It is an understood (and in some cases, accepted) reality that churches—regardless of where they are located, how old, what affiliation, when, or why—experience (and perhaps, perpetuate) conflict. One could say that no matter how homogeneous or heterogeneous a community (faith or secular) seeks to be, conflict is inevitable. People differ in beliefs, opinions, and practices; and when opposing sides make contact, friction is caused. Such friction causes some to bid the church farewell and good riddance; while for others, this conflict is considered a beautiful part of the constantly growing and reforming body of Christ. Despite how one interprets it, it is safe to say we each (I, first and foremost) contribute toward, participate in, and are recipients of conflict in the church. The more important question, perhaps, is how we manage this conflict. I am far from being an expert in managing conflict (I’m sure there is an endless list of people who could attest to this).
One tool taught in seminary for conflict management is that of Family Systems Theory. (All credit regarding this topic is due to my teacher, Dr. Craig Nessan) In consulting my class notes, Systems Thinking suggests: “The things that make you anxious and reactive will be the very same dynamics that make you anxious and reactive in your congregation.” The goal of Family Systems Thinking, therefore, is to help individuals differentiate one’s personal baggage from the baggage others bring to the metaphorical table (or in this case, the concrete church). One of the ways a person can engage with Family Systems Thinking is to reflect on one’s FOOI (Family of Origin Issues). (This acronym can be pronounced, perhaps humorously as it reads: sounding like “phooey”) I have FOOI. You have FOOI. We all have FOOI—issues experienced from our familial upbringing that shape us (for better or for worse). A few examples are worth mentioning. If a person grew up in a single-parent household, that experience has an affect on them—whether negatively, such as instilling an overwhelming fear of divorce that prevents the person from engaging in meaningful relationships, or positively, such as a resilience to overcome marital problems for the sake of love and faithfulness. If someone had a parent who was abusive, absent, or even overtly outspoken, that experience will affect how the child engages with their own children in the future—whether minimally or to a greater extent. If a child grows up hearing and/or seeing divisions between particular relatives, that experience can very much affect how they interact with that same relative, or someone else who shares in similar qualities.
Our FOOI shapes us—for better, AND for worse—and the consequences of those early experiences bleed over into our adulthood, many times, in ways we are unaware of. For instance, I might have grown up with someone—a parent, sibling, or relative—who had particular attributes—positive or negative—that shaped how they interacted with me. Over time—and much repetition—my experiences of this person have a lasting impression on me (once again, positive or negative depending on the situation). Even though I grow up and move away from that context, that experience will accompany me wherever I go. And then, one day I interact with someone—perhaps a person I just met—and they portray those same attributes that so-and-so from my past exhibited. Family Systems Thinking would say that more than likely I will respond to this new person the same way I would react to the relative from my past, because of the similar experience to the impression (issue) left on me from the past experience. This is not to say such a reaction is appropriate or fair, but simply: our “family of origin issues” from the past shape and influence us in many ways beyond what we might be aware of or expect.
So, what does this have to do with conflict in the church? While conflict in church may be an inevitable part of our sin and brokenness, reflecting on and being aware of our complex FOOI’s can help us to better navigate certain conflict, with regards to our personal issues, without letting it consume and destroy us. For instance, I grew up with a parent who was always adamant about resolving conflict as soon as possible. One could say this is neither a negative, nor positive experience; but nonetheless it has had a lasting impression on me. From this, I find that when I am in conflict, I am almost always immediately searching for ways to address the problem and resolve it before too much time has passed. This, in turn, affects my reactions with others—perhaps creating more friction with those who desire a lapse in time before reconciling differences. This, however, is only one example. One’s FOOI creates any and all kinds of baggage. The most important thing is not minimizing one’s FOOI baggage, but being aware of it prior to and during situations of conflict so as to not “overly identify with the emotional state—letting it define your own emotional state” nor “cutting yourself off from others’ emotional states.” One of the things I’m slowly (and not easily) learning is to not take everything personally. I am quite sure this tough lesson is a result of my FOOI baggage. Only when we begin to reflect on and own our FOOI for what it is and be honest with ourselves about it, can we better manage conflict in church. God creates us to be in relationship with one another. You and I understanding our FOOI is a step forward in moving toward living together as God intends for us.