Managing Church Conflict from an Asian American Perspective
From Surgery to Acupuncture: An Alternative Approach to Managing Church Conflict from an Asian American Perspective
by Virstan B.Y. Choy
In _Congregations_ (Alban Institute: Nov.-Dec., 1995): 16-19.
A Case Study of Public Communication of Intergenerational Differences
Wanting to explore the theme “Improving Harmony and Communication in Church,” an Asian American congregation invites a White counselor to be the keynote speaker for its annual All Members’ Retreat. The speaker focuses one of the sessions on intergenerational communication.
To encourage openness in sharing, the speaker asks the youth present to
identify issues about which they and their parents disagree. No youth
responds. The speaker rearranges her audience, asking the adults to sit on
one side of the room and the youth to sit on the other. She then rephrases
the question to the youth, “Think about the last time you and your parents
had an argument. What was it about?” Still no youth responds.
One of the adults new to the congregation tries to help. “Maybe the youth need more time to think up some things to say. Maybe they need anonymity. How about if we break up into two groups – one for the youth, one for the adults – for the next half hour so that each generation can come up with a list of what bugs them about the other generation. Each group could choose its own reporter so that we won’t know who actually made the complaint in the first place.” The retreat leader agreed with the suggestion. The members divided into the two groups and meet.
Thirty minutes later, the groups return to the plenary room. The youth
are given the opportunity to report first. Their designated reporter reads
from a small piece of paper, “As the youth generation of the church, we
appreciate the opportunity to share our opinions at this retreat. However,
what our parents and we disagree about – well, we don’t feel it’s right to
bring it up in public. We love our parents. What we argue about is between
us.” She looks to the other youth. They nod in agreement. She turns back to
the audience, says “Thank you,” and returns to her seat.
A Case Story on Facing Conflicts in a Public Meeting
In an Asian American congregation, a lay leader is aware of a conflict among
some of the members and is unsure how to respond. She consults a member of
her denomination’s regional staff, who offers to visit the church and to
engage the members in some conflict resolution exercises.
In his visit with the congregation, the denominational executive emphasizes “openness in communication” and encourages members to come forward so that, “face-to-face,” they might “openly confront” their problems. He asks the members to devote the day-long open meeting to the practice of conflict resolution techniques “effective in other churches that have experienced conflict.”
The church members dutifully cooperate with their executive, participating in activities engaging them in presenting their “side” of the issue, answering his questions about background history, and in trying exercises in open communication.
At the end of this process, he presents to the congregation his “findings,” his analysis of the conflict based upon these findings, and his recommendations for what the congregation needs to do. One of the findings is the revelation that there is more than one conflict in the congregation, that some members reported disagreements with other members that have existed for over two decades – disagreements “allowed” to remain unresolved.
Included in this report is his “power analysis” of the congregation,
revealing his perceptions of how power and authority have been skewed in
favor of the older generations of the church for over two decades and how
dysfunctional it would be for the congregation not to change such a
situation. The executive then lists the changes that need to be made in
order for the members to resolve their conflicts and to move forward
together. He concludes his report by noting the positive results of
confronting conflict and the importance of continuing such a “face-to-face”
process. He thanks the congregation for its cooperation. The members thank
the executive for his time and efforts and close with prayers for him and the
The day after this meeting, citing the statements about one another made
in public the day before, many of the members announce their decision to
leave the congregation.
>From a Human Relation Model to a Preserving Relationships Understanding
Most current approaches to church conflict management are based upon
conceptions of congregations as organizations (and congregational leadership
as organizational leadership). These conceptions have been primarily shaped
by human relations theory. The preceding stories of two actual cases in
Asian American congregations show how such approaches are influenced by a
psychological understanding of relationships within congregations, which
encourages confrontation of disagreements, engages the persons involved in a
conflict in direct interaction, and emphasizes communication skills
(self-disclosure, assertiveness in expressing demands, negotiation,
compromise, and collaboration). The use of such approaches to conflict in
Asian American congregations has not been effective.
To understand why, it is helpful to refer to Asian and Asian American
researchers (several are listed in the “Selected Resources” section at the
end of this article) who remind us that, for Asians, society is not
individual-based, but relationship-based. This focus upon relationships is
rooted in Confucianism, in which human beings are expected to develop and
conduct themselves as “relation-oriented” individuals. Accordingly,
attitudes that enable and sustain this relational orientation are cultivated
in the Asian family and Asian community. Three such attitudes or relational
* continuous awareness of one’s networks of relationships.
