How can leaders respond to conflict in healthier, more productive ways? Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. interviews Brian Brown on perspectives and practices that can help keep conflict from diverting too much energy from our churches.
Douglas Powe: Can you share a bit about how you got involved in helping others with conflict management? Most people run away from conflict. But you have an interest in helping others manage conflict.
Brian Brown: For me it started with self-reconciliation within myself. When I was nine-and-a-half or 10, I played for a Boys Club baseball team. I was the only African American on this team. One particular day, we were playing an all-white team. At the end of the game, as we were shaking hands, a gentleman on the other team said, “You play pretty good for a nigger.” And I remember time standing still. I felt like I was in a movie and God was watching and saying “Okay, let me see how you handle this.” And I remember having this space in my being where I watched myself push this other player down. It baffled me for the longest time because there was a conflict within me. One side of me was at peace because I could justify what I did. And yet another side was questioning the result. There was a conflict going on within me. There was a part at peace and a part at war.
My next big experience when it comes to conflict was not about application but interpretation. This had a whole different lens, but it had to do with race again. Go figure! So, I’m in high school and I’d had my spiritual awakening, my born-again experience where my heart was strangely warmed. And I couldn’t wait to tell everybody about it. And a friend of mine who is an Anglo said, “Hey man. Come tell folks at my church about this God you found.” So, he invited me to an all-white Presbyterian congregation. And I know the average age was probably 75. I come out of the African American worship experience. That’s all I knew. So, I began preaching and there was dead silence. And I remember thinking, “Okay. You know they’re a little older. They can’t hear me that good.” So, I just started getting louder, right? And then, as I look around, there’s no dance, there’s no movement within the call and response. And I remember saying, “God, I thought you called me to this thing. This isn’t working. Something is drastically wrong.” Then, all of a sudden, there was an awareness that this was worship. And I remember leaving mesmerized, feeling like I had encountered the miraculous. There’s a whole ‘nother world out there that has to do with self-awareness. And my capacity to be self-aware of the environment I’m in and what’s going on inside of me, external and internal awareness, was a game changer for literally everything. And that began a series of God events putting me in situations where it was not out of fear but fear that turned into fascination. I began to be extremely excited about the energy that’s present in conflict.
The book of Revelation talks about the Church of Laodicea, how they are lukewarm. And the story is told about how that church was really good for nothing because it wasn’t hot or cold. And I’ve found that there’s heat, there’s energy, in conflict. If we’re able to transform, reconcile, bring self-awareness, then the chance for systemic change, sustainable change, is far greater than when there is no energy there. And so that started my fascination around the power behind conflict and the components that, if adjusted appropriately, can lead to experiencing God and one another in new ways.
Douglas Powe: What are some of the common conflicts you see or hear about in ministry settings?
Brian Brown: At the end of the day, there is a certain level of self-conflict, and often that is not initially lifted up when I’m called in to bring about some resolution. But self-conflict — there’s gender, race, age, socio-economic, political conflict. We live in an age where, more than ever, individuals’ politics inform their theology instead of theology informing their politics, their historical understanding, their biblical interpretation. And all of these are impacted by a multiplication factor, what I call “fear times lack of self-awareness.” You increase one of those, then you are going to start moving into areas where we become more and more reactionary out of self-preservation.
Douglas Powe: Let me posit an example. Let’s say a particular congregation has a female pastor for the first time and some in the congregation are upset about this. How does the conflict get played out?
Brian Brown: Some individuals will just come right out and say, hey, I don’t believe female pastors are ordained to preach or ordained to lead in the capacity of an elder or the main shepherd of the church. But that becomes less and less over time. Often it is masked, and it shows up in other ways. Often, that particular pastor becomes the object of greater scrutiny and microscopic evaluation, and people often don’t even know what’s driving that. Something that would have been overlooked if the pastor was a male all of a sudden becomes a game changer. The microscopic is magnified.
