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“IF ONE OF YOUR NUMBER HAS A DISPUTE WITH ANOTHER”:

A New/Ancient Pastoral Paradigm and Praxis for Dealing with Conflict

Carl D. Schneider

The current crisis of pastoral care is reflected in the increasingly shared recognition that the old model is no longer adequate. It has not encompassed the needs and concerns of minorities, African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, victims of abuse and violence. It has not transcended the individualism at the core of its model or dealt with the institutional and social determinants that create and perpetuate the structures of oppression and injustice that cripple, deprive, and exclude so many persons–and yet few alternatives have appeared to take its place. Though we keep railing about the inadequacy and idolatry of individualism, reminding of the importance of social justice, and urging the need for a social consciousness and context for pastoral care, until recently social theory has by and large failed to make available a framework and technology equally compelling and usable to organize pastoral care.

True, social theory has enabled us to identify and analyze the impact of many social issues. Witness this volume: It is organized around a long list of issues with which we wrestle–political and economic concerns, race, sex, abortion, gender, aging. But, as the sociologists Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger have noted (1991), classical social theory–Marx, Durkheim, Weber–is highly abstract. Its horizon is the macrostructure, with little guidance as to how to deal with all this in micro process. The result is that most of us have little sense of what a technology of social change would look like. When we try to tackle social issues, we often sound ideological and rhetorical, with little sense of direction or concrete means of implementation to guide us in any practical way.

The psychological model, on the other hand, which has so dominated the modern pastoral care movement in the United States, provided precisely that: a practical guide to how to help people individually. Although the therapeutic model has been roundly criticized and frequently lamented, rarely has the reason for its dominance been noted: modern psychotherapy supplied a theory and practice that could readily be appropriated by the church. Few images and technologies have been available as an alternative. The role of Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers in the pastoral care movement has many critics, but the metaphor of individual psychology (and more recently, its complement, systems theory) has shaped pastoral care for two generations because it has had few viable competitors. Pastoral counseling centers embody the technology of therapy, offering training programs that impart the skills necessary to help people concretely. Seminary courses in pastoral counseling are also standard fare in training even pastors not specializing in pastoral care.

A NEW MODEL

I want to propose, however, that a new model, with an accompanying technology, is now available. That model offers an alternative approach to handling conflict, the concern of this volume and the problem of which our American church, with its culture of politeness and “niceness,” is so afraid. The new model, conflict mediation, has significant continuities with therapeutic care and counseling, but also significant differences. It stands as a distinct professional and theoretical model that can be appropriated by the churches to supplement pastoral care and counseling in important ways, giving ministry a competence in working with social conflict that it has not had in the therapeutic pastoral tradition.

In the last two decades alternative dispute resolution (ADR) has become a movement in the United States. It is reshaping the way we handle disputes in many arenas, especially with respect to our legal system. It is called “alternative” dispute resolution because it has appeared as a viable alternative to the adversary system, which is the formal name of the American legal system, which has been the normative forum for dealing with disputes in our society.

Alternative dispute resolution encompasses many mechanisms, including arbitration, mediation, multi-door courthouses, and early neutral evaluation. In this essay, I want to focus on just one component of ADR, mediation, and talk about its usefulness to the church.

Mediation is a method of helping people and disputes through the use of a neutral third party, who assists them in reaching a voluntary agreement. Mediation is a method of handling conflict that has been used by many cultures throughout the ages (cf. Augsburger, 1992). For many, it has been the primary method employed to resolve disputes. However, American society has made very limited use of mediation.

I personally practice divorce mediation. Normally I have to explain to people what I do, because most people have never heard of divorce mediation. It arose only within the last two decades, after an attorney named O.J. Coogler himself went through a difficult divorce and felt that “there had to be a better way.” He devised the idea of mediation–of a neutral third party working directly with a divorcing couple to arrive at the agreements they need in order to divorce–as an alternative to the adversary system where someone else, lawyers or a judge, makes decisions for the divorcing couple.

Divorce mediation is the best known use of mediation in a family conflict, but mediators work with a broad range of family conflicts -family-eider care, parent-child disputes, family-school conflicts such as special education disputes, and so forth.

