Jana Riess: How do Latter-day Saints deal with conflict and faith crises? Avoidance doesn’t work, expert says.

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast Oct. 4, 2019.

Chad Ford is a BYU-Hawaii professor, a professional mediator, and even a commentator and analyst for ESPN. To that list we can also add “author.” His new book “Dangerous Love: Transforming Fear and Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World” offers readers tools to navigate the inevitable conflict in their lives.

While the book is geared for individuals, I was particularly interested in how his research can be applied to the LDS Church and its members. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion News ServiceYou say in the book that when we fear conflict and go to great lengths to avoid it, we damage our ability to solve problems. This of course made me think of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because I feel like we do a lousy job of even acknowledging problems. It’s like any disagreement is bad because it’s considered “contention.”

Ford • It’s called conflict avoidance — sweeping something under the rug, pretending it isn’t there. It’s wearing a mask that on the outside looks pure and holy. This is a consistent theme you hear again and again from Latter-day Saints, this idea that conflict is of the devil. That there is something unholy and shameful about conflict, and if I was really holy, I wouldn’t experience it.

That’s really self-defeating. If there is conflict in my life or in my family or community, I don’t want the world to know that. So that makes it harder for LDS people to seek out help from therapists or mediators.

Sometimes we also do conflict accommodation, especially among women: “If there’s no way for me to avoid this conflict, the righteous or holy thing is for me to give in.” That’s the default move if they can’t avoid conflict altogether, because it seems meek and humble, and we like our martyrdom. The problem is that it only works in short-term settings. When things are really important and we constantly push conflict aside, a gulf builds up and eventually it will break. As a long-term conflict strategy, accommodation will not work.

RNS • So how should Latter-day Saints approach conflict?

Ford • Step 1 is to let go of our fear of conflict. It’s recognizing that conflict, in and of itself, isn’t sinful.

There’s this romanticism in our faith that if we’re of one heart and mind, our needs should always be the same. Instead, where we’re trying to go is actually a partnership, where I have to be present with my own needs at the table as well as be present with your needs. And it’s OK when our needs and dreams don’t always align. That’s natural and normal. There’s nothing sinful about having different needs or desires. How do we find a higher way to pursue them?

If you can convince people that 1) conflict doesn’t have to be inherently evil and destructive, and 2) that it’s OK to pursue my own needs and for them to pursue theirs, then conflict loses much of its mystery and scariness and becomes a problem-solving exercise. Most relationships never get there. They either suffer in silence or the same people are accommodating over and over again.

RNS • How does the LDS Church’s structure help or hinder conflict resolution, like at the ward level?

Ford • The LDS Church is structured around patriarchal and hierarchical authority. One thing that’s drilled into us from a young age is that if someone above us in the hierarchy gets a revelation, it’s not appropriate for us to push back. That person has keys or authority to make decisions, so when they make decisions, our job is to follow. I don’t believe that’s necessarily doctrinally what we believe, but that’s what we do culturally.

Many of us have tried to make decisions collaboratively and then someone says, “I have received revelation from God about this issue!” And that shuts down all conversation. To question that revelation is to question that leader’s whole relationship with God, and we don’t want to offend.

So one piece of advice I give to church leaders is to be very careful about making those assertions. It just ends the council. Church members are trained at that point to shut up and raise our hands and go along with it. So let’s be careful about when we employ that as a method to solve disputes.

RNS • What are your areas of concern when it comes to members who are struggling?

Ford • I’ll start with faith crisis. As a university professor working with young Latter-day Saints, many are going through a faith crisis. Think about our unhealthy approaches: We ignore it, we hide it. This makes young people afraid to talk about it with their friends or parents. Parents may feel shame about it.

So we start mistreating each other: We’re not open to their questions and concerns, and we don’t create space to have collaborative problem-solving. We think there’s something inherently wrong with asking questions, instead of seeing questions as a way to go deeper with faith. I see this all the time with my students and in my own family.

Because I’m teaching this stuff, they end up seeking me out because they feel I’m a safe place to talk about it. I’m very clear that I’m a practicing member of the church, but I’m not threatened by their questions. And that extends out to so many other questions, like the Word of Wisdom, women in the church, or LGBTQ+ issues. We aren’t good yet at talking about these issues in a healthy way. So we leave young people with two choices: to either shut up and accommodate, even though it hurts, or to leave and become a fierce critic of the church. Those outcomes to me are both tragic outcomes.

RNS • What concrete steps can we take to do a better job?

Ford • I’m going to get a little bit excited here, because the good news is that we have other traditions that have gotten good at this, like Mennonites and Quakers. Early Mennonites and Quakers would read scripture and try to learn from it how Jesus resolved conflict. In fact, the modern mediation model that most people adopt in North America was developed by the Mennonites and the Quakers, and it has a deep religious foundation we can draw on.

In our own church we have resources, too. Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher have a forthcoming book that looks at how to think about war and peace in the LDS tradition. These are skills we need to teach, and we need to tie them right back to our spiritual moorings in the Bible, Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

This should be mandatory training for church leaders. [Church President] Russell M. Nelson approved the first peace-building program at BYU-Hawaii when he was an apostle, and I personally presented the program to him at the time. He has given General Conference talks about conceptualizing peace building as part of our discipleship. Our history and our scriptures are there for us; we just haven’t tapped into that in the ways we potentially could.

A second thing is to understand that conflict isn’t sinful, but hurting others is. I’m not a theologian, but I know Christ has spoken eloquently and deeply about the grudges we hold against each other, and about the ways we hurt each other. If we are struggling with someone, if we’re filled with anger and bitterness and can’t see them as people, we can think about reconciling as a process of repentance, and peace building as a way to demonstrate Christlike love. As hard as it may be for us to pass on the coffee or the R-rated movie, the hardest stuff to change is the matters of the heart. We’re good at prescribing outward behavior, but when we get to the matters of the heart, we start to falter.

So let’s have that conversation. Being a disciple is not just about being friendly, but really seeing other people and having empathy. Those are the weightiest matters of discipleship: seeing people as people and not objects.