d sawyer11-sThe turning point in conflict utilization, as I have practiced and taught it, is what I have called “the hopeful hypothesis.”  In my work, that is defined as:

Hopeful hypothesis:  “a tentative, disprovable, adaptable working model of the functioning of a congregation as an interconnected web of relationships….   It seeks to define how and why the distortions of structure, narrative, or symptom actually serve to keep the system in balance at the present time.”  (Hope in Conflict, Pilgrim Press, 2007, p. 95)

Getting to a fully systemic description of what’s going on in the system with a positive frame for the most egregious symptoms is hard.  It usually takes workshop participants three tries to get it to a statement that is truly positive (not almost positive), truly descriptive (not prescriptive), and truly hopeful (not tied to the past).  Once the statement is crafted, however, a significant shift happens in the person or team working toward conflict utilization.  They find themselves able to accept lovingly the difficult and even ugly aspects of the situation.  Until we get to that point, we can’t change much.  And we don’t find hope without love.


When my wife was diagnosed with cancer over ten years ago, we did what we usually do with unpleasant situations and tried to match our emotional responses with our intellectual curiosity.  We became uncomfortable with the usual description of a course of treatment for cancer as a “battle.”  What would Deborah be battling, she wondered?  The cells that had gone haywire in her body, that had lost their self-regulating properties and were multiplying dangerously were her own cells, not invading aliens.   She decided it was not helpful to be fighting with a part of herself.  So instead of framing her experience as “battling” cancer, she imagined herself working with the chemotherapy and the radiation to lovingly reinforce the boundaries of her body.   She needed good boundaries and healthy functioning, not hatred and war.   The mental discipline of imagining her whole self being called back into healthy functioning became part of the course of treatment that returned her body to a balance of health that has maintained itself for these past ten years.

So the task in a congregation is to move beyond the battle images with conflict and find the moving of the spirit of God in the mix of things.  It’s a discipline of finding something to love even in the most difficult “trouble-maker.”  It’s stepping back from the pull of high emotions to see how the division in the congregation serves to keep the church in balance for the moment, and to appreciate that coping mechanism for the good purpose it serves.  For example, it’s easier for a congregation to get really angry at a pastor’s imperfections than it is to recognize that the community around the church has changed dramatically in the last five years, and that the church’s survival is in doubt.  Of course it’s easier!  And that tendency, a kind of default mode in all of us to take an easier way to avoid the hard stuff, is just lovable human nature.  But loving it is not the same as getting stuck in it.  It’s also easier to fight with your teenaged kids about leaving their dirty socks on the floor than it is to recognize that they are about to leave home and they need a new mix of freedom as well as boundaries.  But the more loving way is to gently but firmly address the deeper, more significant concerns.

My mantra in this stage of dealing with conflict is:  “you can’t change anything until you can love it.”  To give due credit, I think that idea goes all the way back to my late teacher and mentor Burney Overton.  As I’ve grown and changed myself, I’ve found it to be absolutely true.  We need to learn to see the positive function of the symptom or the conflict, and learn to love the bearer of the symptom.  Only then can we utilize conflict and work through it to find what God is nudging us to be and do.