they are being affected. But a wise mediation is not simply someone trained in mediation. Mediation of deep conflicts can only be wisely handled by mediators who themselves have been knocked flat, who “get it,” because they’ve experienced it, because they have been humbled and because they have a deeply built in empathy and passion for win-win solutions. Then they can facilitate a discussion of shared values that moves towards a common ground. Only emotionally intelligent leaders will know that blocking emotions are something to resonate with, not stigmatize. And they will know, because they have themselves felt the emotions of hurt, betrayal and anger that if not allowed a place at the negotiating table, will sabotage the entire process.  

And then, the mutual solution giving — this is the good stuff. Both sides say what they can live with. Here is where a godly future is created. This is where the Greek problem is solved, the Jewish question answered. Here is where Christian love can make a difference, love that does not “insist on its own way,” (1 Cor.13:5, RSV) but commits to go our way, together, Jew and Greek, hand-in-hand.

This mediaton process is potentially highly restorative. It is Christian; it is spiritual; it is healthy; it is flattening. Steps like these can help us talk about even our perpetual problems. A process like this can set up a level playing field where we find ways to work together even when we don’t think alike. If we can be wise in this manner, we can limit the number of wounded and bleeding spiritual and political leaders. We can heal wounds.

And yet, we are not naïve. Progress won’t always follow a formula. Mediation of conflicts will sometime be messy and long. Some conflicts, especially when pride, jealousy, narrow-mindedness, greed, addiction and competition remain, will never be resolved. Others will take years, decades, even centuries to see progress.  Think of the partition of India and Pakistan. What a grave tragedy! And it remains.

To be realistic, some of our political and doctrinal conflicts will remain as perpetual problems. And our agreements, when they come on the big issues, may well come more through movements than meetings. But regardless of the road, the best solutions will be collaborative. We Christians should remember that even the  cannon of scripture and the doctrines of the faith were determined by councils. “Biblical” never has been one person’s or one church’s point of view.

Flat Is A Spiritual Shape

Conflict resolution through mediation, through rebuilding broken relationships is a challenging process. But it is a spiritual process too. God is a God of reconciliation and forgiveness. Wise men and women will mediate solutions that care for everyone involved.  (1 Corinthians 6:4) Working through conflict should be the norm in church offices and board rooms and religious leadership venues. The church, and the world that God wants is flat, when flat is defined as humility, love and working together.  Every pastor and denomination leader and world leader is responsible to resolve conflicts and engage in justice issues, and they would all do well to be more educated and skilled in facilitative mediation.

A few years ago, I traveled to South Africa. What beautiful Christians I came to know in the churches in Soweto. South Africans understand what conflict resolution can accomplish. When Soweto erupted in riots in 1976, the churches prayed that God would prevent a civil war. And God did, by using leaders like Nelson Mandela and  F. W. de Klerk. They eventually sat down together at the table of collaboration. They won a Nobel Peace Prize in for their work. 

Flat? It’s good, when it is a flat table where we sit down and allow round people a chance to have their say, to be understood, to collaborate, to participate in a shared solution, to create win-win endings.

That kind of flat is superb!

That kind of flat is a spiritual shape.