Parish Conflict and Healing

Antiochian Archdiocese 2014 Clergy Symposium - Medicine, Theology, Healing

Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, PA, the 2014 Clergy Symposium took as its theme ” . . .for the sick and the suffering”: Medicine, Theology, Healing. Speakers and breakout sessions dealt with this subject from an Orthodox perspective.

July 2014

Parish Conflict and Healing

Dr. Anthony Bashir and Fr. John Mefrige were introduced by Fr. Joseph Allen. You can follow along with their slide presentation here:


July 17, 2014 Length: 1:14:53





Fr. Joseph Allen: Your Eminence, Your Graces, and brothers in the Lord, sometimes our parishes can be described as sick and suffering, and sometimes we need healing in that realm of our parish life. With regard to our symposium on healing, Fr. John Mefrige and Dr. Anthony Bashir have, over the years, been offering one of our afternoon workshop electives, and likewise this year, but also this morning they have been asked by the symposium committee to prepare one of our major presentations on healing in terms of conflict resolution. And they have done so; they have worked very hard on it.

This’ll be the last lecture. We’ve had four now on different aspects of healing. This morning… This’ll be the last one. The following are their CVs, their curriculum vitae, before they begin.

Fr. John Mefrige has both theological and psychological training, holding a master of divinity degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline; master of science degree in marriage and family therapy from Fuller in California. He is presently pursuing his doctoral studies in that area. He has served various parishes and has practiced as a professional marriage and family therapist, spent a number of years working in both the camping program at the Village in counseling and administrative capacities. He is currently the pastor of St. Ephraim the Syrian Antiochian Church in San Antonio. He serves as a police chaplain to the San Antonio Police Department, and does more, but I’m giving you the brief version.

Dr. Anthony Bashir [is a] member of St. George Orthodox Church in Boston, where he serves as the Christian education teacher for junior and senior high school students. In addition, he’s a member of the Archdiocese Board of Trustees, on which he has served for 40 years. He’s really an old man. [Laughter] I met him before 40 years ago. Together with Dr. John Dalack, they have continued as chairs of the Department of Lay Ministry, presenting various Enliven to Christ sessions at the Archdiocesan and Diocesan meetings for the past 35 years. Anthony has studied alternative dispute resolution at the University of Massachusetts, the graduate programs in conflict resolution as well. He holds membership in the mental health study group that focuses on ADR and persons with mental health issues. He holds a doctorate in communication sciences and disorders and has worked with children and families for over 50 years. He currently teaches at Boston College and at the Institute of Health Professionals at Massachusetts Hospital.

Please welcome Fr. John and Dr. Anthony. [Applause]

Dr. Anthony Bashir: Over a period of time, we began to reformulate our efforts so that we could begin to look at this notion of relational healing which you see in front of you. That sign, that slide, is filled with semiotics. The color is purple, which is the color of the Lenten season and the prayer of Ephraim. The icon is Peter and Paul. And the notion up there is one of relationship, and all conflict at its heart is a relational problem. It’s always something that is disturbing a relationship.

We now know, I think very well, that relational difficulty includes not only an emotional and a psychological component, but a very important spiritual component, because it represents a time of separation, not only separation horizontally, but a separation vertically, between man and God, between person and person in God.

So we took it upon ourselves to begin this ministry. Dr. John’s not with us because he’s been quite ill, and your prayers are very, very much appreciated. He’s doing much better. He’s stable; he’s been able to walk for the last three days, which is just wonderful. So he’s not with us, but sends you his fine regards. We began to work with Abouna John because Abouna John and I both went to study with Ken Sande and a group of Evangelical lawyers who have begun an intense program in spiritual reconciliation based upon Scripture. What we’ve tried to do is to bring together scriptural imperatives, patristic imperatives, the traditions of the Church, as well as what our current best practices out there in what are known as ADR or alternative dispute resolution approaches.

Our job today is to sort of walk you systematically through where some of this is, and if you look at this sort of advanced organizer… By the way, these slides are loaded. They’re not intended to overwhelm you, but they are loaded. They are available already online. They have been posted to the Orthodox Peacemaker, so you can go to www.orthodoxpeacemakers.com, and you’ll find a complete set of these slides already online. They’re also being recorded and posted by Ancient Faith, so you sit back and relax at the end of your rather long, arduous listening and know that this is all available to you at the click of a mouse.

But we want to cover some very specific topics with you, difficult conversations being the opening topic. What constitutes a difficult conversation? One of you came up to me yesterday and said, “This man came up to me after my sermon on Sunday and said, ‘Father, I disagree with everything you’ve said. Nothing you’ve said makes sense,’ ” and shortly thereafter a woman said to him, “You’re not very authentic,” and what ensues are difficult conversations.

Inevitably difficult conversations are going to come from that. For some of you, I’m sure that resonates, because you’ve probably had that experience. I’ve experienced that myself as a professional for 50 years, from families who don’t think I’m doing the job I should be doing for them.

We want to talk about conflict and response to conflict. We’ll focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. After much thought, we inserted what is a crisis, what constitutes crisis, and how do you as a pastor begin to think with your hierarchs about planning for crisis. I’m looking out there, and I know that I’ve talked with several of you and been involved in crises in your parishes across the last couple of years, so I know that you appreciate very deeply what it means to be caught up in a crisis and what it means to have a very pragmatic approach to dealing with that crisis. So we added that. And finally, on pastoral applications, and then there are some resources for you.

