Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Engagin Conflict Well

Which one of these sounds most like a typical congregation to you:

What I love most about my church is that everyone gets along all the time. It’s amazing to me that 100 people can agree on just about everything, from what color carpet we should get in the sanctuary to how we will celebrate our church’s 200th Anniversary. I give all the credit to Jesus. When we gather in his name, it’s like we’re totally different people.
Sunday morning is a special time of the week for me. I love coming together with other Christians to worship God and pray for each others needs. But I have to admit, sometimes, especially in meetings, my church family argues more than my family at home (and we have our fair share of arguing, let me tell you.) It makes me sad when we don’t get along, like we are failing to live as Jesus taught us. I thought the church was supposed to be different.

A or B?

B! Just like any other organization on the face of the earth, and just like any other family on the face of the earth, there are disagreements and conflict in the church. This is totally normal. We all want the church to rise up and be different than the rest of the world, set apart from organizations and families filled with people bickering, arguing, gossiping, backstabbing, and sometimes, we actually do rise above. But the reality is, the church is as broken as the people who are in it. That’s why it’s important for us to understand each other and pray for each other; that’s why it’s important for us to repent and seek forgiveness from one another; that’s why it’s important for us to be perfected in love and transformed to be more like Jesus – because as each of us grows more holy so does the church.

At the seminar that I went to two weeks ago where we talked about the racial and cultural issues that the church continues to struggle with, we also talked about conflict. Conflict in the church is natural, literally, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. There will always be some degree of CONFLICT in the church, so instead of talking about conflict resolution, our teacher, the Rev. Scott Summerville, encouraged us to learn how to “engage conflict well,” and bring what we learned back to you, the body of Christ. Though the body is many parts with different functions, different gifts, different weaknesses, we are called to be one, to work together. As it is written, “God has so arranged the body…that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:24-26).
There are two presuppositions you need to know before I can explain how we, as Christ’s body, can engage conflict well.

The first has to do with our brain. This is why I said that conflict was natural. Very simply put, the human brain has three sections. 1. The primitive brain, also known as the reptile brain, which is in charge of our self-preservation. 2. The intermediate brain or the limbic system, which is in charge of our emotions and bonding. I’m not going to talk about this part of our brain today. But for example, a mother that would kill her young, whether by eating it or abandoning it, would lack the intermediate brain. 3. The rational brain or the neocortex, which is in charge of our intellectual tasks, thinking, reason.

As you can imagine, human beings and animals both have reptile brain. This is where our fight or flight response comes from. If we are in danger, we either fight back or get the heck out of there. The reptile brain is instinct, it’s defense, it’s survival. Sadly, human beings act out of this brain when we don’t need to, and that’s what causes much of our unnecessary conflict.

Only human beings have a neocortex. This part of our brain, which can reflect, which can process information, which can choose distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. When we respond using our neocortex, instead of react using our reptile brain, we make much better decisions and treat each other more in the way that the people of God should treat each other.

The second presupposition you need to know has to do with, what Scott called, our buttons. We all have buttons, and your buttons are different from my buttons are different from her buttons are different from his buttons. The point is, if I push one of your buttons, you feel attacked. And thus, you go instinctually into your reptile brain and then you either want to fight me or flee from me.

Our buttons are beliefs that we hold deep down, very close to our core self. And oftentimes, we don’t even know that we have these beliefs. The majority of them get established when we are very young, when we are children, maybe adolescents. For example, if your mother said to you, “You are such a good boy. I love you. Your brother is not as good of a boy as you are.” You will internalize that message, and it will become a belief you have. In this case, if I am a good boy, then I will be loved.

What happens then is say you are now 40 years old, and you are at work, and your supervisor says that you are doing poorly at work, that you aren’t trying hard enough, that you spend too much time on the internet. The truth is, your supervisor might be right, and you know it, but by saying what he said, he unknowingly pushed your button. Your body will tighten up, get tense, get in a defensive stance because what your reptile brain hears is: you’re bad; you’re not good.

And because of the beliefs you developed as a child, which aren’t necessarily true at all, what this means is that if you are bad, you are not loved. And being loved is such an important part of a human beings self-preservation that this comment by your supervisor will be conceived of as an attack on your very being. And you will flip into fight or flight response. And then, the next think you do, whether it’s shout or cry or not come into work for the next week or talk about your supervisor behind his back, that’s what escalates the conflict.

Does this make sense? Does anyone have questions? Just understanding this concept can literally change your life, and all of our lives as a whole. So much of the time, we are reacting defensively and hostilely to each other out of our self preservation brain when what we need to do is recognize that our buttons have been pushed and stop. When we calm down enough that we can get back into our higher level brain, then we are ready to have a conversation about what just happened.

When relating to each other, we have to find higher ground before we can find common ground. We might think that just because we believe in God and come together for the main purpose of worshiping and serving God that we have found higher ground, but we also need to understand how God made us, and use this special part of our brain that only we have to rise above the animal kingdom.

Jesus demonstrates how to handle extreme conflict in the best way possible. On the night he is to be betrayed, a night that he knows must happen, Jesus waits with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. The chief priests, the scribes and the elders arrive with swords and clubs in their hands ready to attack Jesus if he resists.

You better belief Jesus buttons get pushed when he sees them coming. For a number of reasons. One is that he actually is in danger; he’s being threatened. One of two responses usually occurs when someone feels threatened. One, you fight. Two, you run, you flee. It’s the fight or flight response. Jesus does neither of these. He refuses to react to the threat from his reptile brain or his primal functioning; instead he chooses to respond to the threat from his neocortex or his higher functioning.

So how can this information help us? And what should you do next?

First of all, it would be wise to figure out what some of your buttons are. Your buttons are these deeply held beliefs that when challenged send you into a defensive, reptile, fight or flight brain. One suggestion is use an “I am…” statement to figure it out. For my brother for example, he is sincere. (I am sincere). When someone says something or does something that implies that he is not sincere, my brother gets angry because someone is challenging something that he believes to be true and essential to who he is as a person.

The second thing you can do is recognize, actually learn what it feels like, when your mind and body are sent into primitive brain. You will tighten, tense up, get irrational, get impulsive.

The third thing you can do is learn to stop, don’t speak, don’t act when this happens. Give yourself a minute, or 10, or 5 days to cool off, to get back in your head, your neocortex, to get back to higher ground.

The turning point in your life and for the body of Christ will be when you understand the difference between reactive/automatic behavior and responsive/thoughtful behavior, and you choose the latter.

I’d like to end with a new version of the beatitudes, written by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia:


Blessed are those who are willing to enter into the process of being healed, for they will become healers.

Blessed are those who recognize their own inner violence, for they will come to know nonviolence.

Blessed are those who can forgive self, for they will become forgivers.

Blessed are those who are willing to let go of selfishness and self-centeredness, for they will become a healing presence.

Blessed are those who listen with compassion, for they will become compassionate.

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into conflict, for they will find transformation.

Blessed are those who know their interdependence with all of creation, for they will become unifiers.

Blessed are those who live in a contemplative life stance, for they will find God in all things.

Blessed are those who strive to live these beatitudes, for they will be reconcilers.

May we be the healers. May we be the peace makers. May we be the reconcilers.

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