One of my mentors in the area of conflict mediation was Bill Treadwell. I loved that guy. I miss him. He had so much wisdom about how to deal with people in congregations. He was as much right-brained as I am left-brained. Because of that we sometimes made a good combination in various church situations.
Some years ago he tried to teach me how to fish, but after one visit out on Lake Wylie in South Carolina with my son, he declared that fishing was not for me. However, there was real hope for my son.
Bill came to a point in his life when he said he was not healthy enough anymore to do conflict mediation. He did triage work to figure out what was going on and what the congregation needed to do next, but the stress of being the outside third party in the midst of unhealthy conflict was no longer for him.
He would help me think through conflict situations. He recommended me from time-to-time to congregations. And, he would assist by coaching the pastor.
I remember one Wednesday evening when Bill and I were sitting in a pastor’s office about midnight trying to help the pastor figure out his next steps in leadership in an almost intractable conflict situation. The pastor’s main antagonist had a very tenuous health situation, having suffered three heart attacks. The pastor was afraid the stress of the current conflict was more than this person could handle.
He was right. This antagonist died of a heart attack four days later following an angry confrontation with the pastor in a public setting.
Bill had some very interesting exercises he would do with congregations. One occurred when he was working with a leadership group of the congregation who were trying to find ways to express their emotions about their congregation and the conflict. He would stand people in a circle, take a pillow, and ask people to do to this pillow what they would like to do to their church. Did they want to hug it? Did they want to stomp on it? Did they want to squeeze it? Do they want to hold it high above their head? What did they want to do with it? And, what did they want to say about their action towards the pillow?
Perhaps the most dramatic exercise Bill led was when he was meeting with a congregation as a whole. This was typically during a time of triage. He would insist they meet in the church sanctuary. No other room would do. They needed to be reminded of the presence of the Triune God.
Bill placed two chairs in the chancel area. He would both angle them towards the congregation and angle them towards each other. Then he would invite anyone who was willing to come up and sit in one chair, and imagine that Jesus was sitting in the other chair. They were then invited to say anything they wanted to Jesus about the church. Obviously, this was a very powerful and intimidating exercise.
The kind of nasty, half-truths and accusations that people verbalize about one another in a congregation, are very unlikely to be said to Jesus. It is a sobering kind of exercise. It is a grace giving kind of exercise. It is an illustration of need for the unconditional love of God.
If you knew Bill Treadwell, you would also know that he was a very big man physically. He played football in college. During his post-college years his size had increased. It was always a little disarming when Bill handled explosive conflict situations with a very soft and graceful style.
He and another mentor of mine, Larry McSwain, wrote a book some years ago on conflict ministry in the church. The church of the 21st century needs more Bill’s and Larry’s who can use their keen insights, skills, and spiritual eyes to help congregations as communities of faith grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Congregational conflict is one of those occasions when we all need to hear again the message of Romans 3:23, and acknowledge we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And, if you can say it to Jesus, you can say it to anyone.