Bill Carl, a Presbyterian pastor and former president of Pittsburgh Seminary, wrote a chapter in the book “Best Advice: Wisdom on Ministry from 30 Leader Pastors and Preachers.” Carl wrote about the culture within a church and our attitude towards conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any church. He writes: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, there’s bound to be an argument!” So avoiding conflict avoids a reality that exists; and this is not only unhelpful, but can be detrimental to all parties involved.
Carl’s approach not only welcomes dialogue, but encourages better ways for us to live together in the midst of conflict and create healthier communities as a result. The formula that he has developed over the duration of his ministry is surprisingly simple: “the four S’s” – no Secrets, no Surprises, no Subversion and lots of Support.
In the wake of waters in which we find ourselves wading, I think we could all use this simple reminder. So today I simply offer you my reflections as I re-read his approach.
No secrets. The goal is to get people talking to each other instead of about each other. Gossip never helps; gossip only hurts. And secrets within a group can easily lead to confusion, distrust and pain. Transparency is key for this to work. Secrets can breed distrust very quickly within a community.
No surprises. Ideas (whether good or bad) can create tension within a group when they catch people off guard. We have all felt uneasy when experiencing pressure to agree with something or someone before we were ready. Encourage people to do their groundwork, speak with all parties involved prior to a vote or an event and then propose ideas in a planned way. Give people time to get on board with an idea before they are forced to react to it.
No subversion. After a tense debate and a difficult vote, you will occasionally find yourself in the minority. And rather than following the appropriate avenues of appeal or filing a motion to reconsider, you may simply want to retreat to the parking lot to gripe or complain. Consoling is one thing, but attempting to poison the idea after it has been decided is another. Watch out for parking lot conversations and the motivations behind them.
Lots of support. We all need affirmation. We all need encouragement. We know we are not supposed to tear down our brothers and sisters, but we also need to remember that we are supposed to intentionally build up the body of Christ. How are you showing support to those around you in your ministry?
Carl proposes (and I agree) that if enough of us adopted and began teaching the basics of this method, we could not only change our overarching attitude towards conflict, but also the culture of Christianity. What do you think of “the four S’s”?
BRIAN CHRISTOPHER COULTER is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina. He is a husband, father, pastor, author, blogger and pingpong champion who is pretty good at sidewalk chalk.