How do you handle conflict? Do you tend to shy away from conflict? Or do you tend to be he confrontational sort? In your friendships and in your workplace, are you known as the “fixer” or the “mediator”? When there is upheaval in your life, do you tend to have more conflicts or fewer? What feelings does the word “conflict” conjure up for you?
As described by Anna Shields, a conflict management model called the Thomas-Killman Instrument (TKI) identifies five main ways to deal with conflict. These five styles have been likened to different animals by David W. Johnson, a researcher of conflict resolution. The different animals provide a guide to how we behave in conflict situations:
For instance, we can be:
The Turtle (or ‘avoider’) who retreats in the face of conflict;
The Shark (or ‘competer’) who focuses on our goals at the expense of relationships;
The Teddy Bear (or ‘accommodator’) who downplays their own concerns to satisfy the needs of the other;
The Fox (or ‘compromiser’) who seeks a middle-ground resolution;
Or we can be:
The Owl (or ‘collaborator’) who looks for a solution that satisfies everyone.
Thinking back on your last conflictual situation, which of these animals describes your style? Which of these styles describes your upbringing or the unofficial sub-culture of your workplace? Did any of you find yourself “switching” between styles? Of course, we can be any of these at any point; it really depends, Shields says, on who you are in conflict with and the relationship that you have with that person. You might be a shark with your family one day, and a turtle with your boss. You might be an owl with the PTA and a Teddy Bear with your spouse. There also may be a lot of variation depending upon your level of stress, your energy, and your overall mood. Likewise, the pandemic and its unpredictability may have us shunting our typical style for one that is more or less effective for our situation.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul has gotten wind of a conflict between two leaders, both women, in the church. It is believed that these women were leaders of two different house churches that were meeting. We don’t know the basis of their conflict, only that Euodia and Syntyche—the women—have had a disagreement and word travels fast. Paul urges the two women, to be of the “same mind in the Lord” as well as urging his “loyal” companion to help them, as they have all been co-workers in spreading the gospel. In this, Paul works from afar as a mediator. Indeed, he is imprisoned when he writes this letter from a distance.
Those of you who have dealt with family conflict know how helpless one can feel when one is “at a distance” from loved ones who are in dispute about something or other of importance. You feel side-lined and unable to offer the kind of support that you desire. The conflict, which might be easily sorted out in-person, can morph into something that is larger than life itself when we feel unable sit with family members around a kitchen table or be in the same room with each other. Have you ever sent an emissary to help resolve a conflict? Was the emissary a willing participant or did they resent being caught in the middle, or triangulated?
In any case, Paul has quite a bit of fondness for the Philippians and, if you read his letter in its entirety, his warmth shines through. His words, which stretch across the years to us, urge his readers to rejoice in the Lord and to be gentle, letting their gentleness be known to others. Commanding someone to “rejoice,” may sound off-putting, especially if those who are commanded to do so are in conflict, but there is another way to view this statement. To find joy in serving God, or serving Jesus, in spite of the conflict that is likely to arise when people are passionate about outcome. Finding joy following our brother Jesus remains a possibility when it becomes a struggle to be in larger community, or a struggle to find stability in our career or retirement, or a struggle just to overcome the obstacles of moment.
And joy is different than its cousin, happiness. To chase after fleeting happiness is to chase an mirage that continually shifts in emphasis and attributes, but true joy can be found in knowing that God is near at hand. Of course, Paul literally believed that Jesus would return soon—in his lifetime—yet, we can still choose to see the Lord “near at hand” when we see mis-steps corrected, forgiveness received, justice revealed in communal decisions, or small steps taken towards navigating a thorny issue. When love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy are present, the Lord is near and joy remains.
In effect, Paul urges the church at Philippi to continue doing those things which are commendable, just, honorable, true, pure and pleasing. When other thoughts of division, unrest, and pain intrude, Paul redirects the church to steady their thoughts on what is worthy of praise, while still doing those things that they have learned, received, heard, and seen in him. It is possible that the church at Philippi was being influenced by leaders or individuals who were not as attentive to the gospel that Paul preached. In asking them to remember those things that he had taught them, Paul redirects their gaze to the common foundation that they have in Christ and on which they have together built a movement and a church.
When we consider the conflicts that persist in our nation and the divisive ways in which we are torn apart, we might consider Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi as Christians who seek common ground. William Sloane Coffin reminds us, “No human being’s identity is exhausted by his or her gender, race, ethnic origin, national loyalty or sexual orientation. All human beings have more in common than they have in conflict, and it is precisely when what they have in conflict seems overwhelming that what they have in common needs most to be affirmed.
Perhaps more than any other time in recent memory, we need to consider and affirm what we have in common with each other—not as Christians only, or Americans only, Republicans or Democrats only. Perhaps we need to consider what we have in common as human beings: our common needs for safety, security, well-being, and desire to survive this pandemic together, without making it altogether worse for those who are vulnerable. Perhaps we need to consider the common desire for peace, for goodwill, for that which is just, true, and commendable in our relationships with each other.
To close, I’d like to share a story with you. It was originally shared on Homiletics, a professional resource for pastors.
“Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart.
It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. ‘I’m looking for a few days work,’ the man said. ‘Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?’
‘Yes,’ said the older brother. ‘I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee, and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore. That’ll show him.’
The carpenter said, ‘I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger, and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.’
The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.
The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.
About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job.
The farmer’s eyes opened wide. His jaw dropped.
There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge — a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work, handrails and all — and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.
‘You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.’
The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. ‘No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,’ said the older brother.
‘I’d love to stay on,’ the carpenter said, ‘but I have so many more bridges to build.’”
Siblings in Christ, keep on. Even when you do not “feel” so very gentle, let your gentleness be known by others. Even when you stumble, find ways to do what is honorable, just, and considerate of others. And even when you are unhappy or finding life to be burdensome and cruel, try to find bits of gladness in the God that you seek and have seen in our Lord Jesus. He is coming, friends. And even in the conflicts that twist your soul and mine, we can find our Jesus building bridges and making a way through.
 See Anna Shields, https://www.consensiopartners.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Dealing-with-conflict-Advice-from-a-workplace-mediator-Small-Business-14-November-2017.pdf
 William Sloane Coffin, The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality (Dartmouth, 2011).
 Homiletics, Online.