“Constant Kindness, Constant Gracefulness:” Leading in Conflict

Petr Cincala, on behalf of the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership: Thank you for being a part of this issue of the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership. As we begin, please share the story of your decision to enter ministry.

Skip Bell: I appreciate that question. It evokes a reflection on service. In my experience, it is about being at peace in terms of serving in a way compatible with gifts and calling. That process of deciding on vocational calling began when I was in high school.

I could not decide if I wanted to be a veterinarian or a pastor. The guidance teacher at our Adventist academy allowed me to shadow both careers. I spent a day with a veterinarian and loved it. Reflecting on the day in my dormitory room that night, I felt the decision was clear. “That’s it. It’s over. I don’t need to spend the day planned with a pastor! Ministering to animals— that’s it!”

But then I did a dangerous thing. I prayed. So, I reasoned, I ought to go through with my plan to shadow the pastor as well. The next week, a pastor pulled into the academy parking lot. We spent the day visiting members in their homes (that became somewhat mundane and boring!) and gave one Bible study. I found the Bible study meaningful. But then the pastor ruined it: the last task of the day was a committee meeting. I had to sit there for an hour and a half in a committee meeting. That night, I went back to the dormitory and said, “No, I just can’t do this.”

But again, I did a dangerous thing. I prayed. In the weeks that followed, I told myself, “Well, I don’t have to decide now.” In the American educational system, you can attend at least the first year—if not the first two years—of liberal arts education without declaring a major. So, I went to Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, with an undeclared major.

One night in the spring of my freshman year, at about 2:00 a.m., while praying in a nearby park, I made my decision. I would be a pastor. It seemed like I just could not escape that call. I could not set aside that sense of purpose in my life.

Was it specifically God’s calling? I cannot arrogantly assume an answer. I think when we, as humans, assert that we know the will of God, we do so with far too much dependence on human experience. I do know this: I have never looked back nor regretted that decision.

JACL: Thank you. As you think back to your early days in ministry, would you share a memory that really stands out and relates to conflict, especially in the context of leadership?

SB: I really appreciated seminary: the depth and the reflection, professors that made me think, question, and search. Blessed! And then I got out to the field to start my pastoral ministry!

I’d only been in my district about ten days when the head elder of one of my three churches called to notify me of a board meeting. Keep in mind, I had no internship or mentoring. My first thought (which went unspoken) when I received an invitation to the board meeting was, “I’m the pastor. This is odd. Of course, I ought to go to the church board meeting!” The night of the meeting, I arrived at the church 10 or so minutes early and was encouraged to see several cars in the parking lot. The church was small, so I considered this a positive indication of the dedication of its members.

When I entered, I saw a circle of chairs and that one had been saved for me— right next to the head elder. My thought was, “Well, that’s very kind.” As I sat down, we chatted a bit. Then I passed out the agenda that I had prepared in consultation with the head elder. It soon became obvious that was a new experience for them; they were not used to getting printed agendas!

We had a devotion. After the devotion, the elder cleared his throat and, with a thick German accent, said, “Now, Brother Bell, you come from the seminary. You come with ideas. That’s good. We listen. But the preacher, they come. The preacher, they go. We stay.”

Seminary tuition had been significant, but the lesson that night was invaluable! He taught me that a pastor is a part of a community—not in charge of the community. A pastor comes to a group of people, develops relationships with them, and, over time, trust develops. Only then, as part of a community, can the pastor and his congregates work together. Leadership is a relational process.

I have a brother who stayed as pastor in his last church for 23 years. He recounted to me that it took about seven years for the relationships and trust to develop so thoroughly that pastor and members could read each other’s thoughts, know the workings of their souls, and work as one team together.

JACL: It definitely takes time to become part of the community, especially if the church needs to go through some changes in order to stay alive and grow. In that context, do you have a story that you can share of a ministry situation in which you experienced conflict?

SB: Yes. I am part of a faith movement that could properly be characterized as “conservative Protestant.” There is a distinction between conservative and fundamental in terms of views of inspiration. Many of our members, however, move toward a more strident view of revelation and inspiration. They find themselves in league with fundamentalism. People find security in their certainty regarding their theological position. That provides fertile ground for disagreements, which are often not contained skillfully.

One such case. I was in the foyer before Sabbath School in the church I served. A young adult came rushing up to me. “Pastor Skip, we just got word. Our facilitator is ill. Can you step in and help our young adult group? We have a good group discussion, a good Bible study, can you just help facilitate today?” I answered, “Sure.”

The week’s lesson was on the sanctuary, and I reminded myself, “I’ve got to be careful.”

I began by asking, “How are you folks feeling about the learning from the sanctuary that we have studied this week? How is it guiding in your life?” The group proceeded to engage in a fruitful discussion. At some point, one of the people in the group said, “I’m not sure if we have to believe that the compartments of the earthly sanctuary and all that we experienced in the revelation given to us in the portable sanctuary are exactly as in heaven.”

