Have you ever needed the services, either formally or informally, of a mediator? I’m sure I needed one more often that I realized or admitted, but the one time a mediator was forced into my life situation was when the state of Maryland told my now ex-wife and me that we couldn’t get a divorce until we lived apart for a full calendar year with no slip-up-sleepovers and until we met with a mediator–court approved–to try to sort out issues one way or another. In those days, as I recall, all court approved mediators had to be attorneys; I believe that mediators these days do not have to be lawyers since mediation has become a certifiable skill. It seems to me that my now ex-wife sorted through the list provided for us and suggested the winner; his rates seemed to be the most reasonable for someone with an office convenient to where we both lived. What a chump he was. Am I allowed to say that in a sermon? If not, pretend I didn’t.
Around 1992 or 1993, this guy charged $250 an hour, and we had to meet with him two or three times or until he, not we, said mediation was complete. That was a TON of money back in those days–no small change today. The only thing he had going for him was his experience with divorce. He had been divorced two or three times himself.
Not all mediation is worthless, however. Sometimes it’s essential, or it could be invaluable if taken advantage of. There was a marriage counselor who spoke to a class I took at the University of Louisville in marriage and family counseling. She said that by the time most couples break down and come to her the marriage or partnership is over, and all she could do in those cases was to try to help the separation occur without jagged edges.
Some of the most superior mediators past and present are parents of two or more children relatively close to each other in age. Mediation means survival for them. Hats off to you fantastic parents who mastered mediation without even knowing what to call what you did. The first parents in history, according to biblical mythology, were inept at mediation, which was part of the reason that their two older sons grew to hate each other to such a degree that the first case of fratricide in human history occurred; if you’re a Bible aficionado, which is by no means a bad thing to be, then you know that Cain slew Abel.
Now and then pastors have to be mediators–not only between certain parishioners but also when trying to help couples with relational complications try to save their marriage or partnership. The most memorable mediation in which I have ever been involved as a pastor was with a Barbie and Ken couple whose wedding I’d performed six months before the bride, one evening, called to say they urgently needed to see me. This was in the dark ages before email or Facebook, which is the best source these days for keeping up with the relational health of those couples for whom you care. “Urgent” was and remains a word that gets my immediate and undivided attention.
I saw them the next evening after their work days, and they came into my study in a huff, with significant anger directed each toward the other. Thankfully, they had driven to my church office in separate vehicles–and this was many years ago in another state in case you’re trying to figure out the identity of the couple about whom I speak!
At first I was in shock that this couple who’d exchanged deeply moving vows just a few months earlier could feel and exhibit such ire for each other, but the session was all about them and not all about me so I had to rush past my feelings to be able to attend to them. Their presenting problem–that’s what individuals or couples tell a counselor they’ve sought help for whether or not that’s really why they came; they simply may not be able to speak their true pain right off the bat. So, their presenting problem was this as I remember the bride’s words vividly and verbatim: “He ate all of the frozen Milky Ways in two days.” As most of you know, I don’t conceal my true feelings well, and though I couldn’t see myself in a mirror I felt my eyebrows raising. There must be some noticeable facial expression that goes along with that muscle movement. My sons call it “the David look,” and according to them both eyebrows raised isn’t as serious as only one.
Well, I’m happy to tell you, though my efforts to mediate in various situations haven’t always been successful by a long shot, that we got their conflict moving steadily toward resolution in one session, and today they remain happily married with four kids so we know they were able to put conflict aside at least now and then.
A therapist in Cumming, Georgia, Dawn Echols, recently wrote this about mediation:
At its most practical, mediation is an opportunity for parties engaged in conflict to resolve disputes without going to court. This alternative form of legal dispute resolution saves everyone, including the court system, money. It also allows parties to have a much more powerful say in the outcome. At its most idealistic, mediation allows for dispute resolution in a manner that can transform a conflict into not just a resolution so people can get on with their lives, but [a] possibility of transforming relationships behind the conflict. Mediators focus on the practical goals of dispute resolution while helping others transform conflict into solutions that assist everyone in moving forward. [Healthy] conflict offers an opportunity, if we can find the courage to work through it.
