Speak Out, Don’t Hide
Christ never flinched from addressing a conflict head-on, at the cost of his own life. Why, then, do we, his followers, seem so conflict averse?
Or is it just us ultra-polite Episcopalians?
As a former warden and vestryperson, I hesitate to put any of this down on paper—fearful of hurting someone, more fearful of the disagreements I might kick up. Conflict averse indeed: I certainly might be dreadfully wrong—but how will I know that if someone else doesn’t speak up? And that someone might be you.
I think back to my own childhood. I grew up in a wonderful, dynamic, socially progressive, engaging Presbyterian church. I loved nothing better than going to Sunday school, acting in Christmas pageants, singing in the choir, hanging out with the youth group on Sunday nights.
During a good part of the time, the senior pastor was simply the wrong man for the job, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, previously devoted, devout parishioners were fleeing the flock in droves. Sound familiar?
There were grumblings and rumblings indeed, but most of them went unsaid, at least in the formal ways that might make a difference. Both of my parents served in lay leadership positions and they—God bless them—were less inclined to be silent. “You know,” the associate pastor said to me years later, “your dad was the one person who told me directly what he felt the problem was.”
Wow! Of all people, my father! A man who at home embodied the definition of “conflict-averse.”
Things heated up at the church and at last there was a change of leadership; this was not without some cost, but it taught me a lesson that I’ve held on to for all my churchgoing years: When there’s something wrong at church—and of course there are going to be times when things aren’t working out as expected—speak out. Act. Don’t run and hide. Or worse, don’t just leave the joint.
This raises the question of why, when people leave a church, presumably in some dissatisfaction, there isn’t an exit interview. More often than not, the leavers drift off, silently: They’re here and then they’re gone. Others might have shown up, taking their place—amen to them—but shouldn’t we look at those who left, beloved souls with whom we’ve prayed and worshipped, to see if there’s something to be learned, to see if there is an opportunity to grow?
Is it fear of conflict that stops us?
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” said our Lord. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34). Challenging words, for sure. But then, isn’t that the point? Following Christ, taking up the cross, means asking for the courage to see where a conflict is and addressing it.
Think of the letters Paul wrote to the early church. Often enough he is speaking to struggles those communities were facing. “For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you…” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Conflict averse? Hardly. We wouldn’t have this scriptural bedrock of our faith without Paul’s willingness to dive into the differences.
We are at a time when Americans seem tragically at odds, hardly even listening to one another. And it’s all too true of churchgoers. We look for places of worship where the others are…well…just like us. Any unpleasant debates or disagreements can be avoided. But then aren’t we also blocking ourselves off from potential spiritual growth? Not for nothing did Jesus tell us to love our enemies.