Chapter 9: The Ministry as Reconciling

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 9: The Ministry as Reconciling

In no other age has it been so clear that the ministry must be engaged in the processes of reconciling. Whether we begin with married couples, parents and children, people of different races, nations, or the relations among people of different religious faiths, we realize that the quantities of the unreconciled exceed anything ever before known in human history. Ordained Christian ministers may of course have only a small role to play in the gigantic tasks of reconciling that confront us. But unless we play that part, we may not get a chance at performing creatively the other functions of ministry.

Reconciling may mean either "bring into harmony" or "render no longer opposed." There is a very important and subtle difference between these two shades of meaning. I may have my arms around you, or I may only have agreed to discard my weapons. It is high time that reconciling be desentimentalized sufficiently to recognize that the second meaning is often relevant, important, and the best that can be hoped for in the situation.

We have no indigenous Christian image of the ministry as reconciling. Part of the reason for this fact is that "reconciling" (along with salvation and similar terms) has been used in theology to refer to the work of Jesus Christ; and since his work has been all sufficient in its foundational principle, it has not seemed appropriate to present an image of human-level reconciling except derivatively through Jesus Christ. And since the processes of establishing reconciliation once for all, and of nurturing the outworking of it in particular situations, are not the same, the image becomes elusive.

All the functional images of ministry deal with what we do. The context of each image, and its elements, are supplied Christologically. But the actuality of human action and ministry is not simply a mirror image of the life of Jesus even as the Christ. In this instance, in the absence of any clear historical precedent, we shall have to think of possible candidates for the reconciling image of ministry, drawing as needed upon secular sources.

Possible Images of Reconciling

The traditional general image of reconciliation is the handshake. And the church has often used "the right hand of fellowship." Originally this symbol was a demonstration that the hand-offerer was not carrying a weapon. Hence it involved the long approach before hands ever actually met. It was alert about threat. But the long approach showing a weaponless hand, and then the grip, were symbols that at least for the time being the threat had been set aside.

If the handshake retained its original meaning — being honest about the hostility and being attentive visually to the long approach and not merely the clasp — it might be a candidate for a reconciling image. For whatever else reconciling may require, it must have an acknowledgment of grievances and a long approach. Today a handshake is merely a form of greeting among acquaintances, less intimate than the kiss or caress but more personal than the nod or bow. Furthermore, in the churches the right hand of fellowship does not symbolize reconciliation but acceptance into the club.

Another possible image candidate would show a couple of people (such as a married couple) who were about to tear each other to pieces until the minister raised his hands in a gesture of peace, so that the hostilities can begin to subside.

There is realism here in that people are often ready to tear one another to pieces. The trouble with this image, however, is that the minister seems to be using magic. One lift of the irenic arms and all is well. Further, the image suggests that the couple have not changed an iota of their feelings. They have simply been swayed by authority.

The image of the gavel seems superior to either that of the handshake or the irenic arms. In this image the minister is banging a gavel on the table, and a couple of people who have been waving their arms and yelling begin to subside.

The principal difference between this and the irenic-arms image is that functional ability within the context of law is shown as the reconciling medium, rather than charisma. The minister banging the gavel is moderating the meeting within an established context of law and procedure. This law gives everybody a chance to speak freely if he is decent, heeds the time schedule, and sticks to the point. No matter if a person is a minority, he may still speak. Neither he nor his opponent is required to agree. The reconciliation brought about by the gavel is not necessarily agreement. It may be only the first step of recalling heated participants to the law and the procedure. The one thing that is, in a way, forced is that recalling. Beyond this, other things will have to happen if the reconciling is to go further. But unless this is done, there is no possibility of such movement except by reversion to the charisma of the previous image. In the present image the freedom of the participants is not infringed. They simply have to do things decently and in order.

In its present form the handshake image would confuse, "I have nothing against you" (which may include indifference) with, "Despite what I have against you, I come now unarmed and ready to talk and listen."

The image of the minister with the charismatic arms would suggest either repression or keeping up appearances, not reconciliation, even if its apparent magic could be swallowed.

The gavel image is effective partly because it appears at an earlier point in the process of reconciling, partly because the sole authority is the reminder of consensus about procedure, and partly because the minister does not hesitate to use this kind of authority as relevant to the situation.