So it seems that there was escalating conflict in the church at Philippi. Though negative conflict within a church seems rightly incongruous with what the church is supposed to be about, conflict has been with us institutionally at all levels from the beginning. I am sure that you noticed I just said “negative conflict.” There is such a thing as positive, healthy conflict. However, conflict becomes negative when there is no thought as to the wellbeing of the persons involved in the conflict, and there is a problem when conflict escalates to character assassination, which it often does even within a church.
I daresay that nothing has hurt the witness of churches throughout history and into the present more than negative internal conflict. There are many people today who would be involved in a church and wish they could be involved in the church except for the negative conflict, which they have encountered on more than one occasion and often in more than one church. It is without exaggerating a travesty for a number of reasons the primary one being there is absolutely no excuse for it and no defense.
Dr. Ron Crawford is President of the Baptist Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a theologically moderate Baptist institution FYI. Dr. Crawford contributed an article to Ethics Daily last October. It was titled, “Why Having It Your Way in Church Is Deadly.” He wrote:
Ministers are often caught in the middle of church conflict. While navigating short-term troubled waters, it is always important to have a clear sense of the deeper issues at work in congregational life. It is important to name the demon, and at the end of the day the demon is hyperindividualism. It has taken deep root in us all….Ministers know church members rarely argue about the real issue. The color of the carpet, the use of video in worship, or the use of a bulletin (or not) are tips of an iceberg….I…believe naming the demon may give us power to mitigate its influence. Hyperindividualism. It’s in the water we all drink.
A pastoral counselor and author recommended, with great modesty, his book to me. This was several years ago, and I’m still struck every time I say the title of the book, which mostly is when I’m speaking to seminarians, kind of sharing the favor that this author, G. Lloyd Rediger, shared with me in a much more idealistic phase of my life. The book should never have been able to be written. Its title is Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack. Obviously, it’s about conflict aimed unjustifiably at clergypersons–just out of plain old meanness or because the culprits can’t face the reality that the congregation as a whole disagrees with them so they turn the pastor into the object of their cowardly hatred because she or he is such as easy target and is often relatively helpless in terms of waging a counter attack, if you will.
Make no mistake, though. Clergy are not by any means the only ones injured or killed off emotionally by conflict mongers. The second most frequently attacked church folk are those brave enough to dare to be leaders. Back to Philippi. It’s much less painful to look way, way back.
Philippi. Circa 62 CE. The Apostle Paul, evangelist and Church founder extraordinaire, is writing to the church–along with several that he founded or had a hand in founding–for which he had the most affection. Based on information available to us today we might well assume that in many respects the church in Philippi was the healthiest of all the churches to which Paul related. It was a happy church, and for the most part joy prevailed among the congregants. The affection Paul felt for the church was returned full fold.
If any criticism could be made of the church at Philippi it would be that some of the members were too exuberant about what they thought proved more than any other act their faithfulness as followers of Jesus. What I mean by that is that there were some people who had either been in the church or related to the church in some way who warmed up to the idea that the greatest act of faith was to be martyred, and some were so focused on martyrdom they put themselves in situations where they had been martyred unnecessarily as proof for themselves of their utter devotion to Jesus, the most noteworthy martyr in human history. Then there were those in the congregation still kicking who were prepared to get martyred at the first opportunity.
Well, to the surprise of Paul and many of the members in the church at Philippi, conflict erupted. Love and joy were so prevalent there that there didn’t seem to be within the congregation a suitable mediator. Paul had mediation skills, sorta kinda, but he could not get to the Philippian church in a timely manner after the problem had been communicated to him. So, he asks in his letter to the church, which by the way was read aloud probably in a worship service so the two people in conflict were apostlically called down from the pulpit BY NAME. How embarrassing for them! And to make that part of the issue worse, after the church at Philippi read the letter, it passed the letter on to other nearby congregations who were fans of Paul–and not all were. Thus, others outside the congregation knew the conflicuents were disrupting the widely admired unity within the church.
The two sisters who were at odds with each other for reasons not detailed in the letter or in any other source unearthed so far had really cool names: Euodia and Syntyche. Theirs was a time when the meaning behind names was still taken note of–first by the parents who chose a name for their child and then by others who knew the grown up children. Supposedly the name was chosen to reflect a trait noticed by the parents in their infant that would still be descriptive of the child when she or he became an adult.