In Matthew, it says:

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

So in Matthew we already have an imperative, an imperative which sets the stage for the order of events, even, let alone the actual actions that need to be taken in the course of coming to the altar, coming to the Gifts, that it assumes, literally assumes, that a reconciliation has in fact occurred and that that reconciliation is done both in truth and in act.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Paul’s lesson carries the same message to it that as a Christian community there is a synergy that exists within the community, a synergy that exists within the Trinitarian theologies of the Church, and one which then has its place to be replicated in the ordinary time of our life.

Difficult conversations: what’s a difficult conversation? What’s it look like? Well, it’s any conversation where you find it troublesome to speak about something with another person. So you can see how simple this definition is. Right now, just conjure in your mind a difficult conversation, one that you’ve had with your children, perhaps, or maybe your wife, or maybe a brother or a sister, or maybe, for that matter, the president of your parish council, or, for that matter, the woman who walks up to you and says, “You’re really not authentic, Father.” Just conjure it up, because that difficult conversation is really structured.

Here we’re following the work of Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, who have created a wonderful framework within which to understand these conversations, and they talk about the conversation at three different levels. That a conversation is difficult… it’s difficult because of the “what happened” part of the conversation, the “who said what” and “who did what” and “who’s right” and “what do they mean” and “who’s to blame” and “where’s the responsibility.” That’s the first level of a difficult conversation. So that I say to Fr. Olaf, “Well, you know, when I said this to you, you didn’t do what I told you to do, and because you didn’t, this is what happened, and it’s your fault.” There’s the opening salvo of the conversation. Some of you are smiling, because you know that salvo. You’ve been struck by it.

But there’s another part of a conversation, and that’s the feeling parts of conversations. That’s the part on “how will I handle what I’m feeling” and “what do I do about the other person’s feelings,” and these feelings keep leaking into the conversation. I say, “All right, I’m going to keep a stone face, and I’m not going to let anything show,” but your eyes are blazing, your foot’s going, your heart’s in your chest like this, you get a little sweaty on your brow, and you have a flight response. There it is. It’s real. It just happens, and you go: “I thought I had better control over myself.” But it’s not about having control over yourself at all. It’s about actually understanding what’s really involved here and what’s really coming to the surface here, how you’re really experiencing this, and the ease with which resentment rises suddenly, the ease with which it comes. And you say to yourself, “I thought I’d purged myself of this,” and there it is: the old friend with the big R came to visit again, you see?

Finally, the identity conversation, which is a very interesting conversation. It’s what the other people are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other. It’s also about that inner conversation we have with ourselves about: What does this mean to me? Am I not that good a priest? How did I blow this? What else could I have done? How’d I get myself in this trap? Don’t I really have these skills? What do you mean I’m not authentic? I’ve been working on this forever. Of course, only to find out, way down the road, that what the person was really angry about was something that happened when that person was a child around the pastor that they had, and the person’s been working it out on every pastor since. Had nothing to do with your identity; had to do with the working-out of someone’s personal history.

Finally, we conduct an internal debate about whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person; are we worthy of love? So you see, we have three things going on. That’s why conversations are difficult, and that’s why so much is going on, and that’s why resolving them is so difficult, because you can see that reclamation is occurring at every single level simultaneously, or over any period of a long period of time.

Now, what’s important here is we understand the impact of each of these ideas, but the solution is really in a learning conversation. And the learning conversation means that at some point you turn yourself. It’s that same notion that we have in repentance where we turn ourselves and start to see things from different points of views and behave in different ways and engage the world differently. It’s that same turning that happens when you enter a learning conversation. By its title, the learning conversation is one that’s driven by curiosity. What’s going on here? What’s happening here? In Matthew:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged, for with the judgment you make, you will be judged; and the measure you will give will be the measure you get. [...] First take that log out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

This notion here is that when you come into a learning conversation, you’re really entering a conversation that emerges out of your own deeper look at yourself, holding yourself accountable, asking yourself, “Where am I in this? Where was I ensnared? How did I fall into the trap? How did I find myself so quickly involved in a situation that I had no intention of ever being involved in?” So you hold yourself accountable so that it’s not a question of blame in the learning conversation; it’s a question of responsibility and claiming it and knowing about it.

Another piece of this is you begin to pray with an open and willing heart to know that—and what do we want to know? We want to know that we have different information and notice different things. Isn’t that remarkable? That we really don’t have the same information, do we? I become curious to speak with Fr. Timothy because I want to know: What did he know when he said that? Where was he coming from? When Fr. Joseph said X, Y, and Z, what did Father mean by Z? What was the motivation for Z? What was going on with it? In other words, I become curious, and I begin to look at that fact. We also have different interpretations of reality. So we don’t have…

Immediately what you begin to understand is that there’s no right here. First thing you understand is: this is not a game of “I was right.” That’s the first entanglement we have to get ourselves out of. If we move to a conversation to prove the point, and the point that I wish to prove is “I am right and you were wrong,” then we’re never going to have a learning conversation and we’re never going to come out of this thing with any sense of reconciliation or any relational sense between the two of us.