Mediation also can and has been used in other areas of our society; for example, the United States has had a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since 1945. Many of us, however, know of mediation only when we hear on a newscast that mediators have now been called in to resolve some kind of deadlocked labor, school, or international dispute.

Few lay people have had much direct experience with mediation. Yet in the last two decades, mediation has appeared in a wide variety of contexts in the United States, from the development of a network of Neighborhood Justice Centers and Community Mediation Centers, which largely handle interpersonal and local disputes (landlord and tenant, barking dog complaints, and the like), on through large-scale public policy mediation of important environmental disputes.

Unfortunately, to date this development seems to have made little inroad with the church. This is regrettable since mediation holds the promise of offering a model for the church every bit as powerful as the psychotherapy model which fueled the growth of an entire profession-that of pastoral counselors (membership in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors now numbers approximately three thousand).

THE PROBLEM

There are probably many reasons why the church has not handled conflict well and why so many calls for advocacy and social justice go unheeded. To respond would mean changing the power balance and, for many, losing privilege. There are financial implications: Conflict threatens funding. To deal with social conflict is hard work; it is complex, confusing, and so on. But one particular reason is that many people don’ t know how to deal with such conflicts. We have lacked a praxis, if you will, for conflict. And this is precisely the promise of mediation: It offers a technology for dealing with conflict that avoids both the limitations and the deformations of the adversary system. The adversary system is limited because it is time-consuming, expensive, and cumbersome. Its deformations are that it is organized in a way that pits people against one another in a contest the outcome of which is usually a win/lose solution.

The reader may wonder what all this has to do with pastoral care. Is this not the domain of the legal system? Yes, except that our legal system colors for us how we handle disputes throughout our society. It is a peculiar characteristic of American society that we typically frame disputes in terms of individual rights, a product of our viewing disputes in terms of legal rights and entitlements. Most Americans fail to recognize how distinctive and singular our system for resolving disputes is. With a lawyer for approximately every 350 citizens, we have developed what Jerold Auerbach calls “the most legalistic and litigious society in the world” (Auerbach, 1983, 3).

A PARABLE

It may be helpful to step back for a moment and look at a simple dispute and how we go about solving it. My wife and I have been disagreeing about where to go for vacation this year. I think we should go to the mountains, preferably Vermont, a beautiful state. But she has just built a canoe and wants to go to the Okefenokee swamp. To me, that is hot, sticky, and there are no mountains. We have been arguing over this for weeks. We cannot agree. What do we do? What does anyone with a conflict do?

Sometimes compromise works. Except I feel I have compromised too much already. Sometimes taking separate vacations works. But I feel we have been apart too much. That is not acceptable to me. Sometimes flipping a coin works, but this is too important for me to settle in so arbitrary a manner.

When people are stuck in disputes, they argue, often for a long time. Eventually, however, if they are unable to resolve the dispute themselves, they usually begin to involve third parties. My wife talks with her family, telling her mother how insensitive I am. I go out with some of my buddies, and complain about how difficult it is to understand women. Neither of these strategies is likely to resolve the dispute.

But, still stuck, we may have to turn to other third parties. We start near at hand, perhaps asking help from our pastor, or a therapist. If finally that does not work, at an impasse, we may have to turn to attorneys and the courts.

We often have disputes we ourselves are unable to resolve, but which, with the help of third parties, we can work out. There is, moreover, a continuum of third parties to whom we can turn, a continuum that runs the gamut from the private to the public, from the voluntary to the coercive, and from the informal to the formal.

PRIVATE family, friends, clergy, PUBLIC
VOLUNTARY therapists, attorneys, COERCIVE
INFORMAL courts FORMAL

The people to whom we turn first are at the informal, private end of the continuum, that is, family and friends. When we turn to clergy, the context is more public since we are involving a professional, yet it is still fairly informal since we often simply drop in to talk and the advice we are given is flee. By the time we see a therapist, it is becoming even more public, since we have never seen this person before in our life until we had this problem for which we needed help. But it is still relatively voluntary; the therapist, one of those people who try to “help” us make the decision, has no decision-making power himself or herself. Nevertheless, seeing a therapist is more formal: We now need to schedule an appointment and pay money to this person.