It may be argued that this image has nothing uniquely Christian about it, that it might just as well represent any democratic process. So far that is true. And if it is conceded that the church and minister have no short-cuts in these matters, then it might be well to place a Bible right beside the spot on the table where the minister bangs the gavel. Even a cross would not be out of place.

The Reconciling Process

Reconciling is a process rather than a conclusion at the human level. At the level of God’s reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ, reconciling is both a conclusion and a once-for-all event as well as a process. Once the divinely appointed event has taken place, it is the context in which our human efforts at reconciling move. It is also a good part of our empowerment to continue. But it is in no way a substitute for the concrete processes through which we must move.

Some of our best knowledge of stages in the reconciling process has come through the modern study of small, face-to-face groups. Provided the group has a leader of competence who is neither authoritarian nor anarchic, the following, in a rough and general way, are the stages through which such a group moves.

1. At the start the group is polite and superficial, and is mildly for whatever party line it is meeting under. Nobody quite says what he really thinks. The leader accepts this level of discourse, is not fooled by it, is understanding of whatever is said, and may define the longer-term task to which the group addresses its efforts.

2. While presumably beginning to work on the task, various members in various ways try to get the leader on their side. He refuses to be so drawn, while at the same time he tries to understand the communication of each. He sees that they are so far not capable of communication with one another except through him.

3. Indirect expressions of hostility begin to emerge. Perhaps at first they are about the task, or a view some member has expressed. So far they are not usually directly against individual members. The leader may acknowledge directly some of these indirect attacks; but he is more likely to try to keep the climate going so that the person with the idea being attacked can begin to reply, not without emotion but with a sense that he is not "out" because of the concealed attack.

4. Speech becomes increasingly honest, including the anger, hostility, and resentment. The expressions are more directly toward persons and positions. Eventually even the leader may be so addressed. Even while so speaking, various members may wonder when the group will blow up. So long as the discussions are decent, confined to the verbal level, and honest, the leader is pleased by the increasing expression of negative feeling.

5. To the surprise of everyone, respect by various members for various others increases. "I think your position is lousy, but I’m darned if I don’t respect you for holding it as you do," would be a not unexpected comment at this stage. Once this procedure begins, it often has a charisma about it; and all members begin to look at all others in a new way.

6. One or another member begins to comment favorably upon this as a group and not simply as a task force or a collection of individuals. The mutual support of an emotional kind among members increases, even while they are going at one another hammer and tongs on content issues.

7. The content issues are worked on, by now with profit. The best knowledge and brains available are brought in and are respected. For the first time, genuine competence has its chance. Politics, however, has not become wholly defunct; but politics is a form of competence also.

8. With the task well along, nobody needs the group for the same reasons he did when he entered it. It may therefore be either dissolved or transformed.

One question will occur at once, upon reading these points, to the alert reader. What was needed as precondition to get the group there in the first place? That question is very basic, because it is evident that many of the situations that most need reconciling do not meet those starting conditions. Even if people are brought into the same room, there may be none of the disposition that could begin with point 1 and lead onward in the process.

Once the situation has reached the stage of the first point, then the lessons from group dynamics are of great significance. But we shall have to look elsewhere as to what you do if people won’t begin at point 1.

Some additional light on the reconciling process has come from studies of counseling with married couples. One of my favorite role-playing situations in conferences of ministers and priests has found me assuming the role of minister or priest, while two of the participants are given the roles of a husband and wife with some written background about their character and how they fight. When the role-playing husband and we approach the role-playing me, they begin to squabble. She, after all, had dragooned her husband into coming in the first place. She does most of the initial talking, all about what is wrong with her husband. He makes some nasty remarks and begins to retreat.

At that point the conferences expect me to say "You feel" and "I see" with such fervent effect that, very shortly, the husband and wife will be talking sense. They are generally shocked when they find me saying, "Now wait a minute. What you both seem to be doing is simply redoing before me about what you do in private. Each of you, in his own way, is obviously trying to win me to your side. That won’t do. What I agreed to do was to try to help you with your marital situation. But in order to do so, we must get some kind of agreement on what we are trying to do, and not have this guerrilla warfare all over the place. Now, let me begin with you, Mrs. Blank. . . ." This procedure shocked a group of Roman Catholic priests even more than it had several sets of Protestant ministers. All of them had come to assume, since we correctly stress understanding in pastoral care and counseling, that given enough understanding, reconciling in the sense of "bring into harmony" would automatically evolve. This is, of course, not true.

