Ask a counselor: What about conflict?

by Kay Bruner on August 4, 2015

alo tornado-01When we first arrived overseas, I remember hearing an older, experienced missionary make this statement:  “The real reason most missionaries leave the field is conflict with other missionaries.”

I thought that was so strange!  I mean, here we are, missionaries!  The cream of the crop, spiritually speaking!  Called by God!  Commissioned by our churches!  Well-vetted by our agencies!

How could there possibly be conflict among such an outstanding subset of the already-fabulous Christian population?

I was young, people.  That’s my excuse.  It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that the older, experienced person was right:  sometimes the worst thing about living overseas was the conflict with other missionaries. 

Over the years, I’ve created some mental categories that help me understand different kinds of conflict and their corresponding solutions.

Easy Problems

Simple daily conflict results from various combinations of differences in personal preferences, thoughtlessness, ignorance, and/or unmet expectations.

This kind of conflict is the kind that can be resolved pretty easily, IF both parties are able to:

  • recognize their own part,
  • own their stuff,
  • apologize to one another,
  • forgive,
  • try to do better,
  • and move on.

The problem comes when we think that all conflict is this simple.  It’s not.  Some conflict is just more complicated, and it needs other strategies for resolution.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for knowing if you’re dealing with something beyond a simple daily conflict:  you do your best to speak honestly, openly, and kindly to the other party, and the conflict is not able to be resolved.

More Complicated Problems

In the highly mobile international community, we all always need to be aware of personal stress as a factor that complicates conflict.  I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he tells us to check for the log in our own eye before we confront another person.  (Matthew 7:3-5) Sometimes we’re extra reactive for some reason or another, and that makes us hyperaware of the sawdust in everybody else.  Sometimes the other person is extra reactive to the sawdust in us.  Sometimes the problem isn’t on the outside, so much as on the inside.  The “outside” conflict is just a symptom of the “inside” personal distress that needs to be dealt with.

Burnout, personal stress that’s gone on too long without intervention, is another notorious conflict-maker.  People who are close to burnout will find themselves being extremely irritable with others.  It’s just part of the deal with burnout.  The person who’s burning out will only stop having conflict with everybody else once the burnout is resolved.

In other cases, we have conflict because our personal significance is way too wound up with our work.  When the work gets threatened, WE get threatened.  We don’t want to resolve the conflict unless it means putting our thing back exactly the way it was, and sometimes it’s just not possible to have it the way we want it.  Often, the upset about our personal significance will translate into anger with those around us.  The solution isn’t making others do what we want.  The solution is sorting out our heart issues.

Another observation of mine is some small subset of any group of human beings will have entrenched, difficult personality characteristicsThere are difficult people in the world.  Some of them are missionaries.  My personal opinion is that the “missionary pedestal” can be very attractive to people with narcissistic characteristics (thinking really highly of themselves, needing constant admiration, and not having much empathy for others).  Narcissists tend to be very charming initially, so they have the ability to look great, be admired, tell a fascinating story, and raise money like nobody’s business.  However, they often don’t fare so well in the daily grind overseas, when their deeply-felt personal needs can’t be met.  There’s just not enough admiration to fill the black hole, and that creates problems for everyone.

In all of these more complicated cases, here are two steps toward resolution.  

1.  Deal with your own junk.  

2.  Give other people freedom and grace to deal with theirs.

In other words, have good boundaries.

Take responsibility for yourself.  Allow others to do the same.

Boundaries may not feel like much of a solution at times—we’d rather all hold hands and sing Kumbaya around the campfire–but we can’t force others to do what we want. 

We have to respect the choices of others, and make healthy choices for ourselves at the same time. 

Boundaries.  Boundaries.  Boundaries.

Boundaries might mean that we reduce our workload to reduce our personal stress.  Boundaries might mean going to therapy for ourselves.  Boundaries might mean agreeing to disagree.  Boundaries might mean limiting contact with difficult people, while spending more time with those who are helpful instead.

Spiritual Abuse

There are times, unfortunately, when the root cause of conflict is spiritual abuse.

This most often happens when one party has some element of authority or power over another.  David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen define spiritual abuse as:

“The mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”

They go on to say that:

“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.  It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.  In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need…

“Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard.’  This promotes external ‘spiritual performance,’ also without regard to an individual’s actual well-being, or is used as a means of ‘proving’ a person’s spirituality…

“Whatever the case, the results of spiritual abuse are usually the same:  The individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian.

“It’s at this point, we say, that spirituality has become abusive.”  (from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse)

In my experience, if a situation escalates to spiritual abuse, separation from the situation is likely the best option.  Spiritually abusive people are often completely convinced of their righteousness, regardless of the pain their actions cause to others.  

I realize that separation from the abuser is a difficult option to consider, as it often means enormous upheaval to a life overseas.  However, I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes situations are so harmful that a separation is the healthiest possible option.

Questions to consider

With honesty and kindness, both to myself and others, have I done my best to resolve the conflict?

What issues of stress might be causing extra difficulty to myself and others in the conflict?

Are there issues of personal significance, burnout, or difficult personalities involved?

What will healthy boundaries look like for me, given the current conflict?

Where am I finding spiritual strength and nourishment right now?

Is this conflict the result of spiritual abuse?

Are those in positions of power misusing their power to cause guilt, judgment, or condemnation?

What would it mean to separate myself from the spiritually abusive situation?

Reading resources

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

The Peacemaker, Ken Sande

The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling

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