If we end up seeing attorneys and going to court, this is at the far end of the continuum of the formal and coercive: Unable to make a decision ourselves, we find that the courts will impose one on us. Should we not like the decision and fail to comply, the courts have the formal police powers of the state behind them and can hold us in contempt.

If all this seems like an extreme way to deal with a family impasse over vacations, we might pause to consider how frequently we find both the church and our society resorting to exactly such drastic measures to deal with differences and disagreements that may be difficult to resolve, may need communal involvement to get unstuck, but are hardly irresolvable. Perhaps it is a mark of sin that we so quickly capitulate to the powers of alienation and fail to bear witness to the reality of reconciliation to overcome separation.

AN ALTERNATIVE REMEDY

In all this, mediation has not been mentioned. Yet there has been much recent interest in mediation, which stems, I believe, from the recognition of what I call “the missing middle” in dispute resolution. Far too often we veer between being stuck ourselves, unable to resolve a dispute, and capitulating to the far end of the continuum, deciding to “Sue the S.O.B.I” without first looking at the available intermediate alternatives.

Mediation supplies what has been the missing middle in dispute resolution, offering a third party’s assistance, often essential to resolving the dispute, while avoiding the time-consuming, cumbersome, expensive machinery of the full adversary system.

What difference does it make to have mediation available as an alternative? A big difference, I believe. A shift to mediation is not just a shift in locus or forum but a fundamental paradigm shift from the adversarial system’s focus on rights to the focus within mediation on needs and interests (cf. Fisher and Ury, 1991; Glendon, 1991; Ury, Brett, and Goldberg, 1989). That shift means, more fundamentally than anything else, that it is possible to engage in a cooperative, constructive form of conflict resulting in mutually acceptable solutions, rather than in the competitive, ultimately destructive, form of conflict (cf. Deutsch, 1973). It means that we need not fear conflict but can embrace its creative potential. We can engage in conflict and discover a different outcome: Instead of polarization, we can explore mutual interests and build collaborative skills.

When, instead, conflicts are framed in terms of individual rights, all too frequently the result is polarization and impasse. A number of the “social conflicts” enumerated earlier in this volume are ones that regularly end up in the adversary system, and rarely find a satisfactory solution. For example, Christie Neuger identifies many items which could form the basis of a profitable discourse between pro-life advocates and pro-choice people. But such a dialogue rarely occurs, since much of the current playing field of the abortion controversy is the courts. Restraining orders, conflicts over whether various cases will be heard by the courts, conflicts defined in terms of contradictory individual rights-this is the (insoluble) stuff of the current abortion controversy. Indeed, we speak of this conflict as the “abortion rights” controversy.

Again, Don Browning laments the loss of the two-parent family, the inadequacy of economic support for mother-headed single-parent families, and so forth. He finds that an ethic of mutual regard would help. Equally important, however, would be to move this conflict to a forum other than the adversary system, a poor setting indeed to attempt the family reorganization that needs to be worked out in divorce. Divorce mediation offers an alternative, which takes the issue of divorce out of a win/lose struggle, and enables divorcing parents to plan a future that will meet the needs of each parent as well as their children. Studies suggest that when such planning occurs, the results are likely to be both greater involvement of fathers in their children’s lives and more consistent child support for the family (cf. Pearson, 1986; Wallerstein and Huntington, 1983).

Maxine Glaz writes about the hard dilemmas that families and hospitals are faced with when they confront contemporary “life-sustaining” medical technology. Again, we are all familiar with how such choices, painful as they are, are made excruciating when put into the vortex of the adversary system: The cases of Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Curzon were such epic dramas that they have become a common part of our shared experience.

James Poling speaks of the need to confront the new world of sexual harassment and alludes to the wrenching public hearings of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. The hearings unquestionably raised the consciousness of our society about sexual harassment, and that was a significant step. At the same time, those involved acknowledged the inappropriateness of the forum as a mechanism for dealing adequately and fairly with such issues. In contrast, as several persons have described (cf. Cloke, 1988, 1992), it is possible to deal much more effectively with such cases in mediation.

