Equipping For the Ministry of Reconciliation (Sept 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Craig Cottongim

Church conflict is painful; division feels like hell on earth. Accumulating anxiety from conflicted situations will eventually grind us into dust. In years past, I have found myself in the ER twice, thinking I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t. It was simply built up psychosomatic-symptoms from the stress over conflict in a church I preached for. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Reconciliation would be great, but it doesn’t “just” happen on its own. Is there help out there for us?

When we find ourselves in what Speed Leas labels an “intractable situation,” we typically call in an expert on conflict resolution. By the time they arrive, it’s often too late for optimistic outcomes. Wouldn’t it be great if we the people could tap into the resources the experts utilize, before it’s too late? Maybe we could be better prepared, take steps of preventive measures, or at least have a few tools on hand to help us before we find a “code red” situation engulfing us.

I have a twofold goal here:

First, I want to introduce you to the two most influential thinkers of our generation in the arena of reconciliation. Secondly, I want to whet your appetite for their writings. Who do our experts turn to for direction and guidance for working with emotionally devastated congregations? Who has had the greatest influence on our sharpest minds in the field of reconciliation — impacting men like Carlus Gupton, Randy Willingham, or the late Dr. Charles Siburt? The authors are Edward Friedman and Peter Steinke. And, their writings might just save your life too.

The first time I met Charles Siburt, the “Church Doctor” from Abilene, I was in an airport. Charles was flying into our little regional airport, tucked away in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee, to help our struggling congregation. We were in an intractable conflict, and a former student of Charles who was in over his head asked him for assistance.

Things were bleak, actually it was way worse than bleak. In recent months, just before Charles showed up, four of our six elders resigned. The tension at church was tangible in the air; morale, well that was waning fast. While I waited for Charles’s flight to land, I was reading Friedman’s Fables, written by the late Rabbi, Edward Friedman.

When Charles and I greeted near the baggage claim area, we shook hands and hugged. Then noticing the book I was holding, he asked me what I was reading. When I told him “Friedman’s Fables,” Charles smiled, nodding in approval, and with his rich baritone voice he said something like, “Ahhhh, Friedman — the Keys to the Kingdom.” “The keys to Kingdom;” how esoteric can you get?!? Siburt’s “prophecy” would turn out to be proven right in the months to come. So, how did I hear about Friedman in the first place? Jon Mullican of the Highland Oaks church in Dallas took me out to eat in a little Mexican restaurant, solely to introduce me to Friedman’s writings. I met Jon in Tulsa when he had given a presentation at the Tulsa Soul winning workshop. He had touched on the struggles our congregation was going though, at the time. I mentioned to him afterwards what we were dealing with and he offered to take me out for lunch to talk things over. The conversation probably rescued my ministry.

Jon told me about “Generation to Generation” by Friedman, and he unpacked the theory of Family Systems, the backbone of Friedman’s writings. Since that time, I think I’ve read every single book Friedman wrote, and even a couple that were published posthumously.

Let me now introduce how I stumbled onto Peter Steinke. Carlus Gupton delivered a seminar at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration on leadership. Gupton presented several models on church leadership, covering problems like how power bottlenecks at the top, shortfalls of top-down leadership, and the struggles between elders and ministers. After Carlus finished one of his sessions, we touched base. He had recently spoken at the church I was preaching for at the time, so we were already on a first name basis.

As we talked, Carlus mentioned somewhat offhandedly the name of Peter Steinke. I wasn’t familiar with him. Carlus suggested a title of his, which I picked up. At the time, Steinke had three important books on congregational life in print. I have read all three at least twice. Another conversation that I reflect back on as rescuing my ministry was Carlus introducing me to Steinke’s writings. I have lent out and recommended Steinke’s books more than any other resource, to other ministers and members alike.

While Rubel Shelly was still preaching for the Woodmont Hills church in Nashville, they navigated a delicate time of transition. They decided to have women more involved in visible and prominent roles. The elders realized this lightning rod issue needed a slow cook-time if they were to bring along everyone possible. In a teaching series, the leadership delivered several weeks’ worth of classes on women’s roles, with the goal of gently guiding the congregation forward.

They supplemented their series with one outside speaker. In January of 2004, Major Boglin delivered a presentation to Woodmont Hills entitled, “The Fear That Cheats Us.” (By the way, in case you didn’t know, “Major” is his first name, not a military title.) I’ve looked over Boglin’s powerpoint and listened to the accompanying MP3 several times. The message is brilliant! Boglin’s presentation had nothing to do with “women’s roles” at all. His role in their series was merely in educating the congregation on how anxiety can derail progress in an organization.

With a powerful blend of neuroscience, homespun wisdom, Biblical exegesis, and psychological insight, Boglin delivered a theologically sound presentation on the need for a group to control their collective emotions. Boglin’s research for his presentation was saturated with Friedman’s “family system” thinking.

Now for insights from the actual authors.

