Unhealthy Church Conflict & What I Have Learned

I’ve been in ministry for 17 years. Let me tell you a secret: ministry can be relationally brutal. I have hurt others, and my family and I have been through the ringer. There’s no mystery why pastors are leaving the pastorate in droves. The battlefield of church conflicts could have caused a root of bitterness and me leaving the pastorate. Instead, it has become the ground of growing me and many others in relational maturity. I want to thrive as a pastor and finish the race I’ve begun; I want to run well. This has meant growing as a relational leader. This post is about what I have learned.

Dr. Murray Bowen is credited as being the father of family system theory. His research is a must read for anyone serious about being healthy in relationships with others. His work is now being applied to organizations and churches; these insights have helped me understand what a healthy church looks like relationally and what a church looks like when it isn’t.  

One of Bowen’s key concepts is the emotional triangle. Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nerve writes, “Emotional triangles form because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships”. By bringing in a third person, the two-person relationship can disperse this instability onto another. Bowen contends that it is anxiety that destabilizes relationship because the two-person relationship doesn’t know how to deal with it. 

Anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion. It might be anger, fear, sorrow, bitterness, or any feeling that is hard for the individual to face. We will usually do all we can to alleviate our emotional pain. Emotional triangles, why unhealthy and costly, give us a way to deal with anxiety.

An Emotional Triangle

In a relational triangle, there are three individuals. A has unresolved anxiety that is agitated by a conflict with C. Instead of dealing with the anxiety and the conflict, A goes to B. B hears about the conflict and how C is the problem. B makes the mistake of taking A’s side. In so doing, he takes on A’s anxiety (which has nothing to do with C!) and the conflict is not dealt with in a healthy way. A feels better to have a ‘friend’ who understands.  Jack Shitama in his book Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety gives a helpful list of some examples of triangulation in churches. He writes, 

In each case, the first two persons or issues have the uncomfortable relationship, and the third is the focus of their emotional energy (the one being triangled) to stabilize their relationship:

The choir director and a church member each complain to the pastor about the other

A church member, the budget (financial problems) and blame displacement toward the denomination

A church member, grief over the leaving of a previous pastor and blame displacement toward the current pastor

The pastor, a staff member and the staff member confiding secrets about the pastor with a church member

The pastor, congregation and the pastor’s feelings of responsibility for their salvation

Here are examples of triangles that connect individual families with the church:

A church member, a conflict with a son and the church member’s criticism of the lay leader

A woman, her husband who doesn’t come to church and her criticism of the worship service

A man, unresolved issues with his brother and his over investment in committee work at church

A church member, grief over a dying spouse and anger at the pastor for not doing enough 

And, finally, here are examples of triangles that connect the pastor’s family and the church:

The pastor, spouse and pastor’s overinvestment in the ministry

The pastor, congregation and their complaints about the pastor’s kids

The pastor, congregation and complaints about the spouse’s involvement at church

Shitama rightly states, “It is a mess”. In each case, a person has anxiety and then acts it out through a third. One of my big learnings is that anxiety and the conflict are not the same thing.  Almost always, the anxiety is separate and distant from the conflict (ex. I get in a fight with my wife about my son because I am afraid of losing my job). This is why emotional triangles are so unhealthy. But it can get worse. Unchecked, one’s anxiety will attract others’ anxieties. The result is an unhealthy system that hurts persons.

In an organization, this can have catastrophic effect. This is because the whole triangle system is built beneath the surface and often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. Very quickly, one triangle can become this: 

A Triangulated Mess

Notice that the initial event, conflict with C and A, is never engaged. Instead, triangles are built around it. Researcher Peter Steinke writes, “For any conflict to continue and to get out of control, a generator of anxiety and amplifier are needed. They feed each other”. Above is a web of relationships where A is the focus, but C is the cause of the anxiety. He brings anxiety into the relational organism from outside and wrongly attaches it to problems with A. He then amplifies his anxiety by building what Jack Shitama calls “a false relationship built upon secrets and gossip” with B. The outsider (C) will be in the dark. Then the fun really starts. Sometimes, B and C focus on A by bringing others into their web of anxiety.

