Many of us fear confrontation. We often look at the escalating tensions that are created in confrontation as immediately divisive, and generally destructive. Quakers are known for their peace testimony, and at times this can degenerate into a permissiveness that can result in the death of peace itself. Yet true peace can never come from sticking our heads in the sand; it can only come when dialogue has taken place, issues are resolved, people are held accountable, and a mutual understanding prevails. Rather than deal with a situation immediately, at times we allow it to fester until it turns into something much larger and harder to deal with than it should have been. Rather than do the pruning work of confrontation when is like an easy shoot to pick off with our thumbnails, we can–through neglect–allow it to thicken until a chainsaw is needed.
Matthew 18:15-16 reminds us how we are to deal with confrontation in the church:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
If someone refuses to listen, treating them like a tax collector or pagan is not a rejection; it is a call to go back to square one if you will. It is a call to treat them as an unbeliever, which calls for an extra measure of grace. This scripture calls into question our usual practice of avoiding the person with whom the conflict lies and seeking out other people as sounding boards for us to vent our frustrations. This can quickly become what Edwin Friedman called “triangulation,” an unhealthy third-party relationship built by an overly anxious person to vent their anxiety on anyone other than the very person who is causing that anxiety. Nothing good will ever come from this type of avoidance. Jesus, in a sense, calls us to “conflict;” a constructive form of conflict that aims to restore our relationships. So often we settle for something less than full restoration, and Quakers are just as guilty of it as anybody else, especially when it comes to confronting those in leadership positions.
Our next covenant statement reminds us, “We will address conflicts with our pastor and each other in a direct and loving manner.” Not to go kicking the hornet’s nest here, but I will admit as a pastor I hardly get any feedback. At all. About anything. Sometimes no news is good news, but when you don’t get any feedback for a while often people will begin to wonder, “is something wrong? Are people afraid to talk to me?” Pastor’s are regular people, they wrestle with fear just as every other person does.
I personally like that the Covenant statement uses the word “direct.” One of the biggest frustrations in the church is the illusion that communication has taken place. We are not mind readers, nor are we expected to be. We can expect that other people realize how much their actions affect us, yet if we don’t actually communicate with them, we shouldn’t be surprised at their amazement when our emotions finally explode. What is expected of each of us is not that we would walk around on eggshells afraid to offend one another (pastor or no) but that we would have clear communication; that we would have strongly rooted relationships that could withstand the risk of confrontation, and that we would actually live as if this were so. Communication–especially communication that could lead to confrontation–is a messy thing; it calls us to demonstrate grace to one another, to offer forgiveness to one another, and to be honest with one another. Though challenging, the fruits it brings are worth the work involved. There are no shortcuts to this kind of fruit, and there never will be.
Our covenant statement calls us to settle for nothing less than a real relationship; a relationship where we hold one another accountable and make our intentions and frustrations known. Conflict can actually be constructive, because often needs and expectations are finally communicated clearly rather than bouncing around in our heads magnifying resentment. It can be an extremely creative force in a loving community.
I for one do not want a superficiality in my relationships at College Avenue Friends that allows ticking time bombs to keep ticking out there in the dark. I expect people to be direct with me, whether tactfully or untactfully so. I am human. I am young. I am learning how to be a pastor. I am bound to make mistakes. I am bound to miss the mark, just as everyone else is. Seminary training does not make me a superhero. At times, I like everyone else, will need the truth spoken to me in love. Do not let the fear of not having the perfect words rob you of the opportunity to bring the truth back into the focus of your pastor.
In a Friends church there is zero theological basis for putting someone up on a pedestal. The “mantle of authority” that other denominations put upon their pastors does not go along with the radical Quaker understanding of the priesthood of all believers. This understanding of a pastor from within (we are all pastors) means no one should ever fear confronting a pastor who has missed the mark out of fear of “raising their hands against the Lord’s anointed.” While I still believe serving as a “pastor among pastors” is a high calling, and I believe I am to live a life that strives for being above reproach, that does not mean I will never fail at anything or will never need growth in some areas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for trouble. I am not trying to invite a bunch of nit picking or hair splitting by asking you to hold me accountable and keep me humble.
Ultimately, I am not inviting criticisms of performance related issues, though there is at times a place for that. What I am asking, and what Matthew 18 calls all of us to demonstrate, is confrontation based on extending faithful action where there is unfaithfulness, to send love where love has been lacking. I am inviting you to examine the spiritual fruits of my life, not necessarily to judge me. And when (not if) you find fault, I invite you to confront me directly. I hope you can love me enough to do this, and I hope–when the tables are turned–that you will recognize the heart behind it when faithfulness requires I do the same for you.