When made available, mediation has great appeal because it offers us an alternative to having strangers make decisions that may fundamentally alter our lives—whether these are hospital decisions about life and death or abortion, or legal decisions about who will have custody of children after a divorce. It returns these decisions to the people involved and lets them make the decisions the consequences of which they will get to live with.

But I find the significance of mediation goes beyond the element of self-determination.

As Robert Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger have proposed in their new work Empowerment and Recognition (1994), ethically mediation has an intrinsic dynamic that offers people the challenge of moving beyond individualism and realizing “the opportunities that conflict presents for moral growth” through the two dimensions of empowerment and recognition-strength of self and the ability to relate to others. Mediation offers an occasion for transformation, for becoming a fully grown moral person, integrating concern and respect for self and respect for other” (Barr, 1993).

Theologically, I believe that to truly embrace mediation is to experience, beyond our penultimate struggles with aggression, competition, and estrangement, the interconnectedness of being and the foundational reality of cooperation and relationship. Such an experience, affirming the diversity of creation, connecting us to a larger whole, is both healing and hopeful.

WHY NOW?

If mediation is such a helpful instrument, why has it been so long in appearing? One answer is that it has in fact been around for centuries in many cultures, including our own (cf. Abel, 1982; Auerbach, 1983). But it has found limited use in our society until recently because we have so overwhelmingly embraced a framework of individual rights as the way to resolve disputes. Increasingly we are now discovering what insoluble nightmares such a relentless stress on legal and individual rights creates and have turned to look for alternatives.

Even the people responsible for implementing the adversary system recognize that it is overwhelmed and incapable of dealing adequately with the conflicts brought before it. The courts themselves are increasingly implementing ADR programs throughout the country. It would be ironic, then, if the church, in spite of its biblical mandate regarding conflict resolution, were to continue to handle its conflicts in an outmoded, legalistic way when the courts themselves are looking for alternatives. Yet many of our churches are indeed involved in an unreflective use of a system that is theologically questionable and practically clogged. As Speed Leas, one of our most experienced church mediators, observes:

    Most congregations have no rules or structure for helping people negotiate or collaborate, only procedures for voting or appealing to denominational authorities …. I have not yet been in a church that has a decent set of understandings of how to deal with differences when they arise. Constitutions, Books of Order, and Disciplines are notorious for their vague or missing guidelines about appropriate ways to deal with differences. What is usually offered red is warmed-over Robert’s Rules or directions for what to do after the conflict has become virtually unmanageable. Robert’s Rules can be helpful when decision-making by voting is appropriate, but it is not helpful for developing consensus or negotiating. (1985, 56, 12)

There are hopeful signs of change: In 1992, The Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod made a denominational decision to embrace a version of mediation-arbitration as a more biblically congruent form of dispute resolution than its traditional highly legalistic system. But all too many current church conflicts-conservative-liberal controversies, disagreements between individual churches and denominations, sexual impropriety by church professionals–end up in court.

IMPLICATIONS

I have had a vision for at least a decade now that one day we will have a Pastoral Mediators Network that will be as significant and vital to the life of the church as AAPC has been over the last three decades and CPE over the last fifty years. Persons in such a network would be trained to help us deal more constructively with conflict. Just as the pastoral counseling movement has taken Jesus’ words that he came that we might have life and that more abundantly as a warrant for its work, so too, pastoral mediators would see the biblical warrant for placing dispute resolution at the heart of the church’s function (Kraybill, 1981, 13).

Mediation would be seen as a more authentically biblical form of conflict resolution than the adversary system–again, following Jesus’ word about how his disciples were to deal with conflicts (Matthew 18; 1 Cot 6:1-7).

Courses in conflict management would be as common and standard in seminaries as courses in pastoral counseling are today. Without practical skills in conflict management the church’s stance in relation to conflict will continue to alternate between avoidance and pious pleas to pray over situations. Prayer is important. If it is all we have to say in the face of conflict, however, it becomes a sop, a confession of our helpless ness, a counsel of despair rather than hope.

