Dr. Jamie Jenkins: Conflict--Crisis and Opportunity

Conflict is often a crisis, but it is also an opportunity

I was sitting at a traffic light behind several cars when I heard a horn blow from the next car back. I assumed that he was impatient with the automobile at the front of the line because it was not moving quickly enough. I was wrong.

After we passed through the intersection the car behind passed me. The driver blew his horn again and waved at me. At least I wanted to think that it was a wave.

At the next intersection the light was red and the traffic going straight ahead was stopped. As I turned right, the driver of my horn blowing friend gave me another hand gesture. What a friendly driver.

Actually I could see on the face of this anonymous motorist that he was not happy with me. I suspect I was not the only person (thing) with which he was unhappy.

Without warning and with a total stranger I encountered conflict. I didn't see it coming and I had no clue what caused it. That's the way conflict is sometimes. At other times conflict is anticipated and the causes are well understood.

There was not a lot I could do about the angry motorist. I could not engage him in conversation to discover what I had done to "make him mad." There was not an opportunity to "resolve the issue." But much of the conflict we experience can be turned into opportunity for constructive change and growth.

Leading Ideas, the e-newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, recently offered some suggestions about managing conflict. The information is an excerpt from Dr. David R. Brubaker's book Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations.

First, leaders need to move towards conflict, not away from it. This provides opportunities to reach resolution before the matter gets out of control. A small brush fire can be extinguished by stomping it with one's foot or using a garden hose, but if it is allowed to expand into the forest it may become unmanageable.

Second, the identified issue is almost never the real issue. The presenting issues may be compelling, but they are often masks for the real causes of concern. This might be because people do "not know how to exercise their voice other than through ‘murmuring'."

Third, involve the "complainers" in solving their identified problems. Rather than trying to solve the problem alone, involving the folks with complaints often leads to a better conclusion.

Dr. Brubaker says, "Conflict is often a crisis, but it is also an opportunity. Much depends on our attitude towards conflict. If we expect it will be destructive and awful, it probably will be. But if we anticipate that the conflict may instead be an opportunity for genuine change, we may experience transformation. As Ron Kraybill, the founding director of Mennonite Conciliation Service, has said, conflict may be ‘an arena of revelation,' a time when we hear God's voice as we never have before."

God help us as we experience conflict in our personal and corporate life.

Jamie Jenkins

Another helpful resource for "engaging conflict constructively" is the JUSTPEACE Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation at www.JUSTPEACEumc.org.

[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," August 9, 2010. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]


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