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Twelve Conciliation Responses

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 197

How do you respond to conflict? How do others respond to conflict? Sometimes one can never really tell. However, many have a preferred set of responses. These may be healthy or unhealthy.
 
A brochure from the Peacemaker Ministries entitled, The Peacemaker: Responding to Conflict Biblically describes twelve conciliation responses in four different classifications. The following discussion is an elaborate expansion and application of these twelve conciliation categories.
 
Healthy Conciliation Responses
 
Healthy responses are those which invite and encourage reconciliation. Healthy responses include the following.
 
Type I: Personal "One-On-One" Approaches
 
1. Overlooking the unimportant and inconsequential.
 
Some disputes can simply be avoided. Such disputes include those matters which are inconsequential. Matters which are unimportant are those which do not affect the big picture. They do not detract from the vision. Nor do they impede the work at hand nor do they harm the relationship.
 
When unhealthy, this response is a form of denial. When healthy, this response simply recognizes that no one is perfect.  It is based on the exhortation of Proverbs 19:11.

"A man's wisdom give him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence."

2. Discussion
 
The next level of conciliation is going directly to the "brother who sins against you" (Matthew 18:15). Those items which cannot simply be overlooked without harboring bitterness or without somehow detracting from the mission or relationship must be addressed lovingly by those who "are spiritual" (Galatians 6:1). Conciliatory discussion is best used for addressing personal wrongs.
 
3. Negotiation
 
This conciliation approach is often best used with substantive issues. Issues related to money, property, congregational decisions, rights of parties and individuals, means of implementing decisions, and other important issues is best accomplished by encouraging negotiation. Often most effective in lower levels of conflict (e.g. Lea's Level I-II), this method of conciliation seeks to meet the interests of those involved in the dispute.
 
Type II: Assisted Peacemaking Conciliatory Approaches
 
At higher levels of conflict (e.g. Lea's Level II-IV), the following may be necessary means of conciliation.
 
4. Mediation
 
Following the directive of the Lord, mediation is the application of Matthew 18:16, "If he will not listen, take one or two along." "If he will not listen" is the Lord's recognition that the level of conflict in this form of conciliation has increased.
 
Mediators who have no vested interest in the conflict usually assist in this level of conciliation. They do not, however, solve the problem. Instead, mediators help direct the conciliation process and identify interests which can help highlight areas of possible agreement. These areas of agreement, even though small, can be significant stepping stones to achieve conciliation in larger areas of disagreement.
 
Of course, as the level of conflict increases, so does the potential for fallout when mediation is ineffective. Mediation tends not to be effective once the level IV conflict level threshold has been passed.
 
5. Arbitration
 
Generally used in levels of conflict at level IV, arbitration is the biblical application of I Corinthians 6:1-9. "If you have disputes...appoint judges...." At level IV, voluntary conciliation is generally impossible to realize. Thus arbitration is used to decide significant substantive issues between opposing--and perhaps hostile--parties.
 
Arbitration often seeks to reduce the level of conflict to a lower level (e.g. Level III) so that the parties can work out their own solutions at the mediation level. If such is not possible, arbitration resolves conflict by means of imposing a binding decision for all involved in the conflict.
 
6. Church Discipline
 
Though church discipline in a broader sense is carried out on a daily basis in the ministry of the church as part of the normal oversight of congregational life and individual concern for members, conciliatory church discipline is the specific application of Matthew 18:17. "If he refuses to listen... tell it to the church."
 
Obviously conciliatory church discipline is the final, unfortunate result of multitudinous failed attempts with lower levels of conciliation. Usually carried out properly only as a last resort in high level conflict (Level IV or V), those exercising church discipline must always "watch themselves lest they be tempted" (Galatians 6:2).
 
Moreover, those carrying out conciliatory church discipline must remember that scriptural conciliatory church discipline always puts the ones doing the discipline in "Prodigal Son" mode. That is, as the loving father patiently longed for and celebrated the return of his rebellious son, so the church must long for and celebrate the repentance of one who had been so severely disciplined for a respectively severe offense.
 
Conciliatory church discipline is always a last resort and is exercised only in rare circumstances with the consent of the church. Exercised prematurely, church discipline can quickly ignite virtually irreconcilable conflicts and aggravate a lower level conflict to a nearly uncontrollable level (e.g. Level IV or V).
 
Generally the offense requiring conciliatory discipline are those which are obvious public, moral sins which detract from the witness of the congregation and those of a doctrinal nature. Unfortunately, relationships and alliances can make it difficult to carry out except in the most blatantly in violation of Scripture.
 