If you could get in there and see reality, each new person brings his unprocessed anxiety and makes a triangle focusing on A (the very act of entering an emotional triangle is a sure sign of unprocessed anxiety and/or the inability to differentiate). The issue isn’t whether these persons have concerns but the process by which they are seeking to deal with it. They are taking anxiety from their own lives and using its energy to connect falsely with others concerning A. By the second or third generation of triangles, the original anxiety has been attached to other anxieties —all unresolved—and the anxiety multiplies exponentially; a monster has been created. Just remember that the conflict can’t fix the anxiety nor can sharing it with others.

None of this is conscious or intentional but damaging, nonetheless. Douglas Bixby, in his book Navigating the Nonsense: Church conflict and Triangulation writes “Triangulation allows minor conflicts to escalate faster than major conflicts that are contained between two people”. Eventually, the anxiety explodes and leaks everywhere. When people say in an organization that it was like a relational bomb went off, undrneath the explosion is a web of triangles like this. Triangulating as a means of navigating anxiety is always destructive for organizations. 

Over the last several years I have sought to grow in relational health. I want to embody it. This is no easy thing because I have anxiety that threatens to move me into unhealth.  Below, are the things I have learned in the past few years. Maybe they will help you as you navigate relationships at home, work, the neighborhood, and the church. 

  1. I am responsible for my reactivity and negative emotions. I am responsible for dealing with my own anxiety. Though I will feel anxiety, I will work to contain it by self-regulation—exercise, dealing with conflict immediately, and not forming my own triangles. 
  2. My work is to be well-differentiated in my relationships. What are my goals, beliefs, and opinions? I must live for the audience of One and not navigate life by adapting myself to please others. Instead, I must seek to be me without giving into anxiety. 
  3. My work in every relationship is to be a calm non-anxious presence. When things get uncomfortable, I will ask myself what is happening in me and what is seeking to leak out. Then I will choose to not be reactive, but present. Also, I will express myself in non-anxious ways. Anchored in God’s love, I want to be a person of love but not tossed “to and fro” by others.
  4. I do not engage hearsay about family, staff, or leaders. This is especially true when it is coupled with “I have heard from some people”. Anything I hear that is second or third hand but that I did not experience or see, I will not act upon or even consider (except to encourage that the person deals with his own anxiety). The very reason that I am even hearing about it is because someone did not know how to deal with his anxiety and wants me to fix it. It’s his and not mine. I will not accept an invitation to triangle.
  5. I can only work on my relationships. Jack Shitama writes, “You can’t change a relationship to which you do not belong (repeat, take a deep breath, and repeat)”. 
  6. If someone comes to me and is emotionally out-of-bounds, I will not internalize their anxiety nor take their criticisms. Shitama writes, 
    If I am self-differentiating and someone responds with lots of anxiety and blaming, then I am thinking two things. First, I am not the issue. She is displacing pain from another part of her life, and I happen to be the current target. Second, because I am not the issue and the content is an excuse to vent, I am not likely to convince her to agree with me. … My approach is to be a non-anxious presence, not get defensive, not to argue content but stay connected emotionally.
  7. Conversely, when someone comes to me with a conflict with me using the language of “I” (I felt this when this happened…), I am responsible to honestly process what the person has to say no matter how much it increases anxiety in me. This person is not bringing in anxiety but a healthy concern.
  8. If I have a problem with someone, I will go to that person. I have learned to bring incidents and not patterns. If I bring a pattern of behavior, it simply means I have been storing their faults and growing my own anxiety. Instead, if there is conflict, I deal with it quickly. I will use the Gottman method: “When x happened, I felt y. In the future, I need z.” I will hear from his/her perspective seeking to understand his/her world. I won’t blame, leak anxiety, or try to win. The goal is that each person would grow in love. 
  9. If I go to someone and he sees things differently than I do, this is ok. I can share my point of view and he can share his. It is then done. I don’t get to go to others unless it is an incident in which they were directly involved (this is the point of Matthew 18). If I do, I am now gossiping. I might not like the outcome of a conflict, but if I do my part, then the anxiety is released.
  10. I will practice what I desire others to do. I will not create triangles at home or church. I will not gossip. I will seek to not let anxiety motivate me. When it does, name it and healthily process it. 

Growth is a process. I am so thankful that God is growing me and my church. Next Spring, Calvary will once again offer, Emotionally Healthy Relationships. The insights from this class are life changing. Both the staff and consistory practice them, and we are all growing in them. Relational health is key to being a church partnering with Jesus for transforming lives. Relational health enables us to love well.

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