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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Transforming Church Conflict" (Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger & Theresa F. Latini)

TITLE: Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action
AUTHOR: Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (184 pages).

All communities over time will experience conflicts. Churches too. It is not about whether conflicts will occur or not. It is a question of when. Knowing this fact of life, perhaps, since conflicts are going to happen anyway, why not learn how to positively deal with it? Rather than let conflicts deform and destroy relationships, why not use them as opportunities to transform people and the Church community? This calls for compassionate leadership. Based on their experience and knowledge of "Non-Violent Communications," developed by Marshall Rosenberg, the authors learn of eight ways in which NVC can be used to transform Church conflicts. Below is my paraphrase.

  1. From Criticisms to Opportunities for Greater Understanding;
  2. From Disengagement to Dialogue;
  3. From Hurting to Healing;
  4. From Dismissive to Meaningful Expressing of Oneself;
  5. From Nonchalance to Compassion for People;
  6. From Anger to Healthy Application of Such Emotions;
  7. From a Distant Observer to a Mediating Brother;
  8. From Indifference to Authenticity.

The core approach in the entire book is based on the NVC model: Observation; Feeling; Need; Request. These four need to be cognitively understood and internalized. Approach conflict with a desire to learn about others and ourselves. Address meaningless violence with meaningful reconciliation. Through honesty and compassion, boldness and creative communications, we can experience more hope and joy as conflicts are transformed into opportunities for growing in greater understanding. The three broad strokes of the book can be summarized as: 1) Identifying feelings in "concrete, practical, and accessible terms"; 2) Understanding the underlying needs in various parties; 3) Developing effective communications.

A) Basic Skills in Compassionate Communications

Compassionate Communications essentially means meaningful connections. Through NVC, one learns to connect with self, others, and God. A good start will be renewing the mind. This renewal of the mind requires honouring people as children loved by God. It respects the "creatureliness of humans," idiosyncrasies of people, and mutual honouring of humanity. This approach helps one to be rooted and grounded in love, by appreciating the beauty of human needs. Needs such as the well-being, the unique distinctiveness of people groups, ethnicity, culture, and the feelings of people. Connecting with people at their felt needs is essential to compassionate leadership.  Such needs are many.
  • Need for connections
  • Need for physical well-being
  • Need for Honesty
  • Need for Peace
  • Need for Play
  • Need for Meaning
  • Need for Autonomy
  • ...
An important observation the authors make is the need to distinguish needs from strategy. The former is a shared universal value. The latter is context specific. For every one specific need, there can be multiple strategies to address that need. Thus, being able to differentiate and translate the need well is key to determining the strategy. This identification of needs must then be considered from a Christian perspective instead of letting it become enthroned into a god in itself. Being rooted and grounded in God's love will allow all to build their communications and reconciliations upon God, rather than self. 

It is also important to distinguish thoughts from feelings The former describes our interpretations and thinking. The latter reflects an evaluation of oneself. This distinction helps one to recognize how some statements communicate thoughts vs others that communicate feelings. The authors are careful to argue that thoughts and feelings are not easily dichotomized, and the distinction is basically to clarify and expand the understanding of each of them. They then describe the four different dimensions of emotion: basic, nuances, mood, and temperament. Being able to express these emotions well and anchor it on Christ is a critical step in reconciliation. 

Observations and requests are next. Making clear observations Avoid evaluation and judgements in our observations. Encourage clear observations by being specific, responsible, appreciative, and to be like Jesus in seeing people the way they are. Making effective requests are strategies that help contribute to universal human needs. Again, these requests need to be 1) context specific; 2) positively stated actions; 3) Not demands. Anchored again on Christ, these requests lead to a overall betterment of the community in God. 

B) Understanding Needs Through Empathy, Self-Empathy, and Honesty

Empathy is an essentially deep listening. This means three things: listening deeply to others, understanding oneself, and learning to express oneself in relation to what these needs. It is because God is able to listen with an open heart, we learn that compassion essentially means listening like the inner nature of God. The willingness to listen also means the willingness to share and even suffer with another.  The calling of the Church is to share and participate in the ministry of compassion. Compassion is an attribute of God. Sympathy is spontaneously sharing in the feelings of another. Empathy provides a depth of understanding beyond the level of sympathy. When coming to the point where one resonates with the feelings of another, one will have learned empathy. The three responses below show how one can move deeper into empathy.
  1. Listening+Sympathy: Listening and Reflecting content;
  2. Sympathy+Feelings: Listening and Reflecting content with feelings;
  3. Empathy: Connecting feelings with needs.
What is most helpful is the way the authors list the different kinds of unhelpful listening postures: advising, one-upping, educating, analyzing, storytelling, minimizing, sympathizing, interrogating, reassuring, avoiding, diagnosing, judging. When we learn to avoid telling people what to do, and to accept people as they are, we are more ready to listen without judgment.

