How can church leaders address conflicts? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff speaks with attorney and mediator, Charlie Pillsbury, about mediating conflicts in congregations.
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Jessica Anschutz: Welcome, Charlie. I’m grateful for your willingness to share some of your conflict mediation wisdom with our listeners. Share a little bit about your background in conflict mediation.
Charlie Pillsbury: I graduated from law school in 1975. The law is certainly a form of dispute resolution. I practiced law for a dozen years and I was a good lawyer, but it didn’t feed me. I went through what I call a vocational nervous breakdown. I joined an organization called the Christian Legal Society. It’s a very evangelical conservative Christian organization. I don’t agree with it on everything, but I am always impressed with people who take their faith seriously seven days a week, not just one day a week. Through that I discovered a symposium called the Ministry of Reconciliation. It was in Lombard, Illinois, at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham. It invited lawyers and mediators to come out and look through a scriptural lens, and I had never really thought of it that way. So, I went, and there were maybe another two or three people from mainline churches. It was all Evangelicals, and a lot of Mennonites, Brethren, and Peace churches. It was really an Alice in Wonderland experience for me.
I went back to New Haven, and within a week I learned about a community mediation program. At that point I’d lived in New Haven for a dozen years and was very well tuned in, but I’d never heard of this little, sleepy mediation program in the Fair Haven neighborhood. In 1988, I did a 15-hour training and became a volunteer mediator. At the same time, I enrolled at Yale Divinity School as a special student to get an MAR [Master of Arts in Religion]. I was partway through that and created an internship with this mediation program because the director of the program at the time was a UCC pastor, so it was easy to set up as an internship site. I hadn’t been there more than a month or two when my supervisor announced that she was retiring and I’m saying, “God, what am I going to do now?” Then I said, “Oh, I know. I could apply for her job.” So, that’s what I did. I was hired, and for the next 20 years it was really the best job I ever had and probably will ever have — the executive director of a community mediation center in New Haven. We did more than mediation. We created a dialogue program with churches around the Rodney King incident of New Haven when a young black man was slammed by an East Haven police officer.
I figured 20 years was a good run, so I started teaching as an adjunct. Now they call me the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Quinnipiac. I love talking about the scriptural foundations of my vocational journey because it is spirit led.
Jessica Anschutz: What an incredible background you have, I feel like we’re not going to have enough time to cover all of the possibilities that we could talk about. Going back to your point about scripture informing what you do, how does scripture inform your approach to dispute resolution?
Charlie Pillsbury: First of all, I was drawn to the ministry of reconciliation. One of my professors at the Yale Divinity School and the School of Religious Studies, Wayne Meeks, a New Testament scholar, not one for small talk, came up to me after a service at Battell Chapel and asked me, “Charlie, is there some tension between the ministry of reconciliation and the ministry of justice?” I said, “Absolutely. I feel like I live on that tight wire.” It’s the ministry of reconciliation, but it’s also a ministry of justice. There are other people who do justice better than I do, and I think I do reconciliation better than most.
I went to this symposium organized by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Richard Blackburn was then the director, and they drew on two pieces of scripture. First, the passage from Matthew 18 — what you do when a brother sins against you. You go talk to your brother. If they don’t listen to you, then you take one or two people as witnesses to talk. If that doesn’t work, then you take it to the whole church. I think that many scholars believe that it led to shunning or the expelling of a person. To treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile, they got kicked out of their community. But that pericope is framed by two amazing passages of forgiveness on either side including how many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times? No, seven times 77 times.
The other passage they used was from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 6:1-8 where Paul is totally exasperated with the Corinthian Church. I don’t think any church conflict compares to the conflict that the early Christians had at the Corinthian Church. They were fighting over everything — what to eat, what to wear on their heads, who to believe in. Two members of the church are suing each other, and of course it’s going to the Greek courts, and these are pagan courts. And Paul is saying, what are you doing airing your dirty laundry in pagan courts? Isn’t there anybody wise enough among you to settle this matter? Basically, it was a call for churches to take seriously how churches resolve their own conflicts, whether it’s a congregation-wide conflict, or individual conflict.
So, I would say that’s where it begins, but then, of course, I have a whole series of Sacred Stories. I haven’t done one yet on the Matthew passage. I’ve done one on the Paul passage and on other passages. My favorite is probably the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob after Jacob crosses the Jabbok River.
Jessica Anschutz: When a conflict occurs in a church, what strategies can church leaders use to address it?
Charlie Pillsbury: Matthew 18 is a guide. The first step in any conflict is direct communications. What happens at churches, what happens everywhere, is people triangulate. They start talking about this person did that. If you’re upset, talk to that person. That’s the first principle of conflict resolution. The second is that people are not the problem. We turn people into the problem, but that’s not a fundamental principle of conflict resolution. The problem is the problem. So how do you separate a person? Maybe the person was having a bad day. Let’s deal with the problem. Give the person a chance to explain what happened. That’s where you begin.