* recognition of the importance of “face” (public self-image) for those
with whom one is in relationship
* fulfillment of the obligations involved in maintaining one’s
These attitudes and postures continue to shape behavior, not just for
the immigrant Asian generation as it arrives in this country, but for the
American-born generation as well – even to the third and fourth generations.
They are predispositional in nature – so influential that they are perceived
by some Asian Americans as a sort of “cultural DNA” – not always consciously
present, but functionally operative in predisposing Asian Americans to a
distinctive posture for engaging in interpersonal interactions in the family,
in the community, and in the congregation.
At first look, approaches to congregational conflict emphasizing human
relations theory and process may seem consistent with and appropriate to the
relational orientation of people belonging to Asian American congregations.
Yet, from the perspective of many Asian Americans, the confrontational
processes and techniques actually violate the cultural values and norms
regarding relationship, face, and obligation at the root of their
understanding of human relationships. For many Asian Americans, behavior is
based, not primarily upon one’s own feelings, interests, and motivations (as
emphasized in the majority American society), but rather upon those of the
persons with whom one has relationship. A cultural collision occurs when
persons acting out of this posture are placed in conflict management
situations emphasizing attention to one’s own feelings and calling for
expression (and negotiation) of one’s own needs and interests.
Sensitivity to the following key factors may lead to more effective
response to conflict in Asian American congregations:
* the power of the relational orientation
* the predisposition toward preserving relationship
* the preference for nonconfrontational interaction
* the paradox of solidarity in the midst of conflict.
The Power of the Relational Orientation
Relationship (rather than individual needs or interests) is at the center of
the Asian American orientation to conflict. As reflected in the first case
story, this relational orientation influences interpersonal behavior in
conflict or potential conflict situations. Understanding this orientation is
therefore foundational to the development of any culturally relevant conflict
management approaches for Asian Americans.
The Predisposition toward Preserving Relationship
In situations of conflict, the relational orientation leads to a
predisposition toward preserving relationship with those with whom one is
involved in a disagreement. Consequently, as reflected in the second case
story, differences and even disagreements may be allowed to remain unresolved
over a long period of time in order to preserve the face of others (“save
face”) and therefore maintain some form of relationship (“save
relationship”). In such situations, what non-Asian American conflict
managers may perceive as passivity or inability to make decisions may
actually be an intentional, culturally shaped decision not to engage in
interactions that threaten face or confrontations which jeopardize
The Preference for Nonconfrontational Interaction
In face-to-face interactions between Person A and Person B, there are four
possible outcomes: A might lose face, B might lose face, both A and B might
lose face, neither A nor B might lose face. Since three of the four
possibilities result in loss of face, the odds do not favor a face-saving
outcome in most processes calling for face-to-face interactions!
Consequently, the predisposition toward preserving relationships lead to the
preference for nonconfrontational interaction. This is not a preference for
inactivity, but on active nonconfrontation in conflict interactions with one
another. Such nonconfrontation in conflict interactions with one another.
Such nonconfrontation takes the form of subtle or indirect engagement of
parties in disagreement, e.g., through trusted third party “go-betweens” who
serve as avenues for indirect communication (rather than professional
mediators who engage disputants in direct communication).
The Paradox of Solidarity in the Midst of Conflict
The predisposition toward preserving relationships enables the toleration of
ambiguity in these relationships in times of disagreement. Some Asian
American congregations have remained together in the midst of their
differences, deferring debate or other open efforts designed to resolve the
dispute. Some Asian Americans have characterized such congregational
cohesion in the face of conflict as “solidarity in conflict” in contrast to
the “unity in diversity” emphasized in some mainline denominations. This
difference has theological implications: how might a theology of solidarity
be different from a theology of unity or a theology of reconciliation in
shaping our conflict ministry?
>From Surgery to Acupuncture
In addressing problems in interpersonal and intergroup relationships, many
Asian Americans are inclined to adopt a position of subtlety, indirectness,
and nonconfrontational interaction. They are not inclined to adopt most
current approaches to church conflict management, which involve direct,
face-to-face interactions, personal disclosure in public settings, as well as
provision of private personal information to outsiders or strangers. Like
surgery, these approaches involve cutting the body open, exposing for
examination (and therefore exposing to risk) delicate parts of the body, and
sometimes even cutting and removal of parts of the body. Like surgery they
risk causing trauma to the body. Like surgery, they sometimes cause the
death of the body.