At some point we also have to know what the influence was of our own past experiences. I remember when this program was first developed. We had a breakfast over the program on negotiation at the Harvard Law School. They asked for a volunteer who had just had a difficult conversation, and I raised my hand right away, because I wanted the coaching; I wanted to be coached. Sheila Heen, who’s the third author on this, was my coach. It was a very difficult situation I was in, but through the process of her really coaching me, I began to be able to tap in to those levels, and because I tapped in I was able to formulate questions that allowed me to begin to find out what the different implicit rules were here. What had I assumed? What was I thinking? And what had the other person assumed and what were they thinking? And what were they feeling?

Then our conclusions reflect our self-interest, don’t forget. In any difficult conversation, you’re going to move to yourself. You’re going to move to protect your own interest. You’re going to move, actually, to protect the ground you stand on. Why? Because it’s that assault on your identity also. Some of these arguments are about the who of you, not the what of you but the who of you.

Understanding yourself—where are you, what do you want, what are you yearning for, where are you being dishonest, where’s your self-seeking, and of what are you frightened—that then sets a corset of questions that you can use in a split second to just do a very quick internal sort of survey, if you will, of yourself. This is a very difficult room to speak in, isn’t it? Because there’s a whole world over here, and it’s just a hard room to speak in.

Understanding that becomes very important. More from certainty to curiosity is the way. So you’re very interested in what the other person’s story is, and you want to embrace both stories as having validity. In other words, I want to see your point of view. Do you see the notion of both stories having validity? It gets away from the notion of “I’m right, you’re wrong; you’re right, I’m wrong.” It gets away from this tension. It acknowledges the reality of another point of view, so you don’t get trapped in the “I’m right” story. That’s the learning conversation. It doesn’t get trapped there.

As a matter of fact, it is a very careful voyage through assumptions and really looking at the assumptions we hold and have when we’re caught in these kinds of situation, become for you and I very important work. As a matter of fact, they’re acts of love when they’re really demonstrated very carefully. We disentangle, then, intention—their bad intention—and impact, or the consequences. We sit and disentangle that, and we abandon blame.

There’s an old set of phrases in mediation that we always use. Instead of naming and blaming, we name it and claim it. So it takes us away from name-blame, and it takes us to name-claim. It’s an ownership: Where is it? What’s my point of view? What’s my role here?

I was doing a mediation in small court. I enjoy small court mediations, being a bench mediator. It was over less than $2,000. They wouldn’t come to our court if it were more than $2,000. The guy stood up, and he looked at the kid who was suing him and said, “You are a blankety-blankety-blankety blank, and I’m not doing anything for you,” and walked out of the mediation. I let him go, and I sat with the kid, and I said, “Tell me what the truth is here. Why do you think he got so angry?” The kid looked at me and says, “I didn’t do anything.” I said, “He’s really responding to something that I don’t understand. Nothing happened here. What happened before you got here?” And the kid explained to me what had happened before he got there. The kid had had a public row with him, held him personally responsible in front of his workers, had accused him of cheating him, over-billing him, etc., etc.

I said to him, “Can you just sit here a second?” and I went out and played Henry Kissinger and shuffled over to the other guy, and I told him, asked him why did he get so upset, and he looks at me and he said, “This kid’s lying!” And I said, “Help me understand that, because there’s nothing in the documents that would suggest this great response from you.” And he recounts the same situation the kid recounts—from a very different point of view. So I asked him if he would come back in the room and share that with the kid. And he hesitated, and I said, “It’s an opportunity for you. I can’t force you to do it, nor can the judge. If you wish to come, you will come, but it would be lovely if you told him your point of view and maybe heard his point of view.” He said, “I’ll give him one more try. That’s it.”

And on that little piece of willingness and that ability to move to different perspectives and move a little bit away from abandoning blame and assumptions, we came to a nice settlement. The guy leaves, the owner of the company leaves, and he looks at me in the courtroom, and he says to me, “You really enjoy this, don’t you?” [Laughter] I looked at him and I said, “It’s a job like yours is.” He said, “No. You really enjoyed this.” I said, “Well, didn’t you?” He said, “Yeah, in the end I was really treated fairly. I can’t believe you accomplished that,” like he was shocked that this was possible. But that’s the goal. The goal is to shock us into the realities of what are possible.

So we seek to map the contributions of each, encouraging therefore learning and change. Remember that feelings matter. They’re at the heart of a difficult conversation. Exploring your emotional footprint, as Stone and this group talk about it: accept that feelings are normal and natural, and recognize that good people can have bad feelings. Learn that your feelings are as important as theirs, and don’t vent. Describe feelings carefully. Don’t vent. Venting is a therapeutic device that has no place in a difficult conversation or a learning conversation. It just has no place there, none at all. Share your feelings with such structures as “I feel.” It’s the I statement again. Express, without judging, attributing blame.

Finally, your identity part of this. Let go of trying to control their reaction. Prepare for their response. Imagine that it’s three months or ten years from now: What would it feel like? Where do you want to be? What will it take to get there? What are the obstacles in your path? How will you handle those obstacles? And how will you move this forward? The various series of little internal, strategic questions that have to be asked, just as if you were doing long-term vision planning for your parishes, you would ask the question “Who are we? Who do we say we are? How do we demonstrate who we are? How could we be doing it differently? What will we need to do to do that? And how will we measure our change?” That same strategic point of view you take in parish leadership is the same strategic set of internal probes that you would use with yourself, and the outcome would be equally, then, as positive.