What I would like to say about churches is there are two types of conflicts: there are conflicts among individuals and there are congregation-wide conflicts. One of the most common you see of course is a male senior pastor and a female associate pastor. A conflict between the pastor and the board is a bigger conflict. But it could also be something that’s engulfed the whole church, and then there’s a limit to what mediation could do. Mediation is very good at seeking agreements, helping people reach an agreement about a specific issue or problem. When you have a broader problem, you may want to turn to dialogue and approach it with a neutral facilitator. I really can’t say how important it is when you go to that level to not get somebody from within the church who thinks they can be neutral in the middle of a congregation-wide conflict. That’s just a fundamental error.
Even when you’re doing a long-range plan, you should get somebody who’s neutral and can help guide you through a long-range planning process and even to deal with the conflict because that person can talk to people before they bring everybody together. They will do their homework and talk to the people who are most involved in and know the most about that conflict before they bring people together. So, use a neutral. Pastors make mistakes, even if they’re trained mediators, if they do dispute resolution. You could go to the church next door to solve a dispute. But in your own church, there is no way you could be neutral and impartial. There just simply isn’t. That’s my little sermon on conflict resolution.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s very important wisdom for people to keep in mind when they are addressing conflicts in their ministry. As a pastor, I often found that conflicts would arise in the context of a meeting. How can church leaders mitigate and interrupt those moments, experiences, and move through them in an effective way?
Charlie Pillsbury: The foundation for any dispute is to have a set of ground rules. Whether it’s a mediation or a dialogue, a meeting is a facilitated dialogue because there’s a moderator or somebody who is chairing the meeting. The group must have a set of ground rules. In a church setting, we call it a covenant, an agreement of how we’re going to interact with each other and how we’re going to talk to each other. We’re going to talk about ourselves. We’re not going to talk about other people. We’re not going to interrupt each other. We’re not going to call each other names. At one point, I was leading a dialogue training and I realized that we did not have ground rules at Community Mediation, Inc. I realized we must practice what we preach. It took us (mediators) four or five months to agree on a set of ground rules. Once you have that foundation, then whoever’s facilitating the meeting can remind people. In fact, it’s useful to remind people at the beginning of the meeting: here are the ground rules. That is a meeting facilitator’s best friend.
The second thing, aside from ground rules, is that every meeting must have an agenda. A lot of people try to wing it. You want a timed agenda, and you can use time in helpful ways. Say: “We’re spending a lot of time on this issue. Maybe we need to talk about it outside the meeting or after the meeting. We have other things on our agenda.” The agenda should be shared with everybody. Then whoever’s facilitating the meeting can follow the agenda. Sometimes what I do as the facilitator is give myself a timed agenda, but I don’t time it for the people (“we’re already 5 minutes past”). Let me as the facilitator kind of manage the time, so I call it a private agenda and a public agenda. Ground rules and agendas help keep the peace in meetings, whether it’s church meetings, office meetings, or family meetings.
Jessica Anschutz: I can see how ground rules and agendas could limit conflict in a lot of cases. Sometimes, in churches, conflict stems from negativity and pushback either from church members or church staff members. What can church leaders do to address that?
Charlie Pillsbury: Again, I think they need to talk to each person individually. People begin with their positions, but the positions are their first story. Even more important than being trained in mediation, if you haven’t had an opportunity to be trained in active listening or compassionate listening, there are multiple ways of doing that. But it is hard to listen well. You can’t listen well all the time. To listen well, you must be on. It’s in those down moments that you sometimes say things that you didn’t mean to say. If you have that skill, you can first reflect back: “Okay, so you’re really upset about this. But why are you upset?” You want to get underneath that position. What does this person need? What’s going on underneath? Why have they staked or anchored themselves to this position? What is it doing for them? What need is it meeting? What’s going on?
To give you the simplest example, one of my favorite examples of the difference between the position and an interest is an actual case that happened in the New Haven Fire Department in a fire station. The dispute was over whether the light should be on or the light should be off on the second floor where everybody sleeps. There were firefighters in the fire station fighting with each other about whether the light should be on or the light should be off, and it ended up on the chief’s desk. I was talking to him, and he said, “You know these are the kind of things that don’t need to end up on my desk. We must figure out how to train firefighters.”
So, we did training. What I learned about training firefighters is that, unlike police (the conflicts they have is with the citizens), firefighters have conflict with each other. That’s where they have the conflict. There they want lights on, lights off. Why do they want the lights on? Well, one side wanted the lights on because they wanted to see where the pole was. They don’t want to get up in the middle of the night and miss the pole. They’ve got to get down the pole. Why do other people want the lights off? Because they want to sleep. They don’t like sleeping with the lights on. You need to get these firefighters talking about it. “How are we going to figure out this problem? This is our problem.” This makes them own the problem and figure it out. It helps them get below their positions to what they need and what they want. So, I think that applies really in any setting.
Jessica Anschutz: I can certainly see that applying in churches. If you get stuck in your position, you may lose sight of possible solutions that would resolve the conflict.