“Jacob”–supplanter, user of other people
“Euodia”–sweet smell (She must have smelled good naturally as a baby!)
“Syntyche”–unexpected coincidence (We can only wonder why parents would have given a child the name unexpected coincidence.)
There’s another name that we will come across shortly:
Bill Wilson is President of an organization headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, named the Center for Congregational Health. In Ethics Daily again, but in November of last year, he had an article that carried the title, “7 Reasons Churches Face a Conflict Pandemic.” I’d rather not think about such things. How about you? But here we are.
Reason number one:
Loss of civility in our culture. Social scientists have documented the erosion of civility and social capital in a variety of settings. Our current political climate is a searing indictment of the failure of healthy public discourse. We find [unhappy] members of most congregations patterning their behavior in the church after the brutal tactics of our culture rather than the teachings of Jesus.
Reason number six:
There is lack of clarity in a congregation about mission and vision, little transparent communication, and a low level of authentic community. These three “C’s” nearly always describe congregations experiencing high levels of conflict.
Good authors like good debaters do not present problems without potential solutions. Here are a few solutions to negative conflict articulated by Bill Wilson:
Teach Christian ethical behavior from birth to death on a weekly basis. Elected and paid leaders in the congregation covenant to hold one another accountable for practicing Jesus-like behavior….Come to grips with the fact that, while the Gospel is timeless, the methods of living and conveying that Gospel are ever-changing. Embrace change as your friend, not your enemy….Stop playing church and start following Jesus….Pay attention to and take care of your clergy and staff.
Oops, I meant to leave that one out! Not trying to dig myself out of a self-serving hole, I say sincerely that most of you do this very well. I/we are most grateful!
The Apostle Paul:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, [Suzuge,] my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life….[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Well, I don’t have to tell you, though I will, that when even two church folk, only two–and to a greater degree more than two–are at odds with each other the negative conflict rarely if ever stays between the twosome. Almost invariably, if not always, the negative conflict spreads throughout the church. Others, not originally involved in the conflict, take sides. Who wants to be Switzerland and attempt neutrality? That’s no fun.
Another question, Who wins if negative conflict prevails? No one. There are no winners. Everyone loses. The community as a whole is wounded, scarred, and in some cases destroyed.
One more question for now. Is it worth bringing the whole church down so that I can have my way whatever negative conflict it creates? NO! And not your way either. Remember Ron Crawford’s insight about the demon at the core of negative conflict is hyperindividualism.
Paul wasn’t naive. He knew once the negative conflict began to spread it probably wasn’t going to unspread, wasn’t going to resolve itself. Therefore, in his absence, he called on the woman who seems to have been his dearest friend in the church at Philippi, Suzuge, to be the mediator. More than likely, Suzuge was the pastor of the church at Philippi–and perhaps a newish pastor who had attended a seminary that didn’t offer a course in congregational conflict resolution. Rather than assuming, therefore, that Pastor Suzuge would automatically as the congregation’s designated spiritual coach step in and try to help resolve the conflict, Paul in this public document urges her to help well-established members, Euodia and Syntyche, who had once made great contributions to the wellbeing and the ministries of First Church Philippi, to settle their difference in the name of pragmatics and in the name of love.
Was Suzuge successful? More than likely, she was, and I say that because a New Testament research scholar by the name of Eduard Verhoef at the University of Pretoria has done in-depth research on the church in Philippi. He uncovered solid, credible sources as late as the sixth century making reference to the church in Philippi. In the fifth century, three new churches in Philippi can be identified so either, best case scenario, the church membership expanded to the point that establishing additional meeting sites in other parts of the growing city became appropriate; OR, worst case scenario, after four good centuries it split all to pieces. For our purposes today, we are going to embrace the optimistic perspective, and I hope you are in the “we” for whom I speak. I feel today like Mabel King’s character in the movie musical, “The Wiz,” who sang: “Don’t give me no bad news.” Suzuge’s mediation in Philippi worked!
They will know we are Christians by our what? Oh yeah: LOVE.