I forget whether I may have nodded my head or if I perhaps said something. I know I was intelligent enough as a pastor to not overtly affirm the thought.

After lunch at home that Sabbath, the phone rang. There was a knowing expression on my wife’s face as she handed the phone to me. Sure enough, it was one of the elders from whom we both received frequent calls—a retired pastor who was extremely, I mean extremely, protective of tradition.

“Elder Bell. A group of us would like to visit with you. Could you come to the church this afternoon?” Now, I knew from experience that I needed to meet with them, but I also knew what might be ahead. When I arrived at the church, the elder had set up the meeting in the church library. There were at least half a dozen tape recorders and microphones set up and ready to go.

I privately mused over the situation for a brief moment. Then I began, “It’s so good that we’re here for dialogue. What’s on your mind?” I knew what was on their mind. They explained their concern that some might misunderstand the importance and uniqueness of the doctrine of the sanctuary in our faith movement. I listened. And I listened. By the end of an hour, their tape was filled with their concerns, and I was able to spend five minutes just confirming that we serve a graceful God who has provided for us in every context, in every stage of the history of His people, and the evidences of His grace and love are experienced in the earthly sanctuary that points us to the ministry of Jesus as our intercessor. Aren’t we blessed to have a High Priest as our intercessor, who has experienced our life and sacrificed Himself? And their voices were raised with “Amens.”

That is typical of a theological conflict. What I learned early on is that when somebody’s theological position is uniquely distinct, we are not likely to change their opinion. Listening to them and respecting them is the most helpful response. That isn’t to say that I’ve always been successful. Every pastor knows you can’t always be successful in dealing with theological conflicts.

Now, please understand. Not all conflicts in ministry revolve around theology! There are many other issues that provide ground for conflict: worldview, cultural differences, survival mentality versus self-expression or exploration, issues of power, and many more. My observation is that power is involved in every conflict in some way. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Power is an easy substitute for love.” When people are concerned about something, they turn to power as a shortcut to deal with their issues of conflict.

JACL: I want to explore a further area of your experience in leadership. What motivated you to accept the invitation to teach in the seminary, to educate ministers?

SB: I was happily serving the New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as the conference president. In October 1999, Russell Burrill (director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute) called: “Skip, we are looking for a faculty member in Christian Ministry. We would love to have you come. We really need to develop curriculum in the area of leadership. With your experience, it would be a wonderful challenge for you to focus in that area in the setting of the Adventist Church. If you prefer, we also need somebody in evangelism.”

My response was measured. I said what a person serving the church ought to say: “Thank you. We’ll keep that in prayer.”

A couple weeks later, he called again. “Skip, I just want to renew that conversation with you.” I said again, “Thanks. We’ll keep that in prayer.” Russell Burrill called me probably three or four times over the fall.

When I brought the conversation to the attention of a trusted mentor, he offered, “Skip, you’re a person who likes to be engaged in the action. I’m not sure you’d be happy there.” His response aligned with mine. Then in January, the dean of the seminary, Werner Vyhmeister, called and said, “We’re assembling a day for interviews and have narrowed our candidates down to a short list. We are inviting you to come to Berrien Springs for an interview.”

I needed to be somewhat more transparent, “I’m just not sure my interest level would warrant that energy and that expense. I’m very happy here. I really feel blessed in our work. We’ve got a lot going on.”

Werner replied immediately, “Skip, would you just join by telephone, do a phone interview?” I can remember stopping for five seconds, asking myself, “How do I respond to such an invitation with a sense of being prayerfully willing to go where God might lead?” I cautiously agreed to the phone interview.

During the interview, one of the faculty members from the department I would be in asked me this question: “Skip, you’ve been the leader of a team there in New York. If you come here, you’re going to be a member of a team. How are you going to feel about that?” In my mind, I launched into a lecture about servant leadership and what it means to enjoy relationships with others you work with. But outwardly, I carefully described how one Thanksgiving break, our entire conference staff and families vacationed together in a neighboring state, enjoying Thanksgiving time together. It is about relationships. I had loved being a part of the team.

A day or so later, I received a phone call. “Skip, we have voted a call for you. We’d like you to come and join our seminary faculty.”

I was prepared to say no, and I told them, as I had before, “Well, let me give it some thought and prayer.”

I did. We did. One night, as I lay in bed, something came to my mind. While there were many factors at play and many possible benefits of taking the call (both our children were repositioning themselves to the Andrews community), I realized that I was deciding to say no to the call because my identity had become merged with a particular position. And I liked it. I was president.

I had become fond of the life. I came to realize that position had come to provide a blessing through a certain accompanying identity—had in some subtle, unknown way come to dominate service. I knew at that moment I needed to say yes, so I did.

Do understand this. So often Joni and I have looked back at our 18 years as part of the seminary faculty and praised God for the opportunity. I was able to preach and teach on every continent except Antarctica, to be blessed in fellowship in the context of people around the globe, and to be a part of a wonderful thinking and serving community. I am so glad for that experience in my life.

JACL: Thank you for that transparency. How do you think education helps ministers become better prepared to deal with conflict?

