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Coping With Conflict

By Suzanne Jordan Brown

"I’m never going to be a pastor," Peter declared. "You trust people and they treat you dirty."

I gazed in shock at my 9-year-old’s unhappy, bitter face and felt a sudden wave of guilt. The fiery trial I was experiencing was so painful I had forgotten there were others in the family who might be feeling the heat.

"I never thought the Smiths would leave," he muttered.

"I never thought they would leave either, Son," I answered.

It was true. Donna was my best friend. She and Cliff had been in the church for as many years as my husband, Paul, had been the pastor—14 to be exact. They were our most loyal supporters and closest coworkers.

Then Cliff disagreed with a doctrinal stand Paul was taking. Soft spoken and gentle as Paul is, he never backs down over what he feels to be the truth in God’s Word. One dreadful night the situation came to a head. Donna and Cliff came to our house determined to settle the issue. When they were faced with scriptural reasons they could not refute, the disagreement moved from doctrinal to personal.

"You are too narrow and legalistic," Cliff said, pacing angrily across our living room. "We don’t think we’re being fed spiritually. We’re going to leave and find a church that meets our needs."

Donna joined in with complaints—some valid and some petty, but all presented in a condemning manner.

I was devastated. How could people we trusted act so venomous? How could our most loyal church members suddenly betray us? I was so stunned I never gave a thought to our children, who could easily hear the loud, angry voices through the thin walls of our small house.

Paul was hurt, but continued with his busy schedule of serving, as usual. Not me. For days I was lost in a fog of depression. Could I ever trust anyone again? Was I doomed to go friendless through the rest of my life?

I moped around until Peter’s evident bitterness shook me out of my pit of self-pity. Then I saw that our other three children were hurting, too. At 11 and 13 years of age, Paul, Jr., and Beth were at particularly vulnerable stages. Even 7-year-old Becky was aware of the conflict. Yet, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want my children to become bitter, like so many other PKs I had known, but I didn’t know how to help them cope.

The parsonage had been like uncharted waters to me. My parents weren’t in church when I was growing up, and I attended only when someone invited me. I hadn’t the least idea how to relate to these PKs of mine. So I went for reinforcements. Paul’s family, unlike mine, were faithful in church all his growing up years.

"How did you react when there was conflict in the church?" I asked him.

"I never noticed. My folks never talked about church problems in front of us."

I saw the wisdom in that. After all, some problems are parent-sized, too big for kids to handle. But that didn’t help much in our case. They were all too aware of the situation. What could I do about it now? I asked a friend for advice. He had grown up in a parsonage, and now pastors a church himself.

"Kids pick up on your reactions," he told me. "Dad and Mom didn’t talk about church conflicts in our presence. When we had to know, Dad was very calm about it. He said that serving the Lord wasn’t always easy, and there would be people who let us down. Dad said, and showed by his actions, that God was faithful and would help when we hurt."

That really made me squirm. No wonder my kids had taken the Smith situation so hard. We should have explained the situation to them calmly, giving them as much information as they needed, and no more. Instead, we had left them to form their own conclusions from things they overheard. Besides, I had done nothing but cry and mope for days.

I didn’t want them to be bitter, though, so I decided to pull up my socks and project a right attitude, regardless of what I really felt.

The next day I made waffles—a traditional celebration breakfast.

"What’s the occasion?" the kids asked.

"I’ve just decided not to worry any more about the Smiths," I told them. "We’re here to serve the Lord, not to win a popularity contest. People may disappoint us, but God never will. So why should we worry about it?"

The children responded with smiles of relief and ate their waffles with obvious enjoyment. Of course, they watched to see if my improved attitude would last. I made a point of being cheerful and going about the work I had been neglecting. To my surprise, I found that as I acted cheerful, I began to feel more cheerful. I realized that the words I kept repeating about the Lord’s faithfulness were true. My business was to serve Him, and serving Him was, in itself, enough reward for me.

All seemed to be well, until a new problem surfaced a few weeks later. Becky, our youngest, suddenly developed a mysterious stomachache that reappeared every Sunday.

"What’s the matter?" I asked, confronting her at last. "You’ve always liked Sunday school before. Is it your new teacher?"

"Sort of," Becky admitted. "I like her, but what if she doesn’t like me?"

Puzzled, I asked her to explain.

"Well, Mrs. Smith was my teacher before, and she said sometimes that I talked too much in class. Then they got mad and left. Maybe if I hadn’t talked so much, she wouldn’t have left."

The problem suddenly came into focus. Kids have a tendency to assume the blame for things happening in their world. We see it often in children of divorce. "If only I behaved better," they say, "maybe Daddy wouldn’t have left."

Now we saw that tendency in our daughter.

I reassured her the problem had nothing to do with her.

"But why are they so mad at Daddy?" she asked, her big blue eyes shining with tears.

I took a deep breath, prayed for wisdom, and plunged into an explanation. "Sometimes when people are faced with things they don’t want to believe, they look for reasons not to believe it. If they can’t find any, they get mad at the messenger telling them those things. People were angry with the prophets and the apostles. They even got mad at Jesus. Daddy understands there will be people who are upset with him sometimes, too."

She seemed to accept that explanation, and soon the Sunday morning stomachaches were a thing of the past.

One more repercussion came of the Smith ordeal. Paul, Jr., had grown up from nursery days with Johnny Smith. They were in the same class at school, played on the same ball team, and shared the same group of friends. When Johnny’s parents left the church, taking Johnny with them, Paul felt the vacuum. He also didn’t know what his relationship with Johnny should be.

"I guess I can’t have Johnny over for my birthday party," he said one day.

"I don’t know why not," I replied. "The problems his parents had were with your dad—not you. I’m sure he would like to come."

"But, I feel like a traitor being friends with Johnny when his parents hurt you and Dad so much."

"You don’t need to take up a defense for us," I reassured him. "God has given us the grace to forgive them. You don’t need to worry about it. We want you to be friends with Johnny just as you always have been."

"I guess I’ll call and invite him now," he said, obviously relieved.

Although there were a few awkward situations along the way, he and Johnny remained good friends until the Smiths moved to another state and all contact with the family was eventually lost.

Many years have passed since the Smith incident. Although we have had less than our share of troubles (thanks to Paul’s gentle leading of his flock) there have been the inevitable hurts along the way.

Just the other day he came in with a familiar discouraged slump to his shoulders. "I’m afraid we’re going to lose the Martins," he said.

Immediately I felt a rush of anger. Here was another family we had carefully trained and nurtured spiritually, only to have them leave when things didn’t go their way. I felt like throwing a pity party and inviting all my friends.

Fortunately, by now, I know better. If I want my children to cope, I’ll have to lead the way by coping myself with forgiveness and faith. It doesn’t get easier with practice, but responding in a way pleasing to God saves a lot of heartaches—for myself as well as for those important people living with us in the parsonage.

Suzanne Jordan Brown is a pastor’s wife who lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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