Conciliatory church discipline, even when carried out in the most compassionate Christian manner possible, almost always has a price tag of members, money, or leadership credibility. However, failure to carry it out when necessary may have the same price tag.
 
There is no choice as to whether a price will be paid at this level. There will be losses. Leaders considering this form of discipline must, therefore, select which losses they will incur and move forward patiently, prayerfully, deliberately, and conscientiously.
 
 
Unhealthy Conciliation Responses
 
Unhealthy responses are those which result from unsuccessful attempts at healthy negotiation or neglecting the use of them. Sometimes what had been initiated as a healthy means of conciliation becomes the proverbial octopus on roller skates. Having lost its healthy and constructive direction, momentum and control, unhealthy responses result.
 
There is a very slippery slope between healthy and unhealthy means of conciliation. The potential for breakdown is virtually always present. Emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, distrust, impatience, etc. can sabotage healthy conciliation at nearly every moment healthy conciliation occurs.
 
Knowing the unhealthy excesses toward which unhealthy conciliation can lead may assist the prudent reconciler by providing necessary insight to keep things "on track."
 
Type III: Escape Responses
 
Escape responses curtail attempts for reconciliation. They resist appropriate closure and defy normal healthy means and mechanisms for healthy conciliation. Often those who utilize escape responses do so as part of a recurring pattern in their personal and public lives.
 
Escape responses are often driven by merited or unmerited feelings of fear and distrust. Authority figures are frequent foci of escapists. The unwillingness of escapists to deal directly with the issues and interests at hand can cause untold frustration for pastors, leaders and congregations.
 
The one thing escapists always leave behind, however, is a vacuum of confusion, bewilderment and amazement which gives way to various manifestations of guilt-giving and guilt-taking. On a spiritual level it is their unwillingness to access the grace of Jesus Christ which causes the greatest grief for conscientious Christian leaders.
 
Often the greater the concern a leader has shown to the escaping party, the greater the leader's level of unwarranted guilt. Recovery from these projected guilt feelings can be slow, painful and heart-wrenching. Indeed, it often results in the tears of ministry and the heart-wrenching feeling of betrayal.
 
7. Denial
 
Denial is simply pretending a problem does not exist. Individuals in denial may appear uneasy, strangely distant or somehow "different" or uncomfortable in situations in which they were formerly much at ease.
 
Even when gently and care-fully confronted, those in denial will not respond to invitations to share their feelings. "There's nothing wrong," "I'm OK," "quickly changing the topic at hand," or other responses of shallow agreement are often used. However, such indirectness is simply intended to prevent further efforts at conciliation.
 
One of the most powerfully disconcerting things about all escapist responses is that they prevent normal, healthy closure. Loss of significant relationships and expectations are always difficult. They are made more difficult when the grief involves an lack of closure.
 
The suddenness of the unexpected abandonment may exponentially escalate "normal" levels of grief responses. Resultantly, those who have been abandoned experience often experience unparalleled and extreme levels of anger, guilt, shock, bewilderment, and abandonment. These feelings are escalated when allies, friends, supporters and associates of those who have escaped take up the cause of the escaper and engage in attack responses.
 
Attempts to "break through" the barrier of denial are often fruitless. Sometimes the best approach is simply to "be available" and patiently wait for weeks or longer for a time when those in denial are willing to talk. Sometimes such opportunities never come. This can be most troubling when trusted leaders engage in denial with other leaders. For further insight see Ministry Health's helpful article entitled, When Trusted Leaders Become Troubled.
 
8. Flight
 
In substantive issues of greater significance flight is a common escape response. Escape is painful for the abandoned party because it is used to suddenly and inexplicably terminate especially significant and meaningful relationships, alliances, memberships, friendships, etc. 
 
Flight is most commonly used to avoid a proper solution to the situation(s) at hand. Mottoes of "flighters" include "Don't talk, don't trust, don't feel," "I regret my words more than my silences," "I can't bring myself to say I'm sorry," "I'm afraid of meeting face-to-face," "What good will it do?" etc.
 
Those accustomed to utilizing flight responses do so for numerous reasons.
 
* First, they choose this response because they are unable or unwilling to face the difficulties of working through the intense feelings of caring, concern, guilt and forgiveness.
 
* Second, they flee because they are overwhelmed by fear. Lacking the necessary confidence and self-esteem to engage in a conciliatory process, their fear of rejection, failure, ridicule and/or lack of control moves them to exercise the flight option.
 