“Restore each other gently,” it says in Galatians. “You who are strong,” it says: “you who are strong, come to the weak. Be willing to overlook minor offenses. Go with an attitude of love, centered on the other person. Talk privately first, and then get help if necessary.” Listen, listen, listen, listen! The most important thing you’ll ever do is—listen, nod, affirm. So that the other person knows that they’re being heard, not indulged. So the other person feels acknowledged and appreciated. So that the other person sees you awake to them. It becomes… sometimes it’s all you have to do, is to be able to sit there, and while you sit there, sometimes I just say the Jesus Prayer, over and over and over. So that nothing in me leaks out, so that there’s no disturbance. It’s just a setting in which you can do the very hard work of reconciliation.

I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart: I have overcome the world.

Fr. Joseph: Abouna John.

Fr. John Mefrige: We’re going to be tag-teaming and switching off. I’m taking the section on conflict. As a marriage and family therapist in the mental health field, there are various things that people struggle with internally, organizationally, but as a family therapist, relational conflict is 99% of what I deal with. For licensing you have to have over 3,000 hours; 2,000 have to be with marriages and families. So I’ve become… Could somebody straighten out the… Thank you.

I’ve become very… more comfortable in conflict, because that’s the area that I work [in]. Then I realized the Church is very much like a family, so I began to see parallels and similarities to this. I offer this quote: “Where two or three are gathered in my name… ...there will eventually be conflict.” And that’s normative. You should expect that.

Can I do just a quick poll? How many of the brethren in here have experienced conflict, noticeable conflict, in the last six months? Raise your hand. [Laughter] That’s professionally, pastorally, and ecclesiologically correct. It depends where.

But where does this conflict come from? James says, “They come from your desires for pleasure (or desires or passions) that war in your members,” so they’re connected with the passions, and they are therefore intrinsically an Orthodox concern, because we deal with the passions on a regular basis.

But let’s define it, just for our discussion. It’s a difference in interest, opinion, or purpose. There are various interests that we have, personally, professionally; different opinions—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there’s two or three opinions, easily”—or purpose. But it’s this difference that frustrates someone’s goals or desires. So it’s that frustration that causes the conflict.

There are essentially two types of conflict. Our tasks, as pastors, our tasks as therapists, are to take destructive conflict and turn it into constructive conflict. There is a way to do this, but you have to be able to understand [that] normally when we know we’re in a conflictual situation, we feel it in our gut. Maybe some of us feel it in our shoulders. There is a physiological response to that, and it’s generally the destructive type of conflict. Our task, at least often for me professionally, is to be stable within that destructive conflict and to help redirect it, to help modify it, to use that energy—because there’s energy there, and maybe that’s what he’s saying, that we enjoy conflict, because we recognize that it is [an] opportunity.

Let’s talk about destructive conflict. This is what many of us face in the pastoral life. This is what our bishops face on a regular, daily basis. Destructive conflict is often person-centered, so it’s either centered on you or someone else. It is highly emotional, confrontational: it’s in your face. Often I know conflict is coming, and you’ve heard it before. “Father! I’ve got a question.” When you hear that, you brace yourself, because you know something’s coming. It’s about past issues. “You didn’t do this” or “You failed to do that” or “How could you forget this?” or “How could you do that?” It’s about actions that were taken or not taken, and it often is concerned with issues of power, authority.

Constructive conflict. This is the shift that you have to take. Constructive conflict is the same conflict; however, it’s not about a person, but it’s about an issue. Instead of saying, “You did this,” you say, “Well, what exactly is the issue you’re talking about?” So depersonalize it. That’s how you turn destructive conflict into constructive conflict. What’s the issue? Get it out of here and get it into here. So from the stomach to the brain. It is ideological, and it’s a conversation. It may be a difficult conversation, but it is a conversation.

“How can we change this in the future?” In other words, rather than look at the past—I can’t change the past; I can acknowledge the past, but what I can change is the future. These are ways that we can do things better, and it’s about a principle. This is what constructive conflict looks like, and that’s how, engaging in a difficult conversation, you can start to redirect that powerful energy in a conflict.

Q1: Fr. John, in actions and omissions, what are the omissions?

Fr. John: Either things that I have not done or things that we could do better. There was an omission somewhere, there was a lacking somewhere. Sorry that wasn’t very clear.

Now, conflict isn’t always the same. There are different degrees of conflict, different strengths, but it always starts at a joint problem-solving level: “We have to develop the annual budget. We have to come to a decision about your compensation.” So it’s a joint problem-solving issue. Oftentimes that will escalate to a disagreement in principle. “We really have to take care of our youth” or “We really have to take care of our priest.” Well, you have a disagreement. What is principally more important. And you’ll have these disagreements.

When these disagreements are not resolved, it will escalate, and oftentimes it escalates into a contest. It becomes a win-or-lose situation, and when you get into this situation, you know it, and that’s when anxieties start to rise and we become a less objective person; we start to get into old behaviors from our childhood. Then when that really escalates, we enter into this fight-or-flight response which actually is a biological response. It’s from the amygdala, and it is powerful. Very often in churches you’ll see the fighting and then you’ll see the “flighting.” You’ll see the people leave the churches; they go to other churches because they have expressed their anger or their conflict by fleeing. Finally, fight-or-flight, you have what’s called an irreversible situation.