Douglas Powe: What do you think those putting the pastor under a microscope or creating the tension hope to gain? Is the goal to get rid of the person? Is the goal to shame the individual? What is the endgame for individuals who are at the root of conflict?
Brian Brown: Yeah. Great question. At the end of the day, it’s about maintaining the status quo. It’s about fear of the unknown. We are all internally wired to want homeostasis. We want things to remain the same. The amygdala, the part of our brain that processes distress, is saying, “Safe. Unsafe. Safe. Unsafe.” And when we get to some things that are tied to relationships and experiences and unresolved issues within ourselves, then our reactionary response is to resist the change.
Douglas Powe: When conflict bubbles up, no matter what it may look like — gender, political, race, or something else — what are some practices that can help leaders to deal with the conflict?
Brian Brown: At the end of the day, the journey is towards self-awareness for all of us. And the more that we can own that, then the more we understand that we all have the same insecurities and challenges in allowing transformation to take place. As a superintendent, I had the privilege to superintend 124 churches and then be exposed to a lot more through the cabinet. I had already pastored several churches, but the light-switch moment for me was when I realized that what I had experienced was not unique to First Church or Wesley Church or Second Street Church. There were things that were tied to the human condition that were predictable in the Body of Christ. And for me that was such a game changer. Often as pastors, we think the grass is greener on the other side and we want to take ourselves to that green grass. But some of this is tied to the human condition — how we’re wired, what we are challenged with and given the opportunity to overcome. These are things that we all face in our call to be instruments of transformation.
Douglas Powe: Are there things that we should be mindful of that can help us move towards collaboration?
Brian Brown: Let me start by sharing an acronym for basic practice. The acronym is PREPEL.
- “P” is for being proactive. Our brain is designed to want to keep the status quo. It does not necessarily ask for new information. So, we have to be more proactive and less reactive in our posture, and we do that through prayer. When we’re going into a situation, pray to determine what success looks like in this situation.
- “R” is for determine the roadblocks ahead of time that might seek to prevent whatever you’ve defined as success. Some of those roadblocks are internal and some are external. But if I’m going to make a successful journey, I need to take into account roadblocks, so I don’t end up stuck on a dead end street. Find out the roadblocks and be prayerful in that respect as well.
- “E” is for engaging the collaborators. And this is in every relationship that we have. For example, when I’ve planned trips or activities or events with my family, I’ve failed miserably when I didn’t include them as collaborators. If I keep the end in mind (What is God calling us to? Not just me but all of us? Who are the collaborators I can engage?), that will further increase the opportunity for sustainable success.
- The next “P” is pursue self-awareness. What do I need to be aware of that could take me off my game?
- The next “E” is experiment. After the particular exercise, event, or activity, how did you do?
- “L” is for learn from it and adjust accordingly.
So this is a basic framework and there are tools to become sharper at all of those.
Douglas Powe: Let’s return to the example of gender conflict and the female pastor. If you were coaching this particular pastor, how would you help her think about what success might look like? And then, using your acronym, what are some things you would ask her to think about in terms of experimenting?
Brian Brown: When a church is in conflict, it is important to implement and develop an outward mindset. And that’s about becoming aware of the perceptions or conclusions you bring to a conversation. It basically is creating a spirit of humility, saying, “God, what do you want to teach me in this?” It’s then being comfortable and vulnerable and creating that safe place where we can come together in dialogue and say, “Hey, this is where I am,” and allowing individuals to be aware of what they need to own. Normally, you don’t get called in because there is a female pastor. The issue has been shaded and colored and deflected towards other areas. But these areas have been magnified because of that underlying issue. So, you’ve got to take them back to self-awareness. And often what happens is those secondary areas become lesser areas of impasse, even if you never really get to the heart of the matter. But it’s being aware that some deflection is going on. What’s really at the heart of the matter? And even if you get to a place of impasse, the beauty is, if it’s done right, you can agree to disagree in love. It can get complex and it shows up in different nuances. And time is always a factor, because there’s got to be that time of asking God: “Show me what I’m missing.”
