By Ray Wheeler, DMin. It does not happen often but when it does it is awkward and heart-rending. It may be surprising to some that we encounter it at all – most of the stories we hear when we are working with congregations about their seating needs are exciting times of growth or revitalization or new starts. But sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of more difficult conversations filled with accusations and counter accusations, angry words, hurt feelings and painful betrayals. We are not the subject of these conversations we are the witness – they occur when congregations split apart in bitter and acrimonious hostility.
There are tangible offenses and real pain behind the stories. The distress is not artificial. What happens when the church behaves in a way that contradicts and distorts the message of the scriptures? Is there hope for restoring Christ-likeness in the midst of bitter rivalry and hurt?
Facing Conflict with Honesty
There are times customers need to vent their pain and we find ourselves in the midst of ministry in the workplace. We see the same emergent theme others also see in today’s society. Knowing how to work through conflict is not a common skill. Two alternatives manifest themselves when our customers talk about conflict they face at church.
On the one hand the how to have a tumultuous conversation is often a lost skill. Somehow it seems that a mis-belief has entered common thinking that to be Christian is to be nice in a Pollyanna sense rather than in the true definition of the word. To be truly nice is to be courteous and polite; of good character and reputation; characterized by great precision and sensitive discernment. Tumultuous conversations don’t avoid the issues or behaviors at hand they address them with respect and forthrightness. Paul reminded the Romans that being nice (i.e., full of goodness, filled with knowledge) renders the capability to admonish one another. Or said another way to be truly nice means that one has the capability and responsibility to engage in the kind of conversations that are honest about behavior or attitudes that contradict the nature of Christ in us. (Romans 15:14)
On the other hand it is easier in our mobile society to simply disengage the source of discomfort or pain and simply move on to a “new church”. The question I ponder is how does a person conclude that there is such a clear bifurcation of the body of Christ so as to assume that the attitudes and behaviors that person exhibits in one context are miraculously altered by simply changing locations? The fact is that unresolved conflict and pain follows us to every new context and creates a lens or bias in how we view the actions of everyone. Soon even the “new church” exhibits the failings of the original experience. Does this mean that deep violations in relationships are always reconcilable? No. However, running from the discomfort won’t work potential reconciliation or emotional healing either. Consider how Paul models tumultuous conversations. In his follow up to the strong words of his first letter to the Corinthian church Paul wrote:
1 So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? 3 I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. 4 For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Corinthians 2: 1-4, NIV)
Paul stayed in the conversation with the Corinthian church even when it was painful to do so. He called out their incongruous behaviors and asked them to respond to God’s discipline in their lives. Avoiding tumultuous conversations is simply not a biblical strategy – a person can pretend there is no offense or they simply escape the offence by moving locations but the real problem remains. At this point I have heard myself say, “Hey wait a minute I am the victim here, why am I being called to account?”
Let’s Talk about Accountability for a Moment
I am not implying bad (evil) things don’t happen to people in the church. Conversely, wherever people are involved the choice to do good or evil exists and the choice is not always for the good. I have experienced the pain of betrayal by leaders, I have ministered to those who experienced the trauma of a sexual abuse, I have sat in the hospital with women beaten by their boy friends or spouses, I have cried with children whose father killed their mother, I have wept with spouses betrayed by the affairs of their partner and I have stood in the grief and pain of my students in Africa whose entire families were massacred in political rivalry. As I noted above, we talk with churches in trauma at times. There are victims of evil. There are victims of poor choices.
So, what does accountability look like? Does it look like a quest for justice? Does it look like a quest for admission of guilt? Does it look like a quest for apology? I affirm all of these as desirable. But each of these quests for justice or righteousness or an admission of guilt will not occur when one is silent or simply slinks away. The strongest confrontation of evil or poor behavior is to call it for what it is. Look again at Paul’s encouragement to the Romans;
14 I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Romans 15:14, NIV)
So who is accountable to make the first move toward change? Paul simply leaves it in the second person, “you” and lets the reader feel the full force of responsibility to act differently. Regardless of whether you are the victim or the perpetrator, you are responsible to make the first move toward actions that look more like Christ.