The key in the escalation of conflict is to keep things down here where they can be resolved, because the problem is not conflict itself. Marriages, we can see that it’s not a marriage where they’re fighting a lot that breaks up the marriage; it’s a marriage where they’re not resolving their fights, where things linger on for years and years and years that eventually deteriorate that relationship.

But how do we as Orthodox experience conflict in our churches? There was a study done in 2010 by Alexei Krindatch, the Patriarch Athenagoras Institute, in Berkeley, California. Those of you, many of you had filled out that census in 2010. I contacted Alexei, and I asked for the data specifically on conflict. So what we’re going to see now is the question, one of the questions in the survey: “During the past five years has your parish experienced any disagreement or conflict in the following areas?” These were the areas: finances, liturgy, program priorities, national Church actions, priest leadership style, priestly behavior, member behavior, and the use of facilities. These were the areas that measured where conflict occurs, and it’s here we’ll see that it is organized along the GOA (the Greek Archdiocese), the Orthodox Church of America, and the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. This is the first time these numbers are being put together like this, and I think you’ll find it very interesting.

Finances, budgeting. Let’s see how we did. As you can see, the Greek Archdiocese: 60% of the respondents said they experienced conflict in the area of finances. We can try to understand why, but at least let the numbers speak for themselves. Liturgy, which would include rubrics, services, etc.: again, the Greek Archdiocese is more conflicted than either the OCA or the Antiochian Archdiocese. But you’re saying it’s about 20-30% of that experience. Program priorities: once again, the Greek Archdiocese, over 30% responded in the positive, and OCA and Antiochian, around the same, 20%.

Priestly leadership (that would be style of priestly leadership). In that category, the Antiochians were the highest, a little under 40%, that the leadership style created conflict. Less so in the Greek and in the OCA. Priestly behavior: we had a workshop about dos and don’ts of priestly behavior. Well, I’m happy to report that the Antiochian priests were the most well-behaved. [Laughter] Sayidna, we’ve got a good bunch! [Laughter]

Member behavior: that’s the other issue. The priests are acting nicely; the priests aren’t causing conflict, but look at the members. That’s the behavior of the members, parish council members. In the Greek Archdiocese, over 50% of the conflict was centered around member behavior. And finally: use of facilities, which means schools, all the things of the parish. Again, the Greek Archdiocese: over 40% had problems with facilities. You can interpret these as they are.

But I think, barring the issues, the interest that we have in seeing the jurisdictional differences, it’s pretty consistent. Areas of finances will always be an issue, areas of archdiocesan, and then areas of member behaviors. So we’re going to look at, at least, member behavior as ways to help reduce these numbers.

The causes of conflict, well, of course, they have to do with misunderstandings; difference in values, goals, priorities, interests, expectations; competition over resources: your budget is a conflict because there’s only limited resources; also this idea of sinful attitudes, sinful attitudes and sinful desires, and that’s where we bring in the spiritual component; and, of course, stress caused by change. We heard at the camp a joke about change and the Orthodox. There’s another. The full joke goes like this. How many Protestant Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Well? No, first they’ve got to all hold hands and stand in a circle, and then they’ve got to tell that light bulb why it has to change to be saved. How many Roman Catholic Christians does it take to change a light bulb? The Pope has to tell a cardinal, the cardinal tells the monsignor, the monsignor tells the parish priest who tells the parish deacon who tells the janitor, “Change the light bulb!” And how many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?

Audience: Change? What’s change?

Fr. John: Light bulb? [Laughter] Yeah. We still argue on whether we have to use oil lamps or candles, so light bulb is a whole other issue.

How we respond to conflict is very important. The way we—you and I—will respond to conflict is unique, and it’s connected with personality. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument—it’s available online; you’ll see it in our online notes—it will help you to understand how you respond to conflict based on your individual, unique personality, because each of us will respond in different ways. There are really five different quadrants. I’m not going to go too much into it. When I do a longer retreat, I will actually administer the instrument, and I will help people to get an insight into their own conflict-management style and to help them develop a wider range. That’s available online.

The key that I think we’re trying to focus on is that there is a different way to handle conflict. If you’ll take a moment, we’re going to look at… We could leave… If we could turn out the lights, there’s going to be a little three-minute video. So if you’ll be patient, stay awake, we’ll take a look at this video about changing perspectives on conflict. The goal of this video is to help you see that conflict is not a bad thing as long as you know how to handle it.

[Video plays, with background music]

The conflicts that rage all around us can’t be solved by the Cross,
and I do not believe
I will find peace in my own life.
My problems are too big for Jesus.
I refuse to believe that
churches can be reconciled and come to live in peace,
but it’s because of God
we fight and quarrel.
It’s happening all around the world.
It’s what happened in Northern Ireland.
Yes, it’s what happened in my church.
Can people who hate each other ever come to be reconciled?
The Gospel doesn’t change things.
Only a fool believes
the reckless promise of God,
that there’s real hope in this broken world.
This is what I believe.

This is what I believe:
that there’s real hope in this broken world.
The reckless promise of God. Only a fool believes the Gospel doesn’t change things.
Can people who hate each other ever come to be reconciled?
Yes, it’s what happened in my church.
It’s what happened in Northern Ireland.
It’s happening all around the world.
We fight and quarrel,
but it’s because of God
churches can be reconciled and come to live in peace.
I refuse to believe that
my problems are too big for Jesus.
I will find peace in my own life,
and I do not believe
the conflicts that rage all around us can’t be solved by the Cross.

