Near my former home in Port Alberni, Canada, there were two distinct ecosystems. (Perhaps more, but two stand out now.) Towards the interior of the island stand the stunning cedars of Cathedral Grove. The sheer scale of the trees make them a worthy stop for tourists as evidenced by the long line of camper vans on either side of the highway. Yet as massive as they may be the trees are less robust than one would expect. The problem is that they are sheltered from the worst of the local weather and so do not develop root systems as deeply as they might. All well and good unless a storm comes as they inevitably do. At that point the trees change from beautiful to lethal, from lordly to precarious.
If you were to head west to the coast, toes touching the Pacific, the trees are significantly less dramatic. They are beaten and gnarled, battered by regular storms without the advantage of sheltering hills or closely gathered forests. They look small, mere shrubs compared to the cedars farther inland. And yet, if you were to look deep below the surface you would see massive root systems, making each tree a powerful bulwark against worst of winds and rain.
That is, for me, a symbol of the value of conflict. As unpleasant as it may be – and it truly is unpleasant – it is necessary for us to develop the strength that will hold us in place when things get tough. To switch metaphors, any weight lifter will find that lifting more will hurt more, but that trying for less produces poor fruit. The pain of resistance is where benefit is found.
Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time trying to avoid conflict. Often it happens when we hold back on a challenging word or permit ‘small’ sins because it is easier that way. But one that I see tripping leaders up far too often is the unwillingness to make a difficult decision that may rub some people the wrong way. As almost any decision will rub someone the wrong way, it leads to a paralysis of vision and undermining of momentum.
And conflict is an inevitable outcome of diversity. Our varying experiences/emphasis/visions/expectations/etc make this inescapable. This can be positive – it refines our beliefs and challenges our assumptions – and is a necessary element of true community. But that may not make it more comfortable.
We need to become strong in a few areas:
First, we need to double and triple check that what we do is done in love. I would never be permissive in saying that all conflict is good so we should look for opportunities to pick a fight. Make the hard decision, but be kind at the same time. Leading as a team allows others to provide us with the perspective to check our motivations. Leading in isolation can lead us vulnerable.
Secondly, we need to grow in commitment. Conflict can be dealt with positively and constructively where there is commitment to community, because this creates a foundation where we can talk honestly without fear of rejection or the temptation to run away. This will, in turn, bring value to our communities because we have enabled relationships to become authentic and our real selves to be visible to others. I think of Jesus words to Peter: Get behind me, Satan!” Peter could take the rebuke without the concern that Jesus would turn his back on him, and therein lies the value of an honest word in the context of a committed relationship.
Finally, change the focus from avoiding conflict to dealing with it well. Learn to speak honestly without sacrificing kindness. Not always easy, but a sign of maturity. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15)
I would never say that all conflict is good, or that all is necessary. Nor do I feel that we can or should find it comfortable – I would have serious doubts about anyone who likes conflict. But if we manage our own role we will find that Jesus can use conflict in amazing ways to refine our character and expand our vision.