How Helpful are Disagreements?

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Some years ago at a board meeting of community organization another board member said, “O no I just agreed with Lindemulder, I better reconsider”.  He was a good friend of mine, but despite our friendship we had a number of disagreements on a number of issues.  Having served on numerous boards of various organizations, I have had my share of disagreements.  Not only do disagreements happen, I think they should happen because they assist us in processing issues.  Those who know me or have worked with me know that I have disagreed with them over the years.  That includes many of the personalities of agencies within our denomination. 

One of the problems in today’s society and especially the political world (U.S.A.) is that if you disagree with someone, you are labeled.  The issue is no longer the issue but the person becomes the issue.

As I think about the many disagreements I have had over the years the issue was the issue and we continued to respect each others’ opinions.  We did not call out names, insinuate the other person was prejudice or insensitive to resolving the issues.

Disagreements should not become personal.  Disagreements should not cause us to “paint” someone in a corner with labels.  Disagreements help us to think, reflect and perhaps make adjustments to the position we once thought to be right.

The church, especially leaders in the church, should set that example within its walls as well as within the community.  As you take positions, decide issues, do so based on the merits of the discussion not based on the personalities of those who spoke.

I have heard on more than one occasion at Synod and Classis meetings comments about speakers that many times show no interest in what the person saying but had more to do with the personality of the individual.  Every person has a right to their opinion and also should be given the opportunity to express it. 

I know that as time passes I think about some of the disagreements I have had and reflect on what others said during those disagreements and even though they may have occurred some time ago, they have influenced my thinking today and even caused me to change my position after the fact.

I would hope that despite the infighting (many times petty) that we see in some of our political parties today, that we set a better example and welcome the opinions of every individual who has the right to speak at our various meetings and despite the fact that there may be disagreements, we respect the person and think about his/her perspective.

As Synod is again only a month away I hope that the Lord uses our disagreements to further his kingdom.  

How do you handle disagreements in your Council meetings?  Are your Council meetings receptive to debate?  How do you control disagreements that are more about personalities than they are about issues?

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When I joined a law partnership many years ago, the senior partner gave me a note that read "If all 4 of us always agree, 3 of us are unnecessary".  I think this is a great rule to keep in mind when serving on Council, attending Classis or Synod, or any committee.  Disagreements (when honourably presented) can lead to discussions that can reinforce the primary opinion or revise it or prove it to be wrong (leading to a better solution, hopefully).   At the very least, you'll get a good idea, in advance, of what the possible objections to a majority decision may be.  At the very best, a disagreement can show you where you're wrong.  I've had many years of experience where another person's honourable presentation of an opposing opinion has led me to realize how wrong I was (and I'm not just referring to my wonderful marriage).

If nobody is disagreeing, one might even consider appointing somebody to present an opposing opinion.  In order to clarify and test their decisions, the Roman Catholic Church leaders used to appoint what was called a "devil's advocate" to provide the opposing arguments to the proposed canonization of a saint. 

And, when I find myself in an unending disagreement, I find myself quoting the words my father often used to end our numerous discussions.  "You could be right".

Community Builder

Our church is currently working on becoming a "conflict friendly" church. We're working on this with the good people at the Shalem Mental Health Network, using their program "FaithCARE" (Communities Affirming Restorative Experiences). Their motto for this program is "Conflict is inevitable. The response is up to us.", and they have been very helpful to us as we seek to grow in this area. 

The truth is that you are both absolutely correct, Ron and Al: disagreements are not only inevitable, when carried on and dealt with effectively they can be a real benefit to all concerned. 

Of course, the key is learning how to deal with conflict effectively. There are several points, I think, that many of us need to learn in this area (we're discovering these as we walk along in the process of becoming a restorative congregation):

<ol>

<li>We need to learn how to truly <em>listen</em> to others. This means that we learn how to <em>not</em> be thinking of our response, or our next "point" in the argument as the other person is speaking, but that we really take the time to listen, and to reflect back to the other person(s) what we think we've heard so that we can be sure that we've heard them correctly.</li>

<li>We need to start from a perspective of being on the same "team" whenver possible. This is true in marriage, and it's true in the church too, I believe. Disagreements are far more effective in helping us if we all work from the same basis: that we're all on the same team. If I am on a team that is against your team, then I'll fight against you until we win. If you and I are on the same team against an outside problem, then we will work together till our common enemy is defeated.</li>

<li>We need to recognize that some of our societal structures are inherently adversarial and prone to emphasizing disagreements in an unhelpful way. Sometimes these structures are so unhelpful that they become exclusionary, especially to those who have a different cultural background to our own. For example, when we run all our meetings using "Robert's Rules", we are buying into an essentially western european adversarial/legal melieu. This framework is very difficult for people who come from a collaborative/consensus building culture to wrap their heads around, let alone for them to stick their necks out into what they feel is quite often a highly charged, risky, antagonistic setting.</li>

<li>We need to encourage transparency, humility, and vulnerability among all our people, but especially among our leadership. Not humility in the sense of false humility, or humility that immediately says "sorry" in order to avoid a confrontation, but humility that approaches the other with a willingness to walk alongside, and to learn, and to grow together.</li>

</ol>

If we can learn some of these key lessons, then I really believe that, though conflict will still be hard, uncomfortable, and something we'd rather avoid, we will learn to see the value in it, and we'll learn how to hear God's voice through it. Not only that, but we'll have healthier congregations, and a healthier witness of the Love of Christ to the world around us.

Blessings, all.

My next "Blog" will be on mediation.  I am trained in both General and Family Mediation and firmly believe that part of Pastor Counseling Courses should include a course on Mediation as it applies to both the church in general and counseling of family conflicts as well.

Daniel, your comment on "learning to truly listen" is 100% correct!  When I practiced law, I often would "listen" with the sole intent of providing a rebuttal or contrary opinion.  More recently I served on the Restorative Justice Task Force of our classis and was invited to join in on a "Listening Circle" where, one by one, each person expressed their opinion... but nobody was invited (or allowed) to respond directly to that person's opinion.   It truly was "listening" since your mind was freed up from the "How do I respond to that?" conundrum.  I found it to be quite rewarding!  I would suggest that, when honourably expressed disagreements still result in personal tension or strife (and that can happen despite the best intentions), a listening circle may restore peace in the valley again..   I wish I had learned of it earlier in my life.

Participant

#1 I disagree with anything Ron Knol says ;)

#2 Disregard #1. Ron has been a very wise counselor in difficult times. And all pro bono.

#3 Here is a great resource: http://www.mennoniteusa.org/resource-center/resources/agreeing-and-disagreeing-in-love/

Very wise words, Al, that you have given here!