On the blackboard I wrote a single sentence that had come to me the night before just as I was dozing off to sleep.
“Think of ministry in the midst of conflict as follows: the negotiation of difference for the sake of transformation.”
We were about half-way through the unit on conflict in our senior level seminary course, “Entry Into Ministry,” a course I have taught for fifteen years. And the point I was trying to make is obvious to any veteran pastor, though it is extremely difficult to put into action: If you think of conflict as something to be resolved, you may be tempted to try to return to some elusive past; if you think of conflict as something to be managed, you may be tempted just to try to navigate the status quo. But if you think of conflict as (at least potentially) an opportunity for transformation, you are liberated to explore what it means to negotiate differences of perspectives, values and interests as a genuine spiritual discipline in your church.
Obviously there are lots of theological and other assumptions underlying these statements. I believe, with John Calvin, that “in all of life we have our dealings with God,” so there’s no part of life that shouldn’t be subject to theological reflection, and there’s no theological reflection that can’t also be informed by social, historical, psychological and other kinds of inquiries. I also believe, with John Stuart Mill, Lewis Coser, and Nicholas Rescher, that differences and conflicts among people (if handled with respect) are potentially creative and transformative. Rather than avoiding conflict, we ought rather to “make the world safe for disagreement,” as Rescher once wrote.
One only has to look at the lives of the all-stars of the spiritual world, from St. Paul to Mother Theresa to see that spiritual growth is not all sunlight, roses and fluffy bunnies.
This is why this morning I was so struck by a statement I read in The New York Times in a story about a church experiencing a conflict, the specifics of which are not relevant to these reflections. In the last paragraph of the story a church member said, “I came here looking for a church for spiritual reasons… but it has really not been a very spiritual experience.” This person’s comment could be replicated all over the country, in various churches, by people belonging to any number of denominations. He appears to assume that a spiritual experience is happy and ethereal; certainly it is non-political, certainly it is untouched by human interests and unsullied by conflict.
Several years ago I heard a distinguished biblical scholar dismiss the Nicene Creed because the council that gave rise to it was tainted by politics. I don’t find that argument wrong simply because it is naïve, but because it represents an inadequate understanding of the Holy Spirit. The same God who got his hands dirty in the incarnation continues to work through human means to accomplish redemptive purposes in the world. This is nowhere more true that at the ground level of transformation among ordinary Christians in ordinary congregations. Apparently God transforms us, not despite, but through living with others who are (often!) a royal pain in the posterior regions.
For pastors and other church leaders, while this insight is grounded in the Good News of Jesus Christ, it isn’t necessarily happy news. In a consumerist culture that treats faith as a commodity and church membership as the most disposable of voluntary associations, almost everything that works in favor of spiritual maturation, formation and transformation runs smack into the unwillingness of people to stay in a place and among a group of people with whom they are experiencing conflict and discomfort.
The preacher preaches a sermon that I don’t agree with, and I’m out of here!
My Sunday school teacher interprets a biblical text in a way that I find offensive, and I’m gone!
The hymns strain my sensibilities, and I’m not participating!
Of course, these issues only scratch the surface. And here’s the uncomfortable truth: we grow precisely in those moments when previous assumptions are tested and we experience cognitive dissonance; we mature precisely at those points where we have to move beyond clarity and into the realm of ambiguity; we are transformed when our hopes die and we witness God’s hopes standing in their place on the other side of Good Friday’s cold tomb.
Real spirituality, sooner or later, leads us through the crucible of conflict.
Pastors and other church leaders are right to be concerned that the commodification of spirituality and the spirit of voluntarism are undercutting the life of faith. Transformative ministry can’t run from conflict, but it must find ways to minister through conflict, bearing witness to Jesus Christ who entreats us to be merciful so that we can be recognized as children of a merciful God.
Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas.
 Paul Vitello, “New Pastor’s Compensation Divides a Famous Manhattan Church,” The New York Times, April 23, 2009, A22.