* Pain avoidance is a third reason this option is utilized. Some individuals will do anything possible to avoid, circumvent or shut-off pain. Since the immediate pain of fleeing is perceived less than the pain of conciliation, the flight option is exercised.
 
Flight can serve to mask various secrets or personal issues. "Flighters" may turn to addictive behaviors to mask the pain. Regardless of the means used to mask the pain, avoiding short-term pain increases the agony of long-term pain. Repression or projection of these pain feelings are major characteristics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.
 
* A fourth reason is that they are unable to see the broad "gray" areas of healthy conciliation. "Either/Or" supercedes the possibility of "both/and." Driven by a "shame base" they flee to the only options they can know and deal with: the "black or white" option.
 
Antagonists and passive-aggressive may use this unhealthy flight response in precisely measured portions resulting in an "attack-withdrawal" phenomenon. Also described as a "hit and run" strategy, individuals using the flight response can, in their flight, leave all kinds of confusion in behind in the form of gossip, misrepresentations, lies, hurtful letters, misinformed groups who may continue their attack in absentia against the "enemy," etc. Though gone, they can be sure that their presence will be felt for a long, long time.
 
The flight response can also happen when members "back off" and "recede into the background." Though they have not physically and officially removed themselves from the organization, their activity levels, demeanor and interactions with others are all dominated by  flight response-related behaviors. Indirectness, avoidance, friendly facades, and creating distance or space between themselves and others can continue indefinitely. Sometimes it is lifelong.
 
Attempts made even after years of focusing on preparing a readiness for conciliation are often unfruitful. Attempts to invite them to conciliation are often met with being shut-out, turn-off, ignored, patronized, or even kicked out.
 
Once flight responses have been used, the likelihood of genuine conciliative processes occurring are generally quite low. Despite their responses, the Christian leader must continue to minister out of strength of character in love, compassion and readiness to minister to them as they may have need.
One further word regarding flight responses is appropriate. Not all flight is unhealthy. Flight in the case of self-defense or other extreme circumstances is the best response possible.
 
9. Suicide
 
The ultimate escape response is suicide. It is ultimate because it projects the greatest guilt on the survivors, a guilt that can last the rest of their lives. It is ultimate because it totally prevents any possibility of conciliation. It is ultimate because it is irreversible.
 
Suicide is ultimate because suicide is the most destructive of the escape responses. It is ultimate because it marks the end of every hope of resolving conflict. It is ultimate because it has no hope for the future, no hope for exchange of forgiveness, no hope for initiating a mutual process of growth and renewal after conciliation has been achieved.
 
Thankfully, suicide is a relatively rare escape response in ecclesiastical politics. It is, nonetheless, not to be underestimated. However, a not-so-rare phenomenon is career suicide. Career suicide is a means of escape by which individuals intentionally shipwreck their ministries, their credibility, and their leadership.
 
Seeking a way to justify their desire to leave their ministries, they will response by committing actions which have inescapable career consequences. Career suicide has been committed by pastors and Christian leaders of every denomination, of every level of giftedness, and in virtually every ministry of the church. Their cry for help unheeded, they deal with conflict in this most unhealthy manner.
 
Type IV: Attack Responses
 
Whereas Type III Escape responses are largely passive responses to conflict, Type IV Attack responses are both active and aggressive. Type IV responses are driven to a greater interest in winning, overcoming, and defeating rather than achieving resolution.
 
Attack responses are driven by the same degree and intensity that escape responses demonstrate. Instead of using that energy to escape from conflict, attack responses direct that energy toward annihilation of the conflict by sheer force. Note that in this respect Escape responses and Attack responses are similar. They both have as their final goal the elimination and avoidance of conflict.
 
10. Litigation
Litigation is characteristic means of conciliation in higher levels of conflict (e.g. Level IV-V). Described in Romans 13:1-5, litigation often happens after relationships have been destroyed and large-scale damage has been incurred. Jesus' admonition to settle things out of court (Matthew 5:25-26) is, among other things, an injunction to settle things before they escalate and get out of hand. If a court has to coerce a settlement, it is highly unlikely that genuine conciliation and forgiveness can be exchanged in a meaningful manner.
 
11. Assault
 
Physical violence is a key characteristic of Level V conflict. However, other forms of assault can occur at lower levels of conflict. Such forms might include slander, libel, verbal attacks, harming the professional reputation of others, damaging another financially, etc. The intent of assault is to overcome the opposition by intimidation, coercion, or attack. The attacks are vicious and often cause things to become unbearable for the target of the attacks.
 
