Violent conflict is all around us. Not only are we honoring Domestic Violence Prevention month, we have also lived through much recent public conflict. This includes a contentious Supreme Court nominee proceeding further tainted by sexual abuse allegations, a terrifying mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and eleven pipe bombs sent to high-profile national leaders and philanthropists. I’d like to name five kinds of congregational approaches. And to offer a bonus webinar on “Productive Conflict.”
As congregations do church in the midst of violence, we have a range of options.
1) Insular congregations avoid naming conflict. Instead of acknowledging violent acts in the private or public sphere, they opt to focus on local activities and local concerns. These insular congregations preserve a sense of safety. But miss the opportunity to connect with larger movements of love, prayer, grief, and solidarity. They also impose an emotional cut-off for congregants impacted by these seemingly removed acts of violence.
2) Harmony-at-all-costs congregations affirm love and forgiveness. But never name people, places or situations that cry out for either love or forgiveness. These congregations preserve a pseudo-harmony by not broaching topics that could divide. However, they miss the opportunity to model effective ways of dealing with conflict.
3) Pastoral congregations name violent offenses while offering prayer and affirmation. As they bind up wounds, they connect the Gospel with our everyday lives. These congregations run the risk of becoming Eeyore-ish, since acts of violence may always be found. Grief may eventually outweigh rejoicing.
4) Prophetic congregations reflect theologically about acts that destroy domestic harmony or public civility. These congregations actively equip us with biblical language, metaphors, and approaches to the world around us. The risk here is that not everyone will agree with any given reflection. Pastors need to be prepared to lay out a biblical case for their reflections. And to offer pastoral care to those who feel slighted.
5) Doomsday congregations encourage, or at least do not discourage, violence. These apocalyptic groups play into hopelessness and fear by proclaiming that the end is near. This approach denies God the power of resurrection.
As a Jewish Christian whose extended family is deeply involved in cultivating and preserving Jewish life, fear and anger gripped me when I heard about the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Will my pastor think it important to mention this? At times, this congregation has been very insular, and sought to preserve harmony at all costs. My expectations were as low as my heart. Yet, I was deeply gratified when the senior pastor took a moment to intentionally stand by the flag and offer a heartfelt prayer for the Jewish community and the victims of the synagogue shooting. “This is not who we are as a country,” she said. “It is not who Christ calls us to be.” It was a poignant moment. One this Jewish Christian needed to bring some healing to my soul, and to feel part of my congregation once again. In less than 5 minutes, she was both pastoral and prophetic; it was brilliant pastoring.
Conflict will always be with us. It doesn’t have to get violent. In fact, it can be productive. To help us navigate these times, please join me for a special one-hour bonus webinar on Productive Conflict: Making the Most of Bad Situations from 10-11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9. Send your email address, name, phone number and congregation/location to firstname.lastname@example.org to join in.