'My vision is that churches become centres of reconciliation'
An interview with Colin Moulds, director of Bridge Builders, a Christian charity committed to transforming conflict, peacemaking and reconciliation
What are some of the principles of handling conflict?
Conflict is a difficult word for people to hear, partly because we connect it with many of the images we see day to day on our television screens depicting conflict as violent and destructive; and also because as Christians we believe we should live at peace with everyone, so admitting there is conflict is admitting failure.
At Bridge Builders we define conflict as Difference + Tension. We live with difference all around us and we are fine with it, but occasionally that difference causes Tension. The key is to understand where that tension comes from. So, one of the keys to handling conflict is to understand ourselves and why certain things hit our buttons and create tension within us.
When facing difference and tension, there are two questions we need to be asking ourselves: “What does the other know about this situation that I don’t know” and “What do I know about this situation that the other doesn’t know?”. These two questions challenge the assumptions we might be making about the other and encourage us to open up meaningful and honest conversations. The key word here is to be curious about the other, not judgemental
We also need to consider our motives when opening up difficult conversations – we are called to ‘build up the body of Christ’ – if our motive is to prove the other wrong then our motive is flawed, and we will create greater conflict. If, however, our motive is to understand the other then we might start to build the body of Christ as we grow in understanding of other viewpoints.
Lastly, we need to recognise the negative judgements we make of others that lead us to withdraw and separate rather walk towards and engage with the difference and tension we are experiencing with another person.
Conflicts always happen because people care, finding out why they care is key to being able to find a positive and life giving way forward.
At the heart of Bridge Builders is reconciliation - why do you think reconciliation is so important?
The gospels call us all to live at peace with one another, they call us to be peacemakers and they instruct us on how to work for peace. This is not an option; God doesn’t say ‘do this if you can’ – the instructions in Matthew 7 vs 23-24 and 18 15-20 are clear directives to sort things out. John 17 says that by our love for one another others will know the love God has for us.
Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth and Ephesus include specific instructions in how live together in community and how to sort things out.
However, the most important thing about the message of reconciliation is the message we give to the divided and fractured world we live in. The church has a huge opportunity to engage with the communities they sit and to offer hope into the brokenness that is around them.
If churches understood how and put into practice the call to be reconcilers, then the witness to the outside world would be amazing. If only the world saw the church not as a messed-up fraud, but as a place that lives out the call to be peacemakers, reconcilers, where people sorted out their differences in love and humility, where different views were encouraged and accepted.
My vision is that churches become places where those outside see reconciliation in action and want to be part of it - centres of reconciliation. What better way to demonstrate the forgiving nature of God than by showing this at work in our own lives by working to reconcile broken relationships. If the church can be a resource for their communities to help them find resolution to broken and fractured relationships, what better witness is there?
Wouldn’t it be great if people looked at the way we manage our relationships and thought “I want some of that”.
Why is it important for church leaders in particular to be equipped in handling conflict?
Church leaders provide a focus for congregations in terms of worship and spiritual growth. They also set the example on how to deal with difference and tension as it comes up, so to be equipped with these skills is an essential part of their ministry.
Ministers are also often the catalyst and lightening rod for the anxiety and conflicts being faced within their congregations. This means they can very quickly become the focus of everyone else’s anxiety, anger and fear; if they don’t know how to work with this then they will very quickly become sucked into an intractable conflict that will result in stress and illness. It is not unusual for ministers who have been through this type of conflict to give up completely and leave the ministry and turn their back on their calling. Who wins then?
There is training offered in some of the theological colleges but students often find it difficult to see themselves in a place of conflict when you have no experience of shepherding a congregation, so the training can feel a bit abstract – it’s only when you’re in the real world of the brokenness that the reality of conflict will hit home. Church leaders need to be equipped and ready – it's not a case of if it happens – it is a case of when it happens.
Do you find that a number of people who attend your courses are in conflict situations?
Yes, it is not unusual to find at least 50 per cent of those attending a residential are facing conflicts in their own communities and want to find different ways of working with it. Often the conflicts come as a result of change (or not changing when needed), different personalities, different styles and different approaches to routine things. Some come because they know they have to address something and want the skills before they start, others have crashed out the other end of a conflict situation and need to find resources to help them cope with the aftermath.
So how do you equip church leaders, and anyone interested in learning about peacemaking and how to handle conflict?
We offer different ways of Resourcing and Equipping to help church leaders (Lay or Ordained) develop new skills in peacemaking and reconciliation. Our foundation course is the Transforming Conflict 1 course which is a 5-day residential which aims to equip participants with key skills and tools for working with conflict whether the conflict is directed at them or between others in their communities. We also offer this as a Senior Leaders course with an additional focus on identifying appropriate interventions for situations senior leaders may have to address.
We also run a 4-day residential (2 x 2-days) course called Leading in Anxious Times. This is based on Family Systems theory and uses this model to enable greater understanding of emotional systems at work within their own communities.
As well as these 2 residential courses we offer a whole range of 1-day workshops covering things like Handling Change, Understanding the Dynamics of Power, basic Conflict Management skills, Holding Difficult Conversations etc. We tend to deliver these on a commissioned basis to whoever wants to run something for their own communities.
There are also more advanced training opportunities such as our Mediating Interpersonal Conflict course which runs once a year and is accredited by College of Mediators.
You also offer a mediation service. What does that entail – and are you seeing more demand for it?
Mediation is something I have brought a greater focus on since joining Bridge Builders. Resourcing and Equipping people is important, but sometimes they need immediate interventions to help deal with a specific breakdown in relationships. A mediation can be for two people, it can be for a whole community (and everything in between), the process is essentially the same. Listening, building an understanding, bringing parties together, enabling them to speak with each other, identifying the key issues and then addressing those issues.
We are seeing more and more asking for help which I think is great. It is difficult to know if this is because there is more work or because people are becoming more aware of what we are offering.
The service is not just for churches, we are also seeing Christian charities starting to invite us in to help which is really encouraging.
What are the roots of Bridge Builders as an organisation?
Bridge Builders was set up as a service from the London Mennonite Centre in 1996 and continued with this set up until 2011 when it became an independent charity. As part of the Mennonite roots we had an intern from the Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, USA come over each year to help run the organisation while learning key skills in peace making. Bridge Builders is now an independent charity relying on donations and regular giving to cover the shortfall between running costs and chargeable fees. This shortfall leaves us with a deficit of about £40,000 each year which we try to cover either from reserves or appeals. Unfortunately, churches are not wealthy and so we cannot charge the full rate it costs to provide the services we offer, so fundraising is becoming a key part of our future strategy.
Our board of trustees is made up of four people; two from the Church of England, one Baptist and one from the United Reformed Church. This is probably a fair representation of our customer base.
In terms of our connection with the Baptist church, we regularly see regional ministers on our senior leaders courses and Baptist ministers on our other courses.
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