Transforming Conflict

15 March 2009

I have just finished a really useful book for church leaders about resolving conflict – well worth a read.  I wrote the following review of the book for the Foundation for Church Leadership, who commissioned the research:

Transforming Conflict

Eolene Boyd-MacMillan and Sara Savage

Fundamental to effective leadership is an ability to interpret and engage with human and institutional complexity.  In the life of the church such complexity is to be found in abundance and it is a reality which needs to be embraced by church leaders.  A significant element to this complexity is that of conflict. In sponsoring a major piece of research into how church leaders handle conflict, the Foundation for Church Leadership (FCL) has engaged with an aspect of church life which is too frequently treated as an inconvenient truth or a sign of failure, rather than as a reality of institutions and of those who inhabit them.   The importance of this timely research is that, in a time of change for the church, conflict will be a factor for those attempting to plot a course for the future and when it is left unaddressed or misinterpreted, then conflict leeches energy and fosters dysfunctionality.

book-cover-only-212x300Given the reality of conflict within the church, it is not surprising that Eolene Boyd-MacMillan and Sara Savage were able to gather 29 church leaders from across the ecumenical spectrum to engage in research days on conflict transformation.   These research days and the material shared during them form the content of this handbook. Whilst the bibliography for work in conflict resolution has become extensive, it is the practitioner research base which gives this publication its authority.

Many of us regard conflict as a negative experience, but Boyd-Macmillan and Savage contend that conflict is holy ground, offering a potential driver for spiritual growth.  They describe ten steps on a journey towards transforming this dimension of human engagement – moving it from destructive negativity to that of learning “to see something good in the enemy, rather than rejoicing in their total destruction”.

Central to Boyd-Macmillan and Savage’s approach to achieving peaceful conflict resolution is Integrative Complexity (IC).  This they suggest refers to the “extent to which we consider different and even opposing points of view” about an issue and then incorporate that understanding into our work.  In promoting IC they draw on a well researched field in psychology and make it accessible to those who, just by virtue of office, find themselves trying to make sense of conflict within an organisation which proclaims peace and goodwill.   Working positively with conflict requires the high IC which comes with a differentiation between the many viewpoints of those involved in a conflict situation and then the integration of those viewpoints and values into a solution.

Boyd-Macmillan and Savage offer a strategic approach to transforming conflict which is based on their ten steps.  Those who follow this journey into transformation will discover that achieving a healthy outcome to situations of conflict will involve the leader taking into account their own conflict style and spirituality.

This is a practical resource book for those in church leadership and will become essential reading for those taking up senior appointments.  The authors’ understanding of the church is a key factor in making the book both accessible and pertinent, although it is not always easy to discern how the ideas have been informed by the research itself. The only substantial criticism of the material offered is that Boyd-Macmillan and Savage make conflict transformation sound too easy, when experience suggests that it isn’t quite like that, but I suspect that this is because few of us adopt the strategic step approach to conflict transformation which they commend.   The transformation they seek requires training and practice for those involved in leadership, but the Action Checklist offered for leaders who find themselves immersed in a conflict situation should be printed on a separate card, to be reread in the corner of a parish hall, the wings of a synod or the edge of a staff meeting – indeed at any time when “all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”.

Publisher:  The Foundation for Church Leadership

ISBN  978-0-955057335