One of my favorite books is Friedman’s Fables by the late Edwin Friedman. This classic contains fables for life.
One of my favorite fables is “The Friendly Forest.” In this story, a lamb and a tiger live with other animals in a friendly forest. The lamb is understandably very afraid of the tiger. The tiger is aggressive toward the lamb. The lamb expresses concern to her neighbors. The other animals think that the lamb is being silly when it cowers from the tiger’s growls, stares, and other actions. The tiger is just being a tiger.
After attempting to ignore the tiger, accept that the tiger is what it is (aggressive in nature), living in fear, and trying to get the other animals to support her, the lamb decides to leave the forest. The other animals think she’s being silly, plead for her to stay, and decide to appeal to the tiger’s reasonable nature by having a meeting to work out the conflict. The lamb is not so sure about this— her life is in danger! And if the tiger just being a tiger, and nothing is going to change, what’s the point? Finally, one of the less subtle animals speaks its mind. The animal says that if they want the lamb and the tiger to live peacefully in the forest, they need to give up on making them communicate and cage the tiger.
This fable describes how I felt in my first parish as a pastor. There were tigers. I was a lamb. When I complained, or asked for help dealing with the tigers, I was advised several times to talk to the persons, or think of what their gifts were and put them to work so they’d feel useful, or just ignore them because they’d always been that way and let things go in one ear and out the other, like everyone else did. No one thought of caging the tiger—especially not me. I blamed the situation on my being ineffective or just plain incompetent.
Wrong. After I left that parish I discovered that at least three young pastors had left the ministry after serving there. Another pastor shared that he stayed because he was just plain stubborn and wasn’t going to allow them to push him out. The person that followed me was burned out and anxiety-ridden at the end. A retired pastor said that that church was really hard on him and he had to take time to heal after his time there. And when I shared with a past bishop what my first appointment was, the bishop’s reaction was, “Oh, dear!” and a shake of the head. I was one more lamb sent to a congregation of tigers.
I am really sick and tired of the tigers being free to destroy the lambs. So sick of it, in fact, that I heard God’s call to conflict transformation ministry, and interim pastoring, in order to strengthen churches and cage the tigers. The church at large was slow to respond to my offers. I realize now that historically, we “nice church folks” just haven’t known what to do with those pesky tigers.
So, I write this post to give you pastors and other church leaders out there some guidelines for caging the tiger. If you are in a situation where this process below seems too insurmountable because there are too many tigers at each step, have a consultant like myself come and guide the process. (Pick me! Pick me!)
Constructing the Cage: Conflict Guidelines
- Study the scriptures about conflict. Lead Bible Studies on conflict. Make conflict an okay subject to discuss. Matthew 18 is a great starting place.
- Make ground rules, or conflict guidelines, based on these scriptures. Seek wisdom from people in the congregation that are trustworthy, wise colleagues, and your spiritual mentors.
- Share the ground rules and get buy-in from the non-tigers. (The tigers will only thwart this.) Discuss different scenarios.
- Make the ground rules official. Work according to your church’s polity / bylaws so that each step is above reproach, whether you are led by staff, council/board, elders, etc. (That way, for you UM’s, if they call your District Superintendent and complain, you can document the steps you have taken.) Have a congregational meeting and review the process that has led to the ground rules, remind them of the scripture, and if appropriate, have a congregational meeting to approve the ground rules. Note: Make sure that the ground rules state specifically how your congregation will handle conflict. Make it clear and appropriate to your context. You may want to keep your supervisor (District Superintendent, etc.) in the loop, too.
- Go over the ground rules and call attention to them ad nauseum. Read them at administrative meetings, post them in the hallways and bathrooms, put them on your office door, above the water fountains, make a puppet show… anything to make them part of your congregation’s culture. Take time at your gatherings to go over a ground rule or two and explain it.
- Practice, practice, practice. Model how to carry out the ground rules through role plays. For example, show them what to do if a “tiger” comes along and starts complaining. Here’s a scenario when Matthew 18 is being followed.
Tiger: “I’m really sick of what’s going on around here.”
Person: “What do you mean?”
Tiger: “Pastor is awful.” (Proceeds to start gossiping and trashing the pastor.)
Person: (If necessary, cuts in) “Have your talked to the pastor?” (First step in conflict resolution is one on one conversation with the other person.)
Person: (Points to the rules on the wall as indicated in step 6.) “Well, then, that’s your first step. When will you make time to do that?” (Hint: offer to accompany the tiger if the tiger won’t go alone.)
With this simple role play, you will have equipped people in the meeting to take the first step of caging the tiger before a possible bloodbath.
- Follow the ground rules yourself. As a pastor I have had people come to me complaining about other congregants. Rather than listen to gossip, I learned to direct the person back to the one they were mad at. If they didn’t want to go alone, I offered to go with them. It was surprising how many times huge conflicts immediately dissipated. Funny how that happens.
These are the first steps to caging the tiger. I’m here if you need active support!