It's natural to avoid conflict. Negative feelings and attitudes come out of it, and conflict can easily spiral out of control once it rises to the surface. It is uncomfortable, uncivilized, perhaps even un-Christian to allow emotions to get the best of us. Why, then, would anyone want to incite conflict intentionally, especially in a Christian setting?
Like many churches, some theological schools are characterized by a "culture of niceness." Like governance and leadership in any organization, life in a theological school can deliver bumps and bruises during day-to-day life. So why is it that the public discourse that surrounds decision-making, strategizing, and leadership sometimes sometimes sounds more like afternoon tea with the Queen?
Sometimes it's helpful to ask what such a "culture of niceness" conceals. What work does it do within the organization?
Jeffrey Jones suggests that cultures of niceness in organizational (and especially Christian) settings allows for the avoidance of dealing with deep, conflicting values that can ensnare effective governance. In a recent blog about his new book, Heart, Mind and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership (2009), he says:
In many organizations, conflicts, especially conflicts related to the organization's purpose, are avoided at all costs. Deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors are transmitted, usually nonverbally, about the way one should behave so as not to provoke disagreement. Avoiding conflict, however, is one way to ensure the slow death of the organization, because if disagreements are not faced, there is no possibility of the kind of change that will enable the organization to renew itself.
The role of the effective leader, he continues, is to help a group bring its conflicts to the surface, so they can deal together with the contradictions they don't even know they face. The answers to adaptive challenges, he concludes, can be found in the deep awareness of such organizational values which often can only be brought to the surface through conflict.
This perspective certainly applies as well to theological educators as it does to clergy. But what does it mean for members of the board? Is inciting conflict on the governing board a healthy way of moving forward? My gut says no. Conflict for the sake of conflict serves no purpose.
Yet when used as a tool by a skillful leader, conflict can chisel away the layers of niceness that inhibits our schools from facing reality and making strong steps into the future.