Charlie Pillsbury: There’s a wonderful Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman, now deceased, who wrote Generation to Generation. He was trained as a family therapist, and he was a rabbi. He began to see the disputes inside his congregation mimic some of the disputes he saw in family settings. I recommend that book.
Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about opportunities for education, how can church leaders cultivate conflict mediation skills? Are there other ways in addition to attending trainings or workshops?
Charlie Pillsbury: They can model what people really want. Anybody wants (and pastors know this better than lawyers), they want to be heard, so I think and model that.
And maybe mediation training. There you want to function as a neutral. Most people are not neutral, so they don’t need the mediation training. Maybe training in listening skills: How do you listen to people? I remember doing a workshop trying to help a group of pastors understand that when people say, “I feel that she’s stupid,” that’s not what you feel, that’s what you think. That’s a thought. That’s not a feeling.
Part of active listening is understanding feelings, what they are and trying to surface those feelings, and learning to interact and ask open-ended questions: How did that happen? Or how did we get here? Tell me what happened. An open-ended question opens things up, lets people talk, and separates the facts from the feelings: “It sounds like this is the issue, but you’re really feeling very sad about this. You’re in grief. You feel like you’ve lost a relationship and that’s hard.” People need to be heard at two levels: to be heard at the fact level and at the feeling level. That’s a skill that I don’t think enough pastors get when they’re in school, but maybe they do. Maybe seminary education has changed since I was there 30 years ago.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s a really important distinction between fact and feeling, and something that we probably need to pay more attention to. Charlie, you’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of involving a third party when a conflict exists. Can you speak more about how folks can recognize when it is time to engage a third party?
Charlie Pillsbury: When it is time is when whatever you’re doing is not working. Sometimes churches make the mistake thinking that they can do their own long-term planning. You really need a facilitator there, too. The resource many communities can turn to is local mediation centers where there are trained mediators and facilitators. The National Association for Community Mediation’s website is nafcm.org. You can find the center that’s close to you, though there are some mediation wastelands.
In churches and synagogues and mosques, everybody thinks that God or Jehovah or Allah is on their side. That’s tricky when you think God’s on your side. There’s a famous Mark Twain poem [“O Lord, Our Father”] about everybody during the Civil War, about the North and the South praying to the same God who of course loves everybody, and how ridiculous that was! Even Mark Twain got the hint.
Jessica Anschutz: How can faith leaders address that issue of people thinking God is on their side?
Charlie Pillsbury: Well, I think by pointing out that God is on everybody’s side. I mean the notion that coaches are out praying for their teams — God’s not taking sides. God’s laughing at you. If you think that God is going to take sides in your football game, you’ve got to look at your theology. That position — God’s on my side — that’s your position. What’s really going on? What’s really upsetting you? What can we do because God the Spirit works through all of us? How can we channel that Spirit? It’s the Holy Spirit that’s really at work in these matters and you can feel it sometimes.
I would also begin any setting, maybe even before you have ground rules and an agenda, with an opening prayer and a closing prayer. You’ve got to frame this. This is a church meeting. We’re calling in the Holy Spirit to work with all of us to help us stick to our ground rules, get through our agenda, and love each other even if we don’t like each other. Prayer is good, too.
Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s an important reminder — to frame our work in the context of our faith. Thank you so much for taking the time, Charlie, to talk with me today. As we conclude, I invite you to share one or two or three thoughts for people who are in the midst of conflict right now. What should they look to do as initial steps?
Charlie Pillsbury: Before you try to even get together, you should go talk to somebody. You should talk to the pastor, talk to your therapist, talk to your social worker, whoever it is. You need to take care of yourself. Conflict is draining and it’s hurtful, so each party really has to find a way to care for themselves. Sometimes, people going through difficult points in their marriage are told by their therapists or their pastoral counselors, you need to get your own. It’s not enough to just come to see me, the two of you together. You really need to talk to somebody else. This is a really deep issue for you — more than we’re going to be able to handle, and I recommend the other person do the same. You want to be even handed. Get help, talk to somebody you trust.
I’ll leave people with this. I’m a Minnesotan, born and bred there. In Minnesota, we say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. The same thing is true to conflict. Conflict is not bad. There’s no such thing as bad conflict. Conflict is good. Conflict gives us an opportunity to learn. Conflict just is. It’s like the weather. And it’s how you handle the weather, how you handle the conflict, that matters. Conflicts are opportunities, so look at conflict as an opportunity to learn, to become closer to somebody, to understand somebody. Just look at it positively. Frame it positively.
Jessica Anschutz: The importance of self-care in all aspects of ministry — thank you for drawing that connection to conflict resolution. Charlie, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a joy to talk with you. I’m sure what you have shared here today will help our listeners as they address the conflicts in their contexts.
Charlie Pillsbury: Well, thank you Jessica. I’m happy to talk to anybody. If they want to talk some more, you have my contact information, and please feel free to share it.
- 5 Suggestions for Managing Conflict in Polarized Contexts by David R. Brubaker
- Eight Strategies for Managing Conflict by the Lewis Center
- 9 Ways Leaders Can Respond to Conflict Constructively by Peter L. Steinke