A few years ago, my pastoral colleagues passed around a picture on social media of a person crying with the caption, “When I was a kid, I thought everyone in the church got along.”
Identifying the source of the conflict in a church can be tricky, because what people are really upset about isn’t necessarily what they say they’re upset about.
Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a church argument that, after the fact, seemed strange?
Fights over not having enough tablecloths to use during a dinner. What the pastor wears on Sunday morning. A stain on the youth room carpet.
Seemingly small conflicts have real potential to divide a congregation, but may also not really be what the people involved are upset about.
One of my favorite sayings in ministry is, “this is not about that.” That is, whatever the presenting issue is (such as a complaint about tablecloths), is really about something else that won’t be as apparent (worries over finances that have resulted in no tablecloths).
People decide it is easier to voice the former than deal with the latter. The “this” is usually external and the fault of someone or something else. The “that” involves addressing something in the congregation’s life together.
These things involve a great deal of honesty and imagination to address and may involve a larger shift in direction that seems scary and uncertain.
Philosopher Rene Girard proposed that this is why people look for scapegoats. A group seeking relief from anxiety will subconsciously designate one person or subgroup as the cause of its problems. If only they were removed or marginalized, then we could finally move forward. Doing this is easier than addressing the underlying issues in which everyone has a part.
It may not come as a shock that churches do this. Attendance is down? It’s all those new people moving into the neighborhood. Logjam on an issue being discussed by the governing board? Blame the one providing the dissenting voice. Younger people don’t seem as interested in participating? It’s because the pastor isn’t doing enough.
Each of these issues has many more dynamics at play, but it’s simpler to blame someone or something instead of working to name and deal with the real cause.
But if faith communities had the courage and the patience to dig in, get their hands dirty, fess up to their anxiety and do that work (including apologizing to the scapegoats), how much of a difference would that make for the long term?
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. In his free time, he enjoys playing music, reading, and keeping up with Michigan sports teams. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.