Dr. Bashir: It’s about metanoia. It’s about a change in perspective. It’s about recognizing that conflict is an opportunity to carry our cross: personal, corporate, sometimes organizational. I think as committed Christians to Christ, we have to encourage each of us to carry our cross, and there’s ways to do it in conflict. So the idea here is that we will look at conflict as an opportunity.

Just as an aside, there [are] at the end of this four different self-assessment protocols. I think what we would advise is that you do all four of them, because they each come at a different point in our lives. Excuse me. I’m getting over this bronchitis which I managed to pick up on June 6. I’ll tell you when I got it. And it’s still here.

The second thing is when Abouna John was talking about causes of conflict, I had a wonderful conversation recently with one of you about your own temperament. We’re learning about temperament, that system of reaction-and-response that you were born with. You didn’t ask for it; you got it. It actually shapes, we’re now finding out, how you respond or react to a myriad of factors. So let us assume that you’re an introvert. I’m an introvert. I can talk about introversion. I recommend the book Quiet for you if you’re an introvert, because it’s the finest study of us I’ve ever read.

But let’s assume you’re an introvert, and the leaders of your parish are all extroverts. They’re all gung-ho. They all have high expectations. They keep running like motors that never end. And you’re an introvert. Imagine the shearing effect that occurs between those two different personalities, and imagine the potential for conflict. So our own personalities set up situations in ways that you and I are not even aware of until we’re right in the middle of it. The more we know, the better-prepared we are and the greater is our repertoire of potential alternative responses.

Conflict is an opportunity. It’s an important opportunity because it lets other people grow through the practices toward a union with Christ. The references for that you can find scripturally on the overhead. But let’s take a look at response to conflict.

This is from Ken Sande. This is the Peacemaker Ministries. This is where it comes from. Both Abouna John and I have been trained. Abouna John is on a course to lead him into… This is ridiculous. [Coughs] All right, let’s try it again.

If you’ll notice here, I think you’ll notice… Please notice that it goes through three different portions. There’s this portion here which is an escape response system. There’s this portion over here, which is an attack response system. And then there are these options which recommend various forms of peacemaking responses. Let’s take a look at that.

This is the response, the escape response. If you begin to look at what are these escape responses here, you can begin to see that they include stuff like temporary non-solutions, conflict avoidance, making things worse, and blaming others. You can also look at the flight part of this, which was postponing a solution, procrastinating amid conflict… Can you hear me if I stand here? I’d rather stand here, because I can’t read with the wrinkle of the screen. Bad enough I have trifocals. Postponement of solutions, procrastination, and avoiding conflict. Some flight is good. That’s called “time out,” but that’s not the flight this is. And flee or report instances of abuse: sexual, child, elder abuse, etc. Or suicide: the loss of hope in conflict or extreme escape.

All of them are present. My ministry now is focused on the last one. My whole ministry is on suicide and suicide response right now. That’s where I’ve been for the last five years, looking at suicide and what constitutes the conditions under which suicide is envisioned by an individual as the only way to deal with the difficulty in life.

Attack responses. Boy, these attacks are amazing, because they’re assault, litigation, and murder. Pretty clear, huh? The use of intimidation, manipulation, gossip, slander, threats of violence—always makes conflict worse. Litigation: the attorney then becomes the hired gun. It becomes an adversarial system, and it’s not necessarily just. It may be quite the opposite of justice, although the way the culture frames it, it’s framed as a justice framework, when in fact it may be something very different [from] justice. And murder: ultimate destruction of the opponent, dehumanization, or destroying.

Finally, the peacemaker responses. Forms of forgiveness, choose not to dwell on an issue, not to allow an issue to grow. Reconciliation, primarily with relational or interpersonal issues, resolving issues, and true forgiveness. “No more will I hold this against you.” Finally, negotiation: material or financial issues, cooperative interest, satisfying legitimate needs on either side. And one more, which we will talk with you about, and that’s the assisted peacemaking, which is mediation or third-party neutral work, which I’ll talk with you about very shortly. And then finally arbitration, which is akin to a spiritual court solution. Our version of arbitration is spiritual court, or the decrees of the patriarch, His Eminence, the synod, etc. Those are our versions of that to the public. And finally accountability: formal Church discipline, excommunication, etc.


Fr. John: Forgiveness is part of the key towards reconciliation. Here’s an interesting quote by Thomas Szasz:

The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.

So the meaning is that you can learn from forgiveness.

Peace. We hear that in the Divine Liturgy and in the services of the Church time and time again. “In peace let us pray to the Lord… For the peace from above… For the peace of the whole world… Peace be with you all…” What is this peace that we keep talking about? Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) tells us that we know the priest is not just transmitting his own peace, but he is transmitting to the congregation the peace of Christ, and peace, therefore, we know is a gift, a gift from God.