My little object lesson through role-playing was drawn from actual experiences. The point is to know where you are in the process. Mrs. B. dragged Mr. B. to see the minister. Very well, he was dragged; but he did come — and that is part of the actual situation. Mrs. B. intended to have him trounced by the minister. Very well, but some part of her did want to re-create the marriage although another part simply wanted to save her pride. Should a minister de facto accept an implicit "contract" with such a couple in which he said only "I see," he would be making it impossible to help these people at this stage of their reconciling effort.

If, on the other hand, he is mindful of the gavel (which should be used only when needed), then he would be aware that right now the problem is not getting them to love each other more, but how to establish a procedure and a context in which their differences can be articulated and analyzed. Proceeding anarchically with no rules at all is not a stage of reconciling but acquiescence in a vague hope that something will turn up.

In many situations married couples will come to see the minister but wholly fail to see him as anything but a judge between them unless he makes it crystal clear at the start that this is not his role. Even then, some of them will leave. If they do, however, he need feel no more guilty about it than he would if he had to deny some other outrageous expectation. Once the minimal conditions are met, and some kind of context is accepted, then reconciling as a process at least has a chance if not a certainty. If the minimal conditions are not met, then one is only going through motions.

Among more sophisticated Christians there is a notion that, if you are having marital problems and decide to consult the minister or some other professional helper, you must at any cost show right off that you realize you may be partly at fault. "I know, doctor, that I haven’t been as good to my wife as I should," is one illustration of this. To be sure, it may be genuine. But it is also an implicit, "Look, I am admitting that I have some faults. My wife won’t admit to any, or at least to the right ones. Therefore, I am morally superior to her; and you, sir, as the arbiter, should acknowledge my superiority." Confession, we might say, is not enough even when it is genuine. So where do you go from here? This gentleman is not entirely wrong. But so long as his confession is a kind of bid for favor, it will impede the reconciling process unless it is as recognized as such.

I believe that the processes of reconciling that have been suggested through the group dynamics and the marriage counseling studies are generally valid beyond themselves — so long as the basic initial conditions can be met. But in terms of many of the most aggravated conflict situations within our culture, it is precisely these initial conditions that are not being met. Without being expert on any of this aspect of the problem, I shall try to make comment before I am finished. But the purpose of these efforts, which are so necessary, is to create the context in which reconciling can begin as a process. When such efforts are misunderstood as the reconciling process itself, then harm is done. The reconciling process begins only when the group or groups are ready to talk together — no matter, at the start, about the ambiguity of their motivation, the concealment of their real concerns, or anything else. But getting up to that point is something other than what has been discussed so far.

There is a final point about the process of reconciling. The minister can expect and hope for so much that he may denigrate his own effective efforts that have moved a certain distance. Some years ago I was consulted by a couple of middle years. I found their own minister both able and cooperative, and he carried on from my own contact. The husband had had a period of hospitalization for a certain kind of psychic illness. Lately he had been doing well with his job and otherwise. But his wife was concerned that "he get the best possible help." Even though he was seeing a psychiatrist as needed, she said to me, "But if we could have a Christian psychiatrist, wouldn’t it be better?"

Not only did I not think so, since this psychiatrist was doing an excellent job technically and also encouraging the couple’s church participation. What bothered me was that the wife wanted her husband’s problems solved permanently, that is, perfectionistically. But in all ways — financial, schedule-wise, psychologically, and so on — neither one would have been prepared for the major repair job that extended psychotherapy would have entailed. And if it had succeeded with him, he could probably not have returned to this rather dominating wife. So, in a way that was authoritative but not, I think, authoritarian, I gave them reassurance about the psychiatrist, got them back in touch with their own minister, and tried to get her off the perfectionistic slant about "curing" her husband. I believe this was realism.