12. Murder 
 
In the most desperate situations, individuals may resort to murder. Though physical murder is rarely heard of among churches, the murderous hateful words are plenteous. These murderous words help perpetuate the conflict. Indeed, as long as the feelings of hatred, spite, anger, jealousy, etc persist, the individual harboring such feelings will not be able to engage in fruitful conciliation efforts.
 
What Can You Do?
 
Recognition of the twelve possible responses--six healthy and six unhealthy--can help clarify how people respond to conflicts. Conflict theorist note that everyone has a preferred style of conflict resolution which is generally set at age sixteen. Without training and further insights, individuals will persist in the use of this specific pattern for the rest of their lives. This means that pastors and church leaders must consider several things.
 
1) First, they must know their own preferred conciliation styles. Are your styles healthy or unhealthy? Do you tend to avoid conflict or crush it? Or are you able to engage and direct conflict toward a constructive, peaceable resolution?
 
2) Second, pastors and church leaders must be aware of other's styles, too. Since people tend to be consistent watching how individuals deal with conflicts in other areas of their life may give valuable insights and hints as to their preferred response under pressure.
 
3) Third, pastors and church leaders must respect the role of stress responses in their and other's conflict responses. What one sees in time of equilibrium may not be anything like what one will get during anxious, stressful situations.
 
4) Whatever response is received--healthy or unhealthy--insofar as it is possible and depends on them (cf. Romans 12:25), pastors and church leaders must continually direct efforts toward healthy conciliation. The results may be frustrating. However, to "give up" is unbefitting of the character of a Christian leader who must seek every reasonable opportunity for conciliation.
 
5) Unhealthy conciliation responses are most frustrating precisely because they are unhealthy and dysfunctional. Those at the receiving end of such responses will undoubtedly experience the pain of the un-health first-hand. It can traumatize the recipient. The process of working through these responses can be painfully intense. Resist the urge to shut off the feelings. Feel the pain. Work through it. Let's God's grace restore and renew your soul. If you don't, you risk assimilating the same types of unhealthy conciliation responses those who hurt you used against you.
 
6) Given at least twelve different conciliation responses, given that half of them are unhealthy, and given that we live in a dysfunctional world plagued by original sin, it follows that conciliation will not always be successful. Inevitable conflicts will almost inevitably disrupt, pain, anger and hurt us and others.
 
7) Since so many of these dynamics are out of your control, you must not take these situations more personally than they merit. It's not all your fault. It's not all in your control. Learn to let these things go. Repent of what you must, learn what you need, and boldly move forward in the gracious and totally renewing forgiveness of Christ.
 
8) Remember, there are always two-sides to conflict. On the one hand is pain and the potential for damage and destruction. On the other hand, conflict is opportunity. During conflict always pray without ceasing that God, whose wisdom is beyond all knowing and His paths beyond tracing out, is in control. Trust Him to accomplish through the conflict what you can't see, can't imagine, can't understand, can't conceive of, and can't visualize.
 
9) Hang in there. Giving up at the wrong time is just another unhealthy escape mechanism. Congregational health cannot be humanly achieved if we respond to the opportunities which God can create through the pain of conflict with unhealthy responses which proliferate the conflict. Your response to the conflict can help shape the future of the congregation--will it continue to proliferate unhealthy conflict or will it begin utilizing healthy, scriptural means of conciliation.
 
Finally, Remember St. Paul's Word
 
Paul's words to the Romans in chapter twelve are always helpful for dealing with conflict responses.

"If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12:18 NIV).

Note that Paul teaches the Romans that sometimes conciliation is not possible no matter how hard one tries. Conflict resolution is not totally dependent on you. Others will engage in unhealthy responses. That, however, does not mitigate that fact that you are to live at peace with everyone...including the offending and the irreconcilable. Don't take revenge. Leave that to God.

"On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21 NIV).

Conflict can be a healthy experience. It can result in the most memorable and rewarding experiences of your ministry. Study and learn the various conflict responses. Recognize opportunities to use these opportunities for the betterment of the Kingdom. Finally, ;et God make it such by "living at peace with everyone...overcoming evil with good."
 
Thomas F. Fischer

* For copies of the outstanding "The Peacemaker" brochure referred to above or for further information or for a catalog of related materials contact Peacemaker Ministries via email at peace@mcn.net , by mail at 1537 Avenue D., Ste. 352, Billings, Montana,
USA  59102, or by phone: 1-406-256-1583 (Fax: 1-406-256-0001)

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:35 PM