I get the pain we sometimes hear about when talking to our customers. I was once caught in the court case and needed to secure my own attorney to protect myself from a third party and my denomination. They were engaged in legal action over an insurance claim on property damage I had initiated. When the denomination refused to pay the full insurance claim and told me to secure my own attorney my rage and sense of betrayal festered into bitterness. I figured that if a fight was what was desired that I would oblige and adopted a scorched earth policy toward my denomination. I met with an attorney who listened to my story of betrayal and mismanaged insurance funds. She agreed that I had been horribly aggrieved then said she would take my case if I could answer one question. It was nice to be affirmed in my pain and my sense of revenge was encouraged by her expressed willingness to take up my cause. “What is the question?” I asked.
“What is God doing in this situation?”
The attorney may as well have hit me between the eyes with a bat – the response would have been the same. I was stunned. I sat there in silence. I was a spiritual leader of a national program, a professor of pastoral ministry, a trusted friend and mentor of other leaders and all I could think in that moment was how I wanted revenge. Since I had no answer the attorney suggested we meet again when I could answer the question and then we would map out a legal strategy together.
I was still reeling from the meeting with the attorney when I met with one of my seminary mentors. I repeated the painful details of my experience and Bobby listened attentively. He interrupted before I could complete the saga and said, “I have seen this before Ray. Leaders work in imperfect organizations. That is why we need godly leaders. You have a choice as a leader – you are at a boundary time. You can choose to grow or to plateau. If you are going to grow you must choose to identify the boundary and then forgive those who have injured you.”
“I need to forgive? They need to repent!” I respected Bobby but I was a little miffed at his suggestion that my response to others actions was the critical key to identifying what God was doing. Bobby didn’t flinch at my intensity.
“I am not suggesting you forget or ignore the pain of what has occurred Ray.”
“Well what are you suggesting?” I asked.
“I am suggesting that in your present state you won’t see how this event can positively shape your future and your effectiveness as a leader until you choose to forgive and begin to see things from God’s perspective.”
As we talked I discovered that I did not understand either the process of forgiveness or its power.
What Forgiveness Is Not and What it Is
Craig Johnson, professor of leadership studies at George Fox University notes that forgiveness is not:
• Forgetting past wrongs to move on
• Excusing or condoning bad, damaging behavior
• Reconciliation or coming together again (forgiveness opens the way to reconciliation, but the other person much change or desire to reconcile)
• Reducing the severity of the offenses
• Offering legal pardon
• Pretending to forgive in order to wield power over another person
• Ignoring the offender
• Dropping our anger and becoming emotionally neutral
I wrestled with these misconceptions about forgiveness and I see others wrestle with them as well. Johnson quotes Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin to define forgiveness as;
…a willingness to abandon one’s resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.
The definition carries all the biblical aspects of real forgiveness including the recognition that the victim has suffered a real injustice; that forgiveness is a choice that involves emotions, thoughts and behaviors and that forgiveness can be offered regardless of the offender’s response. The fact is that forgiveness is a process that identifies a real problem, recognizes the high price of carrying resentment and bitterness, works to understand (not condone) the actions of the offender in order to break the cycle of evil rather than pass it on. Finally forgiveness renders the outcome of seeing a deeper meaning in the events that have occurred and the realization on the part of the victim of their own need for forgiveness in life.
Working at a Crossroad
We work at the crossroad of decision for leaders and congregations at war with one another at times. We listen, we empathize and we try to point leaders in the direction of Christ. How powerful would it be if more and more churches caught in the painful throes of church or interpersonal conflict would exercise the power of forgiveness? How relevant would the church become in today’s social context if we lay hold of the dynamic of staying in tumultuous conversations rather than running from them? We are encouraged by the possibility and we will continue to live this out in our daily business and encourage the church to do the same. Are you in the middle of your own pain? What is God doing?
 Webster’s II New College Dictionary 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005).
 Craig E. Johnson. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publishing, 2009), 116.
Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.