We have had a dearth of practical skill training in conflict management in theological education. In the sixties, as part of a significant attempt by the church to involve itself in urban ministry, we had technologies such as Saul Alinsky’s to guide us in social conflict. Strategies such as Alinsky employed, however, really mirrored the problems of the adversary system and focused on confrontation. We may finally be at a place where we could have a more flexible and responsive technology for addressing social conflict, which could use confrontation where appropriate and collaboration when it is called for. And we could be equally comfortable with either-afflicting the comfortable, empowering the afflicted, and helping both form coalitions for change and transformation.

There have been church pioneers in the mediation area over the years. John P. Adams, a Methodist clergyperson, was a mediator in such disputes as Kent State and Wounded Knee (Adams, 1976). Ron Kraybill, Speed Leas, Sam Leonard, Will Neville, the Mennonite Conciliation Service, and the Alban Institute are among the church leaders and organizations which have been involved in initiating mediation on behalf of and within the religious community.

Mediation would be seen as a more authentically biblical form of conflict resolution than the adversary system–again, following Jesus’ word about how his disciples were to deal with conflicts (Matthew 18; 1 Cot 6:1-7).

Courses in conflict management would be as common and standard in seminaries as courses in pastoral counseling are today. Without practical skills in conflict management the church’s stance in relation to conflict will continue to alternate between avoidance and pious pleas to pray over situations. Prayer is important. If it is all we have to say in the face of conflict, however, it becomes a sop, a confession of our helpless ness, a counsel of despair rather than hope.

We have had a dearth of practical skill training in conflict management in theological education. In the sixties, as part of a significant attempt by the church to involve itself in urban ministry, we had technologies such as Saul Alinsky’s to guide us in social conflict. Strategies such as Alinsky employed, however, really mirrored the problems of the adversary system and focused on confrontation. We may finally be at a place where we could have a more flexible and responsive technology for addressing social conflict, which could use confrontation where appropriate and collaboration when it is called for. And we could be equally comfortable with either-afflicting the comfortable, empowering the afflicted, and helping both form coalitions for change and transformation.

There have been church pioneers in the mediation area over the years. John P. Adams, a Methodist clergyperson, was a mediator in such disputes as Kent State and Wounded Knee (Adams, 1976). Ron Kraybill, Speed Leas, Sam Leonard, Will Neville, the Mennonite Conciliation Service, and the Alban Institute are among the church leaders and organizations which have been involved in initiating mediation on behalf of and within the religious community.

If we return to the title and theme of this book–dealing with conflict–we can set a clearer vision of the future of pastoral care for the next generation. The prominence of counseling in the pastoral care field is, we have argued, partly an artifact of a ready-to-hand set of skills (e.g., active listening) that could be imparted to caregivers. But if we return to the continuum of third-party intervenors laid out earlier in this essay, we see that there are many kinds of third parties (not just pastoral psychotherapists) to which people turn for a variety of help. We will be able to provide a “full-service ministry,” as it were, when we train a variety of professionals and lay persons to enable the full ministry of the saints. Dealing effectively with the social and structural context of the problems we encounter would mean not just, as Couture rightly notes, that we add on to the work of pastoral counselors additional social justice committee work. It would involve an understanding of ministry as empowerment and community formation, not just ministry as presence: We would train people in the skills of problem-solving, of administration, of community organizing, of group work, of goal setting, public policy, and negotiating as well as active listening and counseling skills. We need a more adequately incarnational theology. Until we have a level of skill development that matches the passion of our concern, our efforts will remain largely hortatory and ineffectual.

Is this a large agenda? Yes. Why is it necessary? Because early in Christendom the church not only cared for persons but also shaped the laws and institutions of Christendom. With the breakdown of Christendom and the emergence of secular culture, we have been trying to bridge a bifurcation between private and public life by falsely thinking that we could effectively minister to individuals, while being cut out of the loop of shaping the larger context within which those individuals live and function. We are increasingly confronted with the impossibility of adequately ministering to individuals without attending to the shape of the society and public policy within which those individuals live and work. I have endeavored here to identify one specific new “praxis” that would deepen and sharpen our ministry. It is no panacea. But it would be equally an error to get stuck yet once more in a false dichotomy between social advocacy and mediation as the route to the shalom we envision. Both are essential to the concerns outlined in this book–gender, race, diversity, aging, abuse, sexual harassment, economic marginality–and to our ministry of empowerment.

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