Embracing conflict

Welcome to the season of conflict avoidance.

By Amy Butler

No matter how seemingly functional your family system, with the holidays upon us every one of us is managing some kind of potential conflict.

From deftly avoiding political conversations to strategically scheduling relatives’ visits to planning a holiday menu to include, at least at my house, even the newly declared family pescatarian, potential conflict is always looming, and even the most self-actualized among us are strategizing for conflict detours.

As the holidays call forth in us such sophisticated circumvention efforts, it’s clear that most of us would rather manage situations to avoid conflict at all costs. But the closer we live in relationship, the more likely we are to encounter situations in which we clash with one another. It’s just human nature.

Still, here we go, hurtling toward the holidays armed with seating charts and off-limits conversation topics, hoping desperately for smooth sailing.

As I’ve been watching this predicable annual exercise unfold in my own family, I keep thinking about how we also try so very hard to avoid conflict in the church. Perhaps congregational conflict avoidance doesn’t always track with the holiday seasons, but there’s no doubt that, all things equal, we’d all prefer to have no conflict in our communities of faith.

Because conflict has the potential to hurt us, we’re to assume that the presence of conflict indicates a lack of healthy relationship. But as much as we prefer to avoid it, conflict is a regular part of human community, and it’s not always an indicator of dysfunction.

I myself have been guilty of equating lack of conflict with health in a congregation, but the truth is the same in our congregations as it is in our families: conflict is going to happen in human relationship. And we can assess the health of our communities not by whether we encounter conflict, but rather how we handle the inevitable conflict that comes our way.

When conflict arises we can choose to acknowledge the tension, invite it into the open, talk honestly about how we feel and regard each other with respect even in disagreement. This approach, while often pain-filled and calling for selfless engagement on the parts of all involved, can help us move toward resolution that allows for continued, if altered, relationship.

Conflict that inevitably arises may also be met with avoidance or denial, secretive conversations and hurtful, backhanded e-mails. It can be addressed by a refusal to communicate honestly, an inability to allow space for the differing opinions of others and an unwillingness to engage in vulnerable interaction. It engages our sense of entitlement and selfishness, and often results in broken relationship.

Basically this is the congregational version of a strategic Thanksgiving dinner seating chart. We’re so desperate to avoid conflict that we’d rather make herculean attempts to pretend it’s not there.

But in the journey of human community, family or church or otherwise, it’s not realistic to believe the waters we sail will always be glassy smooth. To assume such, or to try desperately to arrange circumstances so that they appear such, is to set ourselves up for regular shipwrecks.

If instead we’re able to see a storm coming on the horizon, batten down the hatches with open communication and selfless engagement and hang on through choppy waters, the chances of actually making progress on our journeys together are vastly improved.

You know it as well as I do: the holidays are rife with potential for conflict in our family systems. What a great opportunity to practice healthy conflict resolution — not avoidance — and then, perhaps, have the courage to navigate through stormy weather in our congregations of faith, addressing conflict head on with healthy communication and a commitment to continued relationship, modeling for the world an alternative to conflict avoidance that leads us to deeper and more meaningful engagement with each other.

Happy holidays!

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.