In contrast, acupuncture is less invasive, less incising, and less
risky. Rather than pre-surgery X-rays, probes, or the introduction of other
foreign chemicals or instruments into the body, it involves noninvasive
external observation of key points of the body. Rather than involving
surgical incisions, this approach calls only for the gentle insertion of
small needles. Rather than identifying, examining, chemically treating
and/or cutting out parts of the body, acupuncture seeks to keep body parts in
healthy relation to one another, working to free the flow of energy within
the body and between its parts. For many Asian Americans, acupuncture is an
attractive metaphor suggesting new ways of intervening in church conflicts.
Given its emphasis upon maintaining balance in the body and enabling the
free flow of energy within the body, the acupuncture metaphor provides an
opportunity for reconceiving intervention, mediation. and the use of
third-party consultants in conflict situations. Consultants need a posture
less like that of an “outside expert” in objective process and more like an
intermediary – not necessarily mediator nor arbitrator, but more a
“go-between” who provides an avenue for subtle and indirect contact between
people in conflict. A “shadow consultant” who works informally in the
background rather than directly and visibly may provide the sort of
non-invasive intervention suggested by the acupuncture image.
Some Questions for Responding to Asian American Conflict
For people seeking to utilize the observations and proposals in this article,
the following questions may be of help. They are offered, not as a new
protocol to be followed for an Asian American conflict, but as questions to
be asked in an acupuncture posture or spirit by those working with Asian
* Assessment of a Conflict Situation
1. In what ways is ethnicity a factor in this congregation? How has
such ethnicity been a factor during times of previous conflict?
2. In what ways are the four key factors and dynamics affecting Asian
American conflict present and operative in this congregation?
3. How does the culture of the congregation’s members provide ways for
people in conflict to manage or resolve their differences? Which of those
ways are operative in this congregation?
4. To what extent does the congregation already use third parties or
“go-betweens” in interpersonal interactions, decision making, conflict? How
have they been helpful in the past in this congregation?
* Developing a Response to a Conflict Situation
5. In a conflict situation, what might constitute an “acupuncture-like”
approach to responding?
6. Given the “energy flow” image in the acupuncture metaphor, how is the
energy flow of the congregation at this point? What keeps it flowing? Is
there any blockage? What is needed to “unblock” the energy flow?
7. If “go-betweens” are used, are any “available” (willing) to assist in
enabling nonconfrontational communication and interaction between the parties
in the conflict?
8. How might a shadow consultant be acceptable and used in this
The five key factors in Asian American conflict and the proposal for an
acupuncture-like approach presented here represent initial discoveries on the
path to a culturally sensitive approach to conflict management in Asian
American congregations. Such a proposal does not represent a dismissal
existing approaches by church consultants and denominational executives. It
does represent an alert to the limits and liabilities of approaches based
upon one particular understanding of human relationships and the conception
of interpersonal interactions following from it. In addition, this proposal
may not be limited to use in Asian American churches. Just as some Western
medical practitioners have become open to the appropriateness and benefits of
acupuncture for certain health problems, leaders of congregations seeking
alternatives to surgery-like conflict management processes may want to
explore acupuncture-like approaches.
Augsburger, David. _Conflict Mediation across Cultures: Pathways and
Kendis, Kaoru Oguri. _A Matter of Comfort: Ethnic Maintenance and
Ethnic Style among Third Generation Japanese Americans_, 1989.
King, Ambrose Yeo-chi. “Kuan-Hsi and Network Building: A Sociological
Interpretation.” In “The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese
Today” _Daedalus_ 120:2 (Spring, 1991): 63-84.
Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. “Nonconfrontational Strategies for Management of
Interpersonal Conflicts.” In _Conflict in Japan_, ed. E.S. Krauss. T.P.
Rohlen. P.G. Steinhoff, 41-60, 1984.
Perrow, Charles. _Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay_, 3rd ed.,
This article is based upon the work of the Alban Institute Action Research
Team on Conflict Management in Asian American Congregations. If you are
interested in having a team consult with your congregation or judicatory,
contact Alban consulting and training at (800) 486-1318, ext. 229. For other
information, contact the team convenor directly – the Rev. Bert Tom,
Presbytery of San Francisco, 2024 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510)
Dr. Virstan Choy is Director of Field Education and Integrative Studies and
Assistant Professor of Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He is
a member of Alban’s Action Research Team on conflict management in Asian
Reprinted by permission from CONGREGATIONS, published by The Alban Institute, Inc., Suite 433 North, 4550 Montgomery Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814. Copyright 1996. All rights reserved.