In an attempt to expose you to the seminal thoughts of Friedman and Steinke, here are just some of their foundational principles. Without being exhaustive, and in no particular order, let me share several of their key ideas with you:

Emotions are contagious. This is the phenomena you’ve experienced, where bad attitudes spread throughout the entire congregation. Boglin used the story of the twelve spies who went out to investigate the Promised Land. When ten come back terrified of the inhabitants of the land, the people of Israel were susceptible to their negativity. I think you know the consequences of “herd mentality” reactions.

Anxiety hijacks our ability to think clearly. You’ve experienced this, you feel pushed in an argument and your thinking gets foggy. Friedman and Steinke teach that over time, what we need most is the ability to think creatively, but the anxiety we are suffering from ruins the capacity to think creatively. It’s a vicious circle. They talk about two types of anxiety, I’ll cover that later when I talk about one of Steinke’s books.

The Amygdala. A major part of family systems is the role the amygdala plays in our brain. It is the storehouse of our emotional memory, it controls our flight-or-flight response, and it is the part of our brain that deals with stress and anxiety. No, these writers are not trying to sell pop-psychology. The times they address this topic you’ll feel very informed, and you’ll be fascinated.

Triangulation. Have you ever had a conversation about a third person, you weren’t happy with them, but you felt better talking about them to another person? Triangulation is the concept where we feel emotionally stronger by leaning on a third party when we are struggling with an individual, or opposing group. Like an emotional three-legged milking stool, we need a third leg for support. As you’ve probably guessed, triangulation is unhealthy. The most common scenario is the Rescuer-Victim-Persecutor triangle. You are hurt (Victim) so you lean on the (Rescuer) for support against your (Persecutor). Ironically, in triangulated congregations, the Rescuer soon is viewed as the Persecutor…. That’s probably why the preacher who stands up to the bully elder never survives the church conflict. The preacher needs to equip the congregation to stand up to the bully, and they can deal with him collectively.

Over/Under-functioning. For whatever reason, we have people who tend to over-function at church. They either feel more important, or find fulfillment in this, I don’t know. Simultaneously, there are pockets of people who will always lag behind and under-function. When the over-functioning people take on more and more responsibility, they control what the group thinks, but they also take on the stress and the anxiety of the group. The end result for the over-functioning person is burnout. The end result for the under-functioning people becomes perpetual inactivity and immaturity.

There are several other principles to their theories, but I’ll transition here to some of their printed resources. Here are only some of the written works from both Friedman and Steinke. I highly recommend you read all you can get your hands on by them. I won’t list all of their works, you can find them on Amazon easily enough. Their books are worth their weight in gold.

Ed Friedman:

Friedman’s Fables are short stories; parabolic in nature. One of the best parables in the book is titled “The Bridge.” In “The Bridge,” a man is walking over a bridge, traveling towards fulfilling his lifelong ambitions. As he crosses, a passerby tosses a rope to the man, says hold on tight, and throws himself over the bridge. He tells the man standing on the bridge, who is on a time-sensitive mission, “I’m your responsibility now. “ There is no place to tie off the rope, and the man holding the rope can only bring the other man up, if he will cooperate, which he won’t. His grip is weakening and the man hanging over the side is steadfastly passive. The parable is life-changing. I won’t give away the ending, but I’ve re-read this story at least a dozen times.

Generation to Generation is broken down into four parts. The thesis is basically that we have interlocking emotional systems: church, the families within our churches, and our own families. If there are any unresolved issues in any of these relationships, all the relationships suffer. This book is the prime text for all the following religious writings on family systems. Friedman’s theories here on anxiety, conflict, scapegoating, triangulation, the need to be “playful” and flexible in serious times are only some of his vital topics. And, these topics really just scratch the surface of this groundbreaking book.

Peter Steinke:

How Your Church Family Works If you want to know why anxiety hijacks a group of people, and how to find stability again, read this book. One very powerful concept that Steinke draws out here is how we need to practice what he calls “self-differentiation.” This is the idea of being present with the group, but remaining an individual. It’s harder than you might think, but Steinke develops the idea and provides clear guidance on the how to deal with it.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:Being calm and courageous no matter what. Steinke unpacks concepts on how leaders can manage their own anxiety to be a non-anxious presence and to be a calming influence. He describes the two types of anxiety we deal with, acute and chronic anxiety. The book has three phases, The Leader’s Presence, The Leader’s Functioning, and The Leader’s Challenges. This book is essential for anyone who would attempt to navigate the choppy waters of congregational life!

Healthy Congregations Steinke shows how anxiety is like a virus attacking a body; it has to have a host to survive. The core of the book unpacks the four viruses that attack the body of the church:

1. Secrets,
2. Accusations
3. Lies
4. Triangulation.

Steinke shows how all four of these are expressions of anxiety and how we can respond these issues.

So, if you are worn down from being held hostage by the most immature people in your congregation or you are seeking tools for mending broken relationships, these are the best resources available in print. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to lectureships, seminars on conflict resolution, or reading books on ministry and I’ve seen quotes from Friedman and Steinke. Their writings will be a huge blessing to your personal and congregational ministry. Read their books, and whatever you glean, you’ll feel compelled to share with those around you. There are no silver-bullets, but the works of these two men are the best supplies you’ll have in your survival kit.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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