When Christ's Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations
Fuller, Leanna Kelley
In this project, I use extended case studies of two Protestant churches to explore the sources and dynamics of congregational conflict around theological issues. My thesis is that at the heart of congregational conflict lies anxiety triggered by encounters with difference. Using insights from psychodynamic psychology and social psychology, I show that this anxiety is a normal part of human development, as are the desire for sameness and identification with groups of similar others. However, the anxiety raised by difference can be dealt with in a variety of ways, some of which are reactive in nature and destructive in their consequences. Such behaviors include splitting and projection, strong needs for sameness, group polarization, and contentious tactics, all of which can lead to divisive conflict and can potentially damage or destroy communities of faith. With the goal of articulating a more constructive approach to conflict in congregations, I offer a theological re-framing of conflict as a natural outcome of the diversity inherent in human life. Further, I argue for diversity as a desirable theological norm—one that was intended by God and that should be embraced rather than eliminated. Building on this argument, I explore the notions of vulnerability and hospitality as theological categories that encourage human beings to "sit with" the anxiety stirred by communal life, and to seek ways to remain connected across differences rather than trying to change them. With this theological grounding in place, I return to the congregational case studies and reflect further on the similarities and differences between them. This comparison forms the basis for the practical strategies I ultimately commend for congregations in conflict.