But that gift, that love of God, equals the love of others. “If anyone says,” in 1 John, “ ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he’s a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” That’s hard. The love of God equals the love of others. We have that injunction in Matthew that we began our series with:

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar and recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

That is powerful to us who offer gifts at the altar. But how is that done? It’s done through reconciliation and forgiveness. In reconciliation, we trust in God’s compassion and mercy. This is Rembrandt’s depiction of the return of the prodigal son. The parable, very famous, that we’ve preached on many times—but that is the essence of forgiveness. But in that, in reconciliation and forgiveness, we have to take responsibility for the role that we’ve played in that conflict. Maybe it’s not the major role, but it takes two to make a conflict. What we do is, in taking responsibility, we allow ourselves to be restored and genuinely seek peace and reconciliation, forgiving each other as Christ has forgiven us.

The practice: how is that done, what are the steps to doing this? The gospel of Matthew makes it eminently clear. In Matthew 18, step one: if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone If he hears you, you have gained your brother. The first step is always private. It’s not public. It’s not on Facebook. It’s not on a flame email that you’ve sent to the Archdiocese listserver. It is private.

People in my parish know now, after eight years. They know that if they come to me and they say, “Oh, So-and-so did this to upset me,” they know that my response will always be, “Have you spoken to So-and-so? No? Come on. Let’s go.”

It is always the task to facilitate private reconciliation first, but if that doesn’t work, there’s step two: “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established.” Again, semi-private. It’s not for the whole church, it’s not for the parish council, it’s not at an annual meeting: it’s between two or three trusted individuals.

If that doesn’t work: “If he refuses to hear them, tell it to the Church.” That could be the council, that could be the priest, that could be the bishop. To the larger congregation. “But if he refuses even to hear the Church, let him be to you as a heathen and a tax-collector.” In other words, he is not part of the Church but—hold on a second. Now he becomes the object of conversion. Remember, the heathen… The Church is still there for the heathen and the tax-collector, but it is not necessarily the inner part of the Church.

So this forgiveness is the key to maintaining this peace. But how do we forgive? We forgive as God forgives. The sacrament of confession says “seventy times seven.” 490 times. My line at confession is, well, when they’re repeating the same sin over and over again, I say, “Okay, you’ve got about 482 more left, so keep going. God’s forgiveness is limitless so long as we are repentant. The idea of forgiveness in Scripture is using the word aphiēmi, which means, literally—it’s a banking term—it means the loosing of a debt, freely, unconditionally, and undeservedly. We don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, but we have been loosed from it.

Unforgiveness—this is the opposite of forgiveness. Holding a grudge, remembering a wrong… Sorry; sorry, I’m out of line here. Forgiveness. St. Silouan of Mount Athos: “Where there is forgiveness, there is freedom.” And that’s part of the key. It’s that forgiveness is freedom. Only through forgiveness can we enter into what St. Paul terms “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Metr. Kallistos (Ware) tells us that.

Forgiveness for us is being free. Forgiveness means released from a prison in which all the doors are locked on the inside. When we are unforgiving to others, the only person that we’re harming is ourselves. Forgiveness is freedom. To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to realize: the prisoner was you. How many times have we seen in our parish brothers and sisters that have held grudges against each other? They sit across the pew from each other. One brother sits on the left side, the other brother sits on the right side, and they are locked. They never talk to each other; their children are not allowed to talk to each other. Their cousins… I’m actually describing a part of my family. But what that does is that means that everyone is locked in this prison and no one is free any more.

Forgiveness frees you. It doesn’t say that the forgiveness was okay, that what you did was wrong. It’s actually loosing yourself. This is what I was talking about earlier, so the slides were a little out of order. This Christ-like forgiveness is an atoning sacrifice. It’s the difference between Christ paying for the consequence of our sins on the Cross… The Fathers talk about this as atonement theology. Sometimes there’s a disagreement between the propitiatory or the penal, but the idea is that Christ took on the consequence of our sins; he paid the price for our fall. But that’s what forgiveness is. It’s saying, “I’m not going to take payment.”

In forgiveness you have to promise… In real forgiveness, you have to say, “I’m not going to dwell on this incident any more. I’m not going to bring it up. I’m not going to use it against you, and I’m not going to talk to others about it. That’s real forgiveness. I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our or other relationships.” This is the quality of true forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not sentimental. It’s actually against your sentiments, because the sentiment is you want to hold onto that, you want to make them pay, you want to extract a pound of flesh. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It’s not forgetting. It’s not erasing. It’s not temporary, and it’s not accepting that behavior. Forgiveness is freedom for ourselves.

On the Sunday immediately before the seven-week fast of Great and Holy Lent, we celebrate Judgment Sunday, but it’s also [the] Sunday of Forgiveness. This is so important in the life of the Church that we have enshrined it in our liturgical tradition. At Liturgy on that morning, the gospel reading is this: If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses. The forgiveness of God is connected with our forgiveness of others.

This is a radical concept, and for those of you here in Pennsylvania, you remember the Nickel Mines incident. In the Amish schoolhouse where the children were slaughtered—and how did the Amish react? After their children were slaughtered and the killer turned the gun on himself, they went to the funeral of the killer and offered their forgiveness and respects to the family. That is radical forgiveness. That is forgiveness as God forgives. You can say what you want about the Amish’s choice in cars [Laughter], but their choice of forgiveness is a radically evangelical [one] and according to the Gospel.

The ceremony of mutual forgiveness: we’ve all gone through it. Sunday evening, sometimes Sunday after Liturgy. Forgiveness is not a feeling but an action that we take. It’s not emotions, but it is our will; it is a decision that we take; and it is deeply healing in our liturgical tradition. At vespers, the prosomia is, “Thy grace has shone forth and given light to our souls.” That light is the freedom from the bondage of unforgiveness.