I refuse to quote an incredible book I read years ago, according to which, if you were sufficiently convinced about reconciliation, you could handle mad dogs, boa constrictors, and grizzly bears. This kind of thinking confuses process with achievement; and in a less extreme form it is widespread in the church. Faith moving mountains is often cited as the text for such convictions. Faith has more important things to do, I believe, than being an inferior bulldozer. And, granted that a calm personality can help you even with boa constrictors, I would suggest some special training to the aspirant.

As the psychoanalysts have put it, you are "overdetermined" when you become so preoccupied with the goals that you are reluctant about the steps in the process. A move from any stage to the next is equally to be desired — no matter where we start from.

This means that appraisal and evaluation of where we are now, where we begin from, is just as important to our aiding the reconciling process as is some apparent "coup." Go back, for instance, to the eight stages delineated about a small group movement of reconciliation. It was as important for the leader to appraise every stage correctly as it was for him to do all the other things that helped the group to move ahead. So it is, I think, with the minister in every process of reconciling.

Creating the Conditions for Reconciling to Start

Right in his own church, no matter where it is or what kind of members it has, every minister has a big job on his hands of getting reconciling going. Our discussion has dealt with this only through the counseling of couples and the potentiality of small groups. We have ignored teen-agers and their relation to parents, older people in their ambiguous relationship to those who run our society, and many other subjects for which church and ministry bear responsibility within the confines of the local parish.

But church and minister have responsibility for more than these. What, for instance, about reconciling in interracial relations? Specifically, what is the minister’s responsibility for measures that may lead to the point where the processes of reconciling can go into operation? When I saw that excellent and realistic film, A Time for Burning, about a Lutheran church in Nebraska which tried to face up to its interracial obligations under the leadership of an able and courageous young minister, I welcomed the realistic descriptions and portrayals of conflict all through. But I was flabbergasted when the minister resigned. Whether he knew it or not, he had been helping to create the conditions in which the reconciling process can take place. But, exhausted, perhaps understandably, he had thrown in the towel, apparently unwilling to continue in the painful process without a timetable of clear success. I certainly admire greatly what he did — except for his failure of nerve at the end. And the end was by his own definition.

In interracial relations the recent riots have shown us two main things. The clearest and most obvious, and the one that the minister alone cannot do much about, is that there can be no true reconciling of the races until the opportunities for jobs, education, housing, and a general share in American prosperity are in actual fact available to members of all races. What the nation, the cities, and the states will do is still an open question. Here, ministers are citizens. As such, we may affect the issue. But we have nothing unique to bring.

The other point — as shown by the sociological report on the Watts riots of several years ago — is that severe discontent transcends sheer economics, jobs, and immediate opportunities to get ahead. It relates, rather, to a man’s comparative status and acceptance among his fellow human beings. Some Negroes in Watts had jobs, houses, and reasonable incomes. But they still felt unaccepted — no doubt correctly. Alone, they would not have started riots. But let riots be begun by others lower in the economic scale, and they may join in, as some of them did.

I certainly have no formula for the church or the minister setting out to "accept" groups like Negroes. Indeed, if this is not tied up to doing something about the protests over various kinds of exclusions, it is a vain thought anyhow. Still, no matter how quietly it is done, anything at all that moves toward acceptance in actual fact is a move toward the point where the process of reconciling can begin. And reconciling is certainly not just adaptation to the status quo.

As to the reconciling of nations, I have no expertness at all, only concern. Happily, our church councils seem to be maintaining their courage on these matters and also getting, latterly, more competent technical advice.

I am deeply concerned about the relations among the religions of the world. At Princeton Seminary in 1966 we had a World Religions Conference, which was small enough to be face to face and which included scholars and believers from all the great religions of the world. In days past, we could regard these persons and beliefs as "esoterica," suitable objects of scholarship by odd professors but otherwise of not much concern to our own religious life.

This patronizing attitude can no longer be sustained. Buddhism in its various branches, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and others of the long-established religious faiths — plus new religions all over the world and the so-called primitive or local religions of Africa and elsewhere — are all now of world concern. Can we create the conditions under which reconciling ourselves with them is possible? The question is not so much the reconciling process itself, but whether we have sufficient concern to create the context in which they might be interested to enter upon reconciliation processes with us. Or ourselves with them — which may be the basic issue.

