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01 November 2007

Bridge over troubled waters

Bridge over troubled waters

When the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, gives the Alliance's Temple Address on the theme of tolerance (see tolerance), there may be a wry smile among many in the Christian Church, as we are often accused of the opposite.

Finding a way to create tolerance from intolerance is the stock in trade of the Mennonite organisation Bridge Builders, an Alliance member committed to helping Christians resolve their differences. The staff members run conflict-mediation training courses across the country and can also be hired to resolve problems within a congregation or church leadership team.

"It's a misguided view that Christians don't or shouldn't disagree," says Bridge Builders Director Alastair McKay. "Christians are human beings, and all human beings, in my experience, encounter conflict in their interactions with other people."

The problem comes, he says, because Christians think that "conflict is wrong and sinful", making it harder to resolve issues or even face them in the first place. Bridge Builders' aim is "to change the way the Church engages with and deals with conflict".

McKay became a mediator after attending a course in 1994. "It opened up a whole different way of dealing with conflict," he says. "I saw that it was possible to find a way through. Indeed, there were ways of dealing with conflict that could be creative and good. That was a massive discovery for me. I thought, Wow!" Two years later he left the civil service and joined Bridge Builders full-time. He is adamant that the Church can be a city on a hill and show others how to manage conflict. But it isn't currently doing that.

"We should be a model for the world in creatively dealing with conflict," he says. "That's at the heart of what the Christian doctrine is about. Christ's work of reconciliation is at the heart of God's purposes and at the heart of what we are called to live out in our relationships with one another both within and outside the Church. For the Church to be a model and to offer anything to the world in terms of reconciliation, we have to live that out in our midst. That inspires, excites and energises me."

This does require the Church to go on a journey, he says. And it will also require all trainee ministers to undergo conflictmanagement training to prepare them for the workplace.

Trouble spots

The Church should be a model for the world in creatively dealing with conflict

What causes problems in the church? The answer appears to be communication, structures and how change is handled. "Very, very rarely are there issues around theology," McKay says, "although the perception is that's what people in the church fight about."

You'd also think the standard issues - moving of pews, painting the church door, disbanding the choir, changing styles of worship - would be a happy hunting ground for mediators. But no: it's communication and structure that cause the rows.

One church that Bridge Builders helped had grown enormously and had a large leadership team. Then a new minister was appointed, and shortly afterwards the congregation started to decline. There was lots of finger-pointing and the new minister was blamed. When Bridge Builders was called in, it found that the church still operated the same structures as it did when it was a small church, meaning that it didn't operate smoothly, causing many of the problems that had led to deterioration.

In another case, communication went badly wrong. A Baptist minister called his church secretary on his mobile phone, but when he ended the phone call, inadvertently he forgot to switch the phone off. So when the secretary's wife picked up the phone again, she overheard a conversation between the minister and his wife.

"She reported to the husband that they were questioning his faith," says McKay. "He didn't then check that out. He just decided to resign on the spot. Despite my efforts to try to see if we could broker an understanding, we couldn't. He wanted to leave and this was his way out."

A church in Kent called Bridge Builders a few years ago to help resolve an argument that had developed within its leadership team. "There was disunity," says Rev Paul Jones [not his real name], the church's leader. "There was tension on Sundays. It was a mess."

After a lengthy process the problem was resolved, although two people on the leadership team have left. "The end result is not that it's hunky dory," says Jones. "It's not. But the atmosphere in church now is hugely different. If we hadn't done this... there would have been a sour taste and damage. As it is, we kept the church together."

He is full of praise for Bridge Builders, and particularly McKay, who oversaw the process. "He incarnated the presence of Jesus," Jones says.

Seeking help

Because of cases like this, and the many others that Bridge Builders deals with every year, it's obvious that the Church needs outside intercessors. But McKay admits that there is "a huge reluctance" among Christians to seek outside help when faced with a problem. "When people are ready to seek help, they are normally in despair," he says. "Interestingly, that's not necessarily a bad thing. My view of conflict is that it's a symptom. Sometimes seeking help is like going to the doctor; things have to be bad enough to make you go."

The persistent disagreements within churches and larger denominations make it obvious that we can't fix our own problems. And perhaps we shouldn't even expect to be able to.

Seeking outside help during a crisis isn't failure; it is common sense. And for those wanting to avert disaster in their church, asking mediators to help work through the issues involved can bridge the gulf between disillusionment and despair and fresh energy and continued ministry.

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