Reconciliation. Christ’s ministry was primarily one of reconciliation, and if Christ’s ministry is primarily one of reconciliation, why are we not following in that path as well?

Mediation. This concept of mediation is part of that reconciliation. Here you see: “Judith sensed that the mediation would [take] more time than the half-day it had been scheduled for.” Mediation is hard work. To stand in between a conflict of a husband and a wife or a brother and a sister is hard work.

Moving towards forgiveness and reconciliation, a set of questions begin. Who are the individuals that are involved? What are the issues that are causing the conflict? What has occurred? What needs to occur? What options that can be taken for reconciliation to happen? What are the barriers? And how will these barriers be addressed? Who will conduct the conversation? Who will conduct the mediation?

The idea is that you have to pause. You have to prepare for the mediation. You have to affirm relationships. You have to understand interests, search for creative solutions, and evaluate options objectively and reasonably. This is the idea of using a third-party neutral. When you make an apology, there are ways to make an apology. You have to prepare someone to make an apology. It’s not “Oh, I’m sorry.” There are ways to do that, and these are all in the slides. We’re going to have to go a little bit quicker, because I think we took a lot of our time.

Crisis planning. Are you ready?

Dr. Bashir: Ready.

Fr. John: Dr. Bashir will speak a little bit about crisis planning, because oftentimes conflict goes beyond the relational, and a moral crisis can be dealt with.

[Inaudible audience question]

Dr. Bashir: Yes, yes, I’m going to do this very quickly and get through it.

Fr. John and I have been trained now in whole-parish mediation. I’m a member of a Christian Evangelical conciliation group in Boston where we literally will work with a whole parish over three or four days. It’s expensive for parishes, but sometimes it’s extraordinarily necessary. Can I have the clicker, Abouna?

Crisis planning. There are models that we have here. There’s the disciplinary-retribution model, and there’s the mediation model, and there’s a restoration model. Obviously we fall in the school of restoration. As you’ve heard just before this—I won’t reiterate it—but “planning for” means a lot. It means the archdiocese or the metropolitan; it means the auxiliary bishops in the diocese; the pastor; the parish; the victim or the victims; the family or the families; and the larger community. It means planning for when? So there are phases. No crisis is done ba-dump: Call the Met., “Let’s go do a crisis intervention.” There are phases. There’s the initial response and the pastoral visit. There’s the reporting obligations; there’s the briefing on the laws. There’s pastoral visit to the parish, whose purpose is to absorb shock, the pain, and the emotional response to the situation.

I come from Boston, and you know that the whole city of Boston has learned this response to crisis in the most difficult of ways. The entire city of Boston has learned this, as have other cities throughout the United States. But the messages that come from the Church, the statements of commitment of the Church, especially to the most vulnerable and to the protection of the most vulnerable, and they describe the Church’s plan for addressing that; it’s very critical.

For you, as a pastor, this first phase is very difficult, because you straddle two worlds: the civil, civic, secular world and the internal sacred communion world. So you are actually straddling two worlds in these opening phases. What is happening? When did it happen? What’s the criminal proceeding? What’s the replacement of the pastor if necessary? [The first phase] highlights the Church’s commitment to promoting the recovery of victims and families, including financial support for counseling; [indicates] resources, both short- and long-term for healing, and [describes] the Church’s plan for the prevention of future abuse. There’s a very systematic way… I’m not getting into it; there’s a whole bunch more, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because we’ll need some question time for you.

This entire outline of process is available to you online. May you never need it.

Q2: A person comes to you in your church, comes to confession, asks and says that they have forgiven the person who has deeply wounded them. Then they come back and say, “I have forgiven, I pray, and yet I still, every time that person’s name comes up, this flood comes upon me, and this has been going on for weeks, months.” Your response?

Dr. Bashir: Isn’t that the case with us? We think we’re done with something because we say we’re done, but, remember, there’s an emotional life; remember there’s something called “hurt”; remember there’s identity. So the person needs to be helped to continue to process internally the experience. I can do something cognitively, Abouna, but this does not equal this. And it’s very important for us to understand that that tension can exist here long after I have said to you, “I forgive you. I’ll forget about this. It’s over. I’m not using it against you.” It’s a cognitive decision. It’s not a decision of the heart to once and for all understand exactly what my experience was.

Fr. John: I’ll elaborate a little bit with an example that many of us may have experienced in a parish or seen or contacted people. Child abuse. A child that has come from an abusive house will spend the rest of their life dealing with the consequence of that sin, whether it’s sexual, physical, neglect. They will work on forgiveness for the rest of it. They will work on being free from that prison. It is possible, by God’s grace, through professional individuals. Maybe their freedom will only come in the kingdom perfectly, but they can work towards being not identified with [that] sin by God’s grace and through gifted individuals. So it’s possible. We always have to recognize that we don’t experience full healing here in this world. Sometimes it’s a process, certainly, and it’s often never complete. So: encouragement, support, prayer are all part of the process of forgiveness.

Dr. Bashir: And, Father, stay with them. Stay with them. Tell them this is a natural process. Tell them you understand how painful this is. Tell them that this is a difficult path they’ve chosen, and that the path will eventually lead them to a place where they can rest easier with it. But the difference between here and here is critical.

« Back