SB: In the broadest terms, education creates critical thinkers. Education develops a sense of respect for diversity of thought. Education causes us to examine history not only over time— the story of human thought and progress—but to examine growth in our own thinking, our own personalities. That’s at the core of dealing with conflict. Skillfully dealing with conflict requires an appreciation—not mere tolerance—of diversity; appreciation for diversity of thought and of personal stories that are so often engaged in human conflict.

Conflict is constant, everywhere, and it is actually beneficial when we come to respect diversity, to listen to people’s stories, to honor and respect those stories, and to respond rationally and, on occasion, persuasively.

So, I think in the broader sense, education prepares a person to deal with conflict well.

I think in education for ministry, people need to spend intentional and significant time on the nature and reality of conflict, be able to identify the sources of conflict, and deal positively (and help members deal positively) with conflict. I think education is especially essential in leading a religious community.

JACL: Following up on that, if you were asked by a young pastor for practical tips for navigating conflict in ministry, what would you share with them? You’ve shared two: the importance of education and remaining positive. Can you add to those?

SB: Of course. When disagreements begin to escalate and you recognize it, help those involved focus on the issue rather than each other. Help them keep conflict at level one, where it’s an issue of dialogue and discussion rather than becoming personal.

Further, appreciate and understand that conflict is both constant and beneficial. You must learn to recognize when it begins to escalate and help people move from that escalation back to the real issue.

Another tip would be to watch for those moments when people begin to feel threatened by another person. I don’t mean a threat of physical violence. However, when a person with a strong theological position feels that belief is challenged, they often feel threatened. The person may become fearful of loss—the loss of something they hold dear. If somebody will listen to the fear and the grief, then trust can develop, and the conflict be kept at level one.

Another tip: help people understand their own personal conflict response style. One of the resources I might recommend is Speed Leas’s (1998) Discover Your Conflict Management Style. Provide a conflict management workshop, not as a response to an escalated conflict but as a learning experience, in which people discover their own conflict response style and where it comes from. People form a response style within what they have experienced in family, peer group, neighborhood, school, young adult life, and in the circumstances of history during early through late adolescence.

Another tip. Learn to acknowledge people. Affirm them in some way, even when they become emotional. Suppose a person is upset because a piece of furniture they built for the church 20 years ago got tossed away during a church cleaning day. Instead of only hearing their emotion and saying, “Calm down. You don’t need to feel that way,” you might respond, “Wow, you really put a lot of work into that. And that was a gift of love, wasn’t it?” Your acknowledgement is an expression of appreciation and understanding their feelings.

The final thing I would suggest is to have a communication skills workshop in your church! Conflict management is well served by developing good communication skills.

JACL: In certain situations, people are triggered to respond. Say, for example, someone may have been involved in a nasty situation in the past that was not completely resolved. What would you recommend?

SB: People carry old wounds, often for years. Emotional or mental wounds can injure our faith or trust in others. To respond to your question, when a person has an old wound, listen to the story. Say, “I’m sorry.” Identify your sense of sorrow, even though the issue may not have involved you at all, and ask for forgiveness and trust, but do not ask in a context that requires a response. Then, simply be with them. Be a person of integrity over time.

Let me again share a personal story. I related as a conference administrator to a person who had been terminated from the conference-owned boarding academy many years prior to my arrival. He had stayed in the community. This person would frequently create conflict over one thing or another. The church pastor wisely knew that the dissonance was because of the old wound, and when I received letters of concern regarding something going on at the church or the academy, I also knew it was the old wound.

One summer at camp meeting, a sudden and serious thunderstorm swept through our grounds on the last Saturday night. People had to hastily evacuate into various buildings on campus. We were still cleaning up in the early hours of the morning—some members, conference pastors, the office team, and myself. I saw this wounded soul coming from 60–80 feet away. “This is the last thing I need,” I thought. “He is going to say, ‘This is a curse of God because we are unfaithful.’” Instead, he came to me and threw his arms around my neck and wept and wept and wept.

And he asked for forgiveness. We prayed together. We both knew we needed to get back to work soon, but he described the emotions he had been having in the past three hours as he had been working with others. He realized that we were all simply endeavoring to serve, and he needed to let go of his hurt.

You listen to the story. You say you’re sorry. You relate. It may take years. What you must never do is allow your ego to control that relationship.

JACL: Thank you. Any final thoughts?

SB: God desires peace. He appreciates diversity. It’s evident in His creation. He is so gracious with us. In Jesus Christ, we see a person (God incarnate!) who was kind and graceful: constant kindness, constant gracefulness. If we’re going to minister to people in conflict, we must work and deal with every situation with unending grace.

Oh, and let me recommend just two of many books that have been really helpful resources for me and others:

Barthel, T. K. & Edling, D. V. (2012). Redeeming church conflicts: Turning crisis into compassion and care. Baker Books.

Mayer, B. S. (2012). The dynamics of conflict: A guide to engagement and intervention. Jossey-Bass.

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