In our previous article, “Safe Behavior,” we studied the foundation of how to be a community of people who behave in safe ways so that a culture of dignity and respect can be created as we acknowledge that each person is made in God’s image and loved by Him. In this second article, we build on the foundation by avoiding a pitfall of unhealthy communication.
The indirect communication caused by triangles has been identified as a primary dysfunction within families and churches. When disagreement or conflict occurs, rather than following Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 and going directly to the other person to resolve it, a third person is gossiped to or conscripted to communicate to the other. When a third person is involved, a triangle is created. The likelihood is diminished that the first two will have reconciling direct communication, so the conflict continues and intensifies. As others become involved, coalitions are formed, and the congregation becomes a tangled web of triangles unlikely to find unity.
In their book “Life in a Glass House,” Jack and Judy Balswick identify the tangled web as creating three types of division within a congregation: two equal sides with the congregation separated into stable if not permanent divisions; two unequal sides in which a majority and minority coalesce into perpetual conflict; or the identification of a single person as a “scapegoat” upon whom the congregation places blame for their tangled dysfunction. This scapegoat can be a pastor, a pastor’s spouse or child, a lay leader, a critic or another individual chosen due to some unique characteristic he or she displays that is not acceptable to the rest of the group.
Though there are cultural differences in communication patterns with some groups regularly using third-person emissaries to help individuals save face, the importance of clear, direct and respectful communication in which two persons are reconciled is necessary to protect a congregation from division. Regardless of the cultural differences, unity in Christ is a necessary component of a healthy congregation. Division must be addressed, and unity must be pursued.
There are three ingredients to healthy communication that help us avoid the tangled web of building triangles. The first is refusing to form a coalition against another individual or group of people. Coalitions form in these ways:
1. “If you are a friend of my friend, then you are my friend too” — meaning if you agree with me and my friend, then you are a part of our coalition or group.
2. “If you are a friend of my enemy, then you are my enemy” — meaning if you agree with the ones who disagree with me, or if you are joining your voice and power to support my enemy’s cause, then you belong to my enemy’s group and not mine.
3. “If you are an enemy of my enemy, then you are my friend.” When such divisions are allowed to arise or continue, then ongoing divisions become the norm for groups whose members do not think for themselves but are divided by misplaced loyalty to “taking sides.”
To analyze whether this is true of your congregation, consider the following behaviors: People vote by who is leading or objecting to a change rather than thinking for themselves and voting to express their own opinion on a church decision. A specific leader will not work with a specific other leader and will in fact obstruct rather than cooperate. Talking behind others’ backs or gossiping about “them” is a frequent pastime of church people. The congregation has had a series of pastors or leaders who eventually were turned on as being “the problem” in their church’s life and mission.
Consider as an individual (or a group) if you are participating in or allowing coalitions to form within your church community that are creating unhealthy divisions. If so, commit yourself (or your group) to not continue triangling others into coalitions or allowing yourself to become ensnared. Approach church decisions prayerfully and seeking what is best for the church rather than how your friends are voting.
The second ingredient of a tangled web is allowing disagreements and conflicts to not be addressed quickly and directly. This can be due to triangles as seen above as well as to unhealthy avoidance or passive-aggressive resistance. When Jesus taught in Matthew 18 to go directly to the person and restore the “brother or sister” relationship, this kept conflicts manageable and resolutions possible. When others are involved with their own feelings, concerns, disagreements and agendas, the conflict becomes increasingly complex and difficult to resolve. Additionally, both individuals then have an “audience” that causes them to protect their reputation or position rather than to humbly seek reconciliation. When conflict resolution is avoided, the problem becomes increasingly complex as feelings and opinions become infected with anger, resentments, grudges and pride. This is also true with passive-aggressive responses when a person smiles but undermines everything the other person tries to do and say. Rather than being direct and working together so that unity can truly be achieved, a smile is put over the situation, and real feelings come out “sideways” in aggressive or passive resistance.
As an individual (or a group), consider whether you resolve conflict directly or create patterns of communication and conflict resolution that cause lingering pain and resentment. Such painful abscesses in the relationships of a congregation will cause an infected web of unhealthy interactions.
The third and final ingredient of a tangled web is the presence of competitive jockeying for positions of power. Although we will talk about this more in our fourth article in this series, we are now limiting our concern to that of competition between — rather than cooperation among — leaders.
It is the nature of a leader to seek a following. But when leaders are not bound together in mutual accountability and support, all working together to accomplish the mission of the congregation, then there is a culture created in which multiple missions and visions are pursued simultaneously. The tangled web this produces creates divisions as some follow Paul, some follow Apollos and some (claim divine authority as they) follow Christ (1 Corinthians 1, 3).
Denny Wayman is the lead superintendent of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California and the senior pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. Cheryl Wayman is a licensed therapist and the director of counseling ministries at the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara.
GROUP DISCUSSION: Are leaders of your congregation working in crosscurrents or even at cross-purposes with one another so there is a discordant chorus among them?  How can you pray for and work toward the goal of uniting everyone in the vision Christ has for the entire congregation with all leaders working in tandem?  Pray about and plan how you can actively be a part of the solution bringing about a healthy biblical community of open communication and effective reconciliation producing united leaders and groups rather than splintered triangles and tangled webs.