On all such questions the minister may say, as I indeed say to myself: "Look, you aren’t an expert in this. So why not let the church experts take care of it?" The trouble is that the "experts" are still awaiting leads from their constituency. If nobody suggests that they take Islam seriously and try to enter into dialogue with some of its leaders, they become hesitant. Why should it not be the job of the minister to tell the experts of his church: "Talk seriously with Islam"? The result could mean more than most ministers may realize.

When Reconciling Cannot Be Started

What does a minister do when one member of a married couple comes to him about marital conflict but reports that the spouse refuses to come along? This is a frequent question, and a good many ministers are inclined to say that we cannot do anything until the spouse can be persuaded to come. I regard such a conclusion as both unwarranted and dangerous.

The fact is that the spouse who does come herself has a problem. Suppose, for instance, that her husband is an alcoholic. His alcoholism is threatening many things, including the marriage. And nobody can know what his eventual fate will be. The basic problem of his wife is that she must plan her life so that it is not in all respects contingent upon what happens to him. This could not be done with the husband present. It may be done with her alone. Yet she is so obtrusively preoccupied with trying to get a solution to her husband’s problem that she will not, unless helped, see what her own problem is.

When she is so aided, however, we ordinarily find that the "disengagement" she begins to achieve from her husband’s problem and the marital problem may be of some indirect help to him. He cannot, however unconsciously, quite "use" her as he had done before. Thus, her courage in getting help for herself tends to increase the chance of creating the conditions under which the reconciling process becomes possible. But if those conditions do not emerge, there are aspects of her life and her self-respect that can stand up — even if her husband goes on downhill. She will not be using the desire for reconciliation as a club over herself, and will not feel guilty when the conditions fail to appear.

In many kinds of situations there has to be an apparent move backward from the reconciling process in order to have a chance of creating the conditions in which it may begin. The story above illustrates this point. Quite possibly the wife said early to the minister, "But I thought you ministers were interested in saving marriages." The minister must be prepared in advance to deal with such charges.

Another illustration is the not infrequent discovery by a minister that one member of his church’s official board is absolutely recalcitrant on every issue. Certainly a minister will explore first all reasonable means of understanding such a person and the positions he takes. But the kind of person I am thinking of becomes more obdurate under such kindly but loose treatment, and I have seen many ministers who have spent hours of guilty self-reflection over their "failure to reconcile" such persons. Actually, such people are likely to be, in the technical definition, "authoritarian personalities" who may be "contained" but who are incapable of being reconciled. Firmness along with kindness may prevent them from injuring the group. But this is possible only when the minister quits feeling guilty because he has not got them reconciled.

The stepping back is not at the point of conviction and principle, but at that of direct effort to bring about the starting base from which reconciling processes might proceed. The opposite of this kind of stepping back was the historical figure of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich conference with Adolf Hitler, declaring, after he had followed an appeasement line, that this meant peace in our time.

Because we ministers rightly believe that involvement in the reconciling process is a central task, we are more reluctant than most people to step back when, at least for the time being, the initial conditions for that process are not present. We want a rebellious teen-ager to understand his parents, and his parents to understand him. We want to reconcile them. But in our kind of society it may be that the adolescent can win the necessary emotional freedom from his parents only if, for the time being, he is permitted some distance from them. This may be where the parents crucially learn that the pain of giving their children up emotionally is more important than future happy visits from grandchildren.

Finally, I believe that we ministers should recognize that there are some good devices, occasionally used in the church as well as in society, which help to reduce conflict even when reconciling cannot get off the ground. Between management and workers there are collective bargainings and, if necessary, arbitrations. In international relations there is a variety of methods. Most church rules of order (except perhaps the Quakers) make provision for getting ahead even when reconciling has proved impossible. With these last we are often apologetic, as if our hands were dirty when full reconciliation could not be effected. This seems to me an error. Granted the depth and actuality of the differences, the solutions may well be the will of the Lord. To pine uselessly about full reconciliation deflects proper attention from the procedures that are possible.

The problem that has been under discussion is, of course, a part of the larger question of the relationship between love and justice. In those terms my argument has been (along with that of Reinhold Niebuhr) that overpreoccupation with love may make us inattentive to our duty to establish justice. In very many situations justice is not second-best to love but, as Joseph Fletcher rightly says, as much love as the situation can contain.