In every relationship, conflict is possible. Disagreements occur in families, church committee meetings, parking lots and wherever else human beings gather. Those differences, however, don't need to divide us. The Bible tells us, "If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people" (Romans 12:18 CEB).
To help us stay connected during and after disagreements, we asked some United Methodist experts for their best advice.
Humanize the other
"We have the tendency to slide into polarization when faced with conflict," shares the Rev. April Casperson, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the West Ohio Conference. "Polarization helps us to keep the other person at arm's length and disregard their humanity… If you find yourself dehumanizing or distancing from the other person," she continues, "consider thinking about how they may be similar to you."
"I always try to stay in touch with the narratives that I'm telling myself about the other so it doesn't reinforce anger and hurt," shares the Rev. W. Craig Gilliam, Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach and conflict transformation facilitator/consultant. If we don't, our stories may slowly change to make us look better and the other worse.
Meeting face-to-face helps. "Don't do it over Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or any other social media," advises the Rev. Anne Detjen, pastor of Immanuelkirche United Methodist Church in Eberswalde, Germany. "Wherever possible, meet your friend. Take time to be with each other when going through a conflict. Meet them for a coffee, for a meal or maybe for a walk."
Pray for them
"The other is a human being created in the image of God. That is where I have to start," says Garlinda Burton, a deaconess in The United Methodist Church serving as Director of Resource Development at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race. Remembering this helps us begin to pray for the other.
"Pray for them by name every night in your prayers," she advises. "I find that it helps humanize the other."
Acknowledge the hurt
"Honor the emotions you feel," teaches the Rev. Ronald Greer, author and Director of the Pastoral Counseling Service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. "Get them out. Give them a voice. Talk. Journal. Pray. Do the emotional work to heal within."
Affirm the relationship
In addition to getting in touch with the hurt, remember the relationship you share with the other. "This will allow each participant in the conflict to be more open about pain and disagreement," teaches the Rev. M. Scott Hughes, Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship with Discipleship Ministries.
Gilliam, who coaches pastors in the Louisiana Conference, shares about a time when a pastor and church member sought his help in resolving a conflict. He encouraged each to share things they valued in one another.
After several moments of silence, one of them finally started. They spent several minutes telling one another what they appreciated about the other. "It changed the entire conversation," Gilliam continues, "because they learned to genuinely affirm another and see what's right in them instead of what's wrong."
Seek to understand
"O divine master," reads the Prayer of St. Francis (UM Hymnal 481), "grant that I may not so much seek… to be understood as to understand." That's good advice when we disagree. Rather than explaining your side one more time, try to comprehend their position.
Detjen shares how this requires a different way of listening. "When I truly listen to understand a person… it creates space in myself. A space where questions can form, which I can use to go deeper in trying to comprehend how my friend has come to their opinion."
"Come to understand the other's perspective," advises Greer. "This is a human being, just like you, and likely one with whom you can identify... If you will, you can put yourself in his or her place."
Humility, the ability to accept that you may not be totally right and they may not be completely wrong, is also helpful.
"Everybody's experience is not your experience," Burton reminds us. "If you are in a majority or dominant culture," she continues, "you should not assume that everyone's life experience is the same as yours." Remembering and honoring that we are different people can help greatly.
As we humbly recognize our own responsibility for the conflict, we may need to say we're sorry.
"Consider whether an apology is in order," Casperson advises. "Then give that apology with no strings attached."
"'I'm sorry' is a good start, but it isn't enough," explains Greer. "Speak to the specifics of what happened and your part in it. Then express your intentions of how you plan to handle similar situations with her differently in the future."
Care for yourself
In the midst of conflict, be sure to take care of yourself.
"Jesus reminds us to love God and to love one another," Casperson teaches. "The Rev. Amy Aspey shared once in a sermon that, 'Sometimes we forget that we are a part of the one another.'"
Be sure to find those places where you can feed your own spirit. Gilliam quotes poet Wallace Stephens, "Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around a lake."
"Part of healing has to do with giving ourselves permission to take that walk," Gilliam adds. "We don't have to fix it right now."
"When real pain is involved," Hughes similarly reminds us, "it will take multiple conversations over a period of time before trust replaces suspicion," and real healing can occur.
Sometimes, it can't be fixed
"Sometimes the relationship isn't worth continuing," Hughes suggests, "when there is too much pain and it is not beneficial long-term for anybody."
Other times the person will not want to remain in relationship with us. "If another chooses not to reconnect it's only appropriate, as painful as it might be, to honor that choice," Gilliam shares, "but I can at least know that I genuinely extended a hand to try to reconnect."
- For pastors and church leaders: Helping your congregation heal after General Conference on ResourceUMC.org
- Courageous Conversations from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries
- Vital Conversations 4: Race, Culture, the Church, and Human Sexuality from the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church
- Coaching and articles by the Rev. W. Craig Gilliam
- Books and resources by the Rev. Ronald Greer
This story was published on March 13, 2019.