My normal tendency is to be a peacemaker, not a rabble
rouser, so while this passage causes me some difficulty, I’m glad it is in the
Bible. I learned a hard lesson when on
study leave in 2002. I used a sabbatical
grant to study conflict transformation and mediation at
Imagine my shock when my new skill set and insights actually lead to more conflict, not less. Previously I had spent enormous energy keeping everyone happy. I soothed frayed nerves. I acted as a go between and a buffer so people with long standing grudges didn’t have to deal with each other. My worst trait in conflict is that I would often try to distract people by showing them how good tings were in the church. I would try to preach a great sermon or start a new program or point out how well the pledge campaign or youth group was going. In effect, I would say to the congregation, “Look how well things are going. Stop fighting or you are going to mess it up.” Like the Wizard of Oz, I was dealing with conflict by saying, “Don’t look at that man behind the curtain.” Ignore the conflict because I’m being such a great pastor!
After mediation training I had learned that my style involved a lot of triangulation, meaning I was always in the middle so the issues between people were never really resolved. When I stopped doing this it was uncomfortable for the church. Instead of fixing problems, I would say things like, “It sounds like you need to speak to Mary about that…. Let’s get this issue out in the open so we can hear all sides before making a decision. I sense there are strong feelings in the room-let’s try to understand where they are coming from.” After a few weeks of this new behavior, our Sunday School Superintendent said, “I liked it better when you fixed everything for us.” For the next few months I experienced more conflict in my life-at church and at home-than I had before the training. While this may seem baffling, it is what happens when is dealt with rather than soothed and allowed to slide underground and wait for another moment to break out.
About that time, our church organist resigned in a huff. He had made an embarrassing scene at a joint worship service and I told him in private I thought he was out of line and should consider apologizing to the choir. The next morning his keys were on the front office desk and he resigned to protest his “terrible” treatment. Early in my ministry I probably would have pocketed the resignation, said that maybe I was a little hasty and persuaded him to stay. As I pondered what to do, I thought of the many complaints I heard that the organist was inflexible, he played the same old music over and over, that he was lackadaisical at rehearsals. Perhaps after 30 years enough was enough. I talked to the head of the Board of Deacons and we agreed that we should accept the resignation and hold a special meeting after church where people could talk about how they felt.
I braced myself for a firestorm of criticism. My phone started ringing off the hook and I gently told everyone that we would discuss this together as a congregation after church. We should all be heard together. (Pastors know how exhausting it is to spend hours listening to every person who is trying to persuade them about what should be done.) On Sunday we all sat around in a big circle and the head deacon said we would go around the circle and everyone would have a chance to speak in turn before engaging in any debate. There were strong supporters who said it was a travesty to “fire” a 30 year employee of the church who had given so much to the church. Others noted that he had quit, and that didn’t seem like the thing a dedicated employee would do. Several members of the choir, and a couple of ex-members, were able to voice their dissatisfaction with rehearsals and repetitive anthems for the first time. Near the end a long-term member with great respect in the congregation said, “I have sung in the choir for 25 years and the organist is my friend. But right now he is holding back the growth of the church and it is time for him to go. It is sad to say and hard for me, but we need to move on.” No one else had anything to say after that.
As with any big church conflict there is no simple and happy ending to this conflict. Two long-term families were very upset and stopped speaking to several other members who had supported letting the organist leave. They often expressed their dissatisfaction with other aspects of the church. Our music program sputtered for a time until we found a new organist. But a few months later I heard through the grapevine that the organist was enjoying his retirement and relieved to not have the weekly pressure. He hadn’t realized how burnt out he was and leaving was a real blessing. The congregation learned they could be honest about conflict and survive. There reality was that conflict had existed for years and was underground because people were afraid to speak. Sometimes trying to live in the “beloved community” may bring not peace but a sword. We must learn the difference between peace and just another cease fire that allows those in power to keep the status quo for their own interests. True peace seldom comes without a painful process of being honest about the real issues. Peace can only be built if there is truth, justice, equality and respect.
I’m not preaching this week but have many ideas if you are
looking for more material. Jeremiah 6:14
“They cry peace, peace when there is no peace,” is a great companion
scripture. Jeremiah says of the false
prophets, “They dress the wounds of the people as if they were not
serious.” This passage makes me think of
Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace for Our Time” speech in 1938 after the
Here are some links you might find helpful:
Here is a current example of false peace. Congress will soon be taking up the issue of
either extending the Bush tax cuts or to let them expire. Whenever issue’s of inequality are raised,
some conservative politicians are quick to say liberals are stirring up “class warfare.” This is crying “Peace, peace when there is no
Here is the link from Meet the Press.
The Financial Times had an interesting article this week
Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mayor Bloomberg are jumping on the bandwagon too, urging billionaires to give away at least 51 percent of their wealth. Buffett noted last year that he pays 17 percent of his income in taxes (which is less than I pay in payroll taxes!) He did the research and found that his employees paid over 30 percent of their income in taxes.