By Ian Evison, Congregational Life Consultant and Lead Staff for MidAmerica Region, with the assistance of Kenn Hurto, Congregational Life Consultant and Lead Staff for the Southern Region

In the 1950s the family therapist Murray Bowen introduced many ideas about systems. The concept of triangulation is one of the most applicable to congregational leadership. It is, in brief, when John is frustrated with or concerned about Mary, John looks to Jane to deal with this. In organizations that have had unhealthy experiences of conflict or where indirect expression of conflict is culturally normative (the Midwest!), triangulation can become deeply problematic.

If you find yourself in the middle of someone else’s squabble, you are being triangulated. If you find someone else wants you to take responsibility for their communication, you are being triangulated. Those who most habitually take the role of the responsible ones—and this is most of our congregational leaders—are most susceptible to being triangulated. From a systemic point of view, triangulation is a means of reducing anxiety. The more anxious a system, the greater the tendency to triangulation. Those who are most anxious will have the greatest tendency to triangulate.

Rev Lisa Presley IMG 0962a200Recently, I was on a phone call discussing a colleague’s work when one of the wise women in the conversation said something that made me stop in my tracks. In not too many words, she summed up one of the hardest parts of conflict in our congregations. She said:

“If all you are about is relationship, then when that relationship gets broken, there’s nothing else left to bind you together again, or to know what bigger frame of existence might be able to call you back together.” *

For many of our congregations, and sometimes more particularly for our smaller congregations, there is little articulated sense about why the congregation exists beyond the companionship of others on the journey. When asked about what they like most about their congregations, most people will answer “the community.” Heck, the most prevalent word in names of newer congregations these days is “Community,” so why wouldn’t this be true? Many of us are seeking for community—with distances, travel, moving, and time issues, many of us no longer have the built in community of multi-generational families. We are seeking communities of like-minded people, and frankly if we didn’t enjoy the people in our religious communities, we’d find somewhere else to be.

But herein lies the problem: if it’s only community, only our relationships with one another that calls us together, then what happens when things aren’t going right? What happens when there is disagreement? Without mission — a sense of calling in the world — then many congregations have no real place to turn in the midst of or the aftermath of conflict.