Self-Empathy is self-love. The authors take pains to distinguish this from selfishness and self-denial, and then point out a paradox of life. Unless we learn to love ourselves, we cannot effectively love others. Unless we learn to deny ourselves, we cannot effectively love God. Both loving self and neighbour must be grounded in God's love. The key is to love ourselves without elevating ourselves about God and neighbours. There is a difference between self-pity and self-empathy. The former feels sorry for self and ends up clamming up oneself. The latter is healing and empowering, and opens up to possibility and growth. This is particularly important for those doing pastoral care. Crucially, good self-empathy can reveal true needs within ourselves. When we become attuned with self, we become better carers and givers. Find a word that unlocks our understanding of our needs. Eugene Gendlin's use of "focusing" is about teaching us how to accurately connect our bodily movements and feelings with the right word that connects feelings to needs. One example is self-judgment, which is not connecting feelings with needs appropriately. Instead, self-judgments are statements made to cover unmet needs. There are clusters of unmet needs in many people, and as one uncovers each one more and more, one learns appropriate self-empathy. This also helps in prayer.

Finally, honest self-expression in love can be done when one's needs are uncovered, met or appropriately addressed. In order to help another person's well-being, one needs to be well. The authors also make use of the four basic skills of NVC compassionate communications here. Honest expression means:
  • O: Making observations rather than evaluations
  • F: Identifying and expressing feelings rather than mere information
  • N: Connecting to needs rather than mere content
  • R: making requests rather than demands
Learning to speak the truth in love also requires learning to handle our own anger or various expressions of frustrations or negative emotions.

C) Communicating

The final part of the book deals with the path of healing, staying in dialogue, and an all-important transformation of Church conflicts. In healing, the aim is for helping the grief-stricken with more tender care, compassion and understanding, and to equip others to do the same. Mourning is a way to heal too. Healthy mourning is having a sense of loss and regret without the desire to blame or shame anyone. The cycle of transforming pain moves through the NVC model of observation, feelings, needs, and requests.

Staying in dialogue is essentially for people working together, especially ministry workers. The example of Michelle and Diane shows us how people with deep disagreements can remain in dialogue authentically. This is particularly important as because we are all so different, we need to learn how to be united as one even when opinions sharply differ. Two kinds of connecting requests are advocated: 1) mirroring requests so that one can accurately communicate what was said; 2) requests that elicit feedback that shows our personal reactions and responses. Connecting well is a huge leap in compassionate communications.

Finally, there is the issue of Church conflicts. If not handled well, the conflict can spread like wildfire, that potentially can destroy not just property but lives as well, not to include the negative publicity and testimony that comes with it. There need to be leaders who are open and honest about themselves as well as the Church situation. There need to be a common objective of restoration and healing. There need to be connections. There need to be a shift of fear and suspicion to faith and trust. 

So What?

I am amazed by the depth of coverage with regards to understanding emotions. The NVC cycle is indeed a powerful tool that looks simple at first, but challenging in practice. Challenging not because of the theoretical concepts, but in terms of the willingness of individuals and groups to adopt it. Theory is one thing. Practice is another. Thus, the authors place special emphasis on making sure that the concepts are well supported by practical tips and steps. I appreciate the way the authors have structured the book, beginning with listening, progressing toward feelings, connecting feelings with needs, and eventually self-expression. A curious thing is the title which is only covered explicitly in the final chapter. Readers may wonder why. I believe the authors have intentionally delayed their prescription for "Transforming Church Conflict" by addressing individuals first. That is a very profound understanding of what Church means. Church is about the "Ekklesia" the called out people of God. The people of God are made of individuals. Christ loved and died for individuals. Each of us needs to establish that relationship with Christ first, and from that relationship, build that on the Church, the people of God, the body of Christ. By spending considerable time on helping individuals discover themselves, and to relate to one another, the groundwork for reconciliation and restoration would have been done. Readers will realize that after reading nine chapters into the book, they will be so familiar with the terminology and concepts of the NVC compassionate communications, that they will not be distracted by the details of the conflicts, but to listen to the underlying feelings and needs.

Let me give three reasons why you should read this book.

First, conflict is way too common to avoid or ignore. We need more solutions rather than merely identifying problems. Thus, any resource that contributes more solutions than problems are to be welcomed. This book provides the NVC resource to help churches deal with any conflict, mainly because all conflicts are relational.

Second, conflicts are more often a relational problem rather than a material problem. Many disagreements arise not out of the disagreement per se, but a lack of attentive listening to one another. Without accurate connections of feelings to needs, one cannot resolve anything. Worse, if one has unmet needs and is unable to recognize their own needs in the first place, the problem only increases exponentially.

Thirdly, knowing conflicts will happen only in a matter of time, what better way than to show the world that believers can strongly disagree but still beat as one united body. Didn't Christ say that if we love one another, all people will know that we are his disciples? It is one thing to disagree. It is yet another to disagree and speak the truth in love, knowing that the disagreement is not going to change the love. It is only an opportunity to learn more about each other.

I highly recommend this resource for all leaders and people interested in the well-being of self, people, and their communities. As I read the book learning about how churches and people can transform conflicts into meaningful connections, I find myself being challenged to be a better listener, to learn to connect feelings to needs, and to remember that God's love compels me to be an agent of transformation, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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