Douglas Powe: Sometimes conflict from beyond the congregation gets brought into the congregation. Do you deal with that in the same way or are there other things we should be aware of when the conflict doesn’t actually originate within the congregation?
Brian Brown: Again, that acronym works well as starting a framework of what success looks like and creating space for conversation and collaboration. If we look at our environment now, an example of outside conflict might be the issue of how individuals are responding to the vaccine. There is conflict with individuals and within families on whether or not to take the vaccine. And that finds its way inside the church. Or let’s say two people are in conflict outside of the church. And if that spirit of conflict is heavy and it’s brought into the church, it becomes contagious and can spread rapidly. Arbinger calls this “collusion” — not in the sense of political collusion, but collusion in the sense that the parties in conflict are actually perpetuating the very problem they are complaining about, adding to the problem, without even realizing it. We do this all the time, and that’s why it’s so important to take a deep breath when you start a basic meeting and ask “How is it with your soul?” or some type of practice. Because, if I just got a call from a loved one that’s going through something horrific or if I just got a call and something made me really upset and I’m coming in with that energy, that’s the lens I’m looking through. If that’s not known within the team, there’s this tension there that I haven’t named. And so, initially, we need to understand what we’re bringing into a particular context or meeting.
One resource I use that has been around for several decades is what used to be called “Strength Finders.” Now it’s called “Gallop Strengths.” And the concept is to know, when we come to our gatherings, what we bring into the room so that we can be strategic in working out of our strengths. One person’s main strength could be “Maximizer,” meaning they will take whatever idea there is and say, “Well, why can’t we do 15 things?” Another person might look at things from a “Connected” lens. They are going to take us in the direction of adding things from other organizations. So, we look at one another from strengths. We understand those strengths. And we also know where we are vulnerable and not to work out of our vulnerabilities.
Douglas Powe: What about preventing conflicts from happening? What signs might indicate that something may start bubbling up, and what early actions might prevent it from really becoming a full-blown mess?
Brian Brown: Arbinger talks about when there’s a spirit of peace or a spirit of war inside of us. I take that a step further. We need to develop a sense of self-awareness when that spirit of war is within us, when we’re trying to trudge ahead without the spirit of peace, without the Holy Spirit moving forward. That’s a sign to slow down and find out what’s going on. Jill Bolte wrote the book Whole Brain Living. She describes a 90-second response cycle when there’s an impulse that’s touched within us. This is a basic thing that will save you some anxiety. When you feel an impulse that’s triggered, imagine a bicycle turned upside down with the tires on top. If you spin that wheel, it will turn, let’s say for 90 seconds. But if you don’t give it any more energy, it will subside and return again to homeostasis. Often, when we are triggered by an impulse, we start adding energy to it. We start spinning the tire ourselves, and then we end up way down the road. So, think in terms of a “90-second rule.” Just stop. Watch it come and watch it go. We have that capacity. Then really spend some time understanding what’s going on.
Another easy rule is to tell someone, I’ll get back with you. I don’t send emails late at night because I can’t give it my best. I’m working on a new resource that I hope will be out this time next year. It’s called The Faith Line: The Shortest Distance Between Two Points. Not the straight line, the faith line. It deals with energy. Often that’s what the amygdala does. “Warning. Warning. You are running out of energy. Batten down the hatches. Don’t change anything. Fight for this to stay the same.” And when we can develop that self-awareness, then we become the gift to the Body of Christ that God wants us to be, because if I change me, I change everything.
- 5 Suggestions for Managing Conflict in Polarized Contexts by David R. Brubaker
- 9 Ways Leaders Can Respond to Conflict Constructively by Peter L. Steinke
- More Than a Nonanxious Presence by Patricia Farris
- Discovering God’s Future for Your Church Video Tool Kit