In Ephesians 4, St. Paul puts “speaking the truth in love” (vs.15) at the center of practices that contribute to the maturation of a congregation. John Maxwell talks about leadership as influence, and that’s certainly true. However, there is a powerful dynamic beneath that definition. Leadership is influence; influence is about relationship. Great leaders are relational leaders. This is what Jesus modeled and commended in His ministry. Over the three years that Jesus ministered in the Gospels, he was building relationships. He built relationships with the 12 disciples, the 70 followers, and the countless many that formed the crowd.
Leadership is Rooted in Relationship
Relationships are a critical fact of being a disciple of Jesus. Remember the teachers of the law that tried to trick Jesus with the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Remember Jesus’ answer in Matthew 22:36ff? To paraphrase, “’Love the Lord your God’ is the greatest and the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” There is a tremendous amount of truth in these verses, but don’t miss the point that both commandments reinforce the importance of relationships. Later Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Notice he didn’t say, “If you build beautiful buildings.” He didn’t say, “If you have a tight, systematic theology.” He didn’t say, “If you have a unified tradition and practice.” Jesus said, “If you love one another the world will know you are my disciples.” Relationship is the lifeblood of the church. It is the lifeblood of leadership. Leadership is influence, but there is no influence apart from healthy relationships.
Relationships and Toxic Triangulation
The relational dynamic of triangulation is a significant challenge to healthy relationships and effective leadership in congregations and schools. Triangulation occurs where there is conflict between two individuals or two groups of individuals. Rather than those two parties resolving the conflict together, one or both of them goes to a third party to solicit support and build a coalition and/or undermine the credibility of the other person. Triangulation is common in the church. It is common in the business world. It is common in the home.
For example, a brother and sister are having a fight over a toy. The fight has escalated from verbal to physical but still isn’t getting resolved. So, one of the children goes to mom to bring her in as a referee. Of course, the child frames the context of the situation in such a way that she believes mom will rule in her favor. The child will tell mom about how badly her brother is behaving—how wickedly and unfairly he is treating her. The child who went to solicit support from mom was practicing triangulation. She was trying to strengthen her position in the conflict by bringing in a third party. Essentially, she wanted mom to do the heavy lifting and fight the battle for her. Children learn triangulation early. We’ve all honed the skill over our lifetime.
Triangulation in the Church
Let’s move from theoretical examples to realities experienced in many churches.
Example #1- The pastor and the board of elders are arguing over an individual to be removed from membership. This individual hasn’t been in church for twenty years. However, the pastor is in favor of showing some leniency. He would like to continue the process attempting reconciliation. The elders have been struggling with this individual for years and have reached the point of action. No agreement is reached at the meeting. However, after the meeting the pastor goes out to visit some families that know the individual under discussion. He shares the proposed action of the Elders, hoping that, by sharing his concern with them, they will call the elders and persuade them to change their mind. As soon as the pastor sidestepped the elders and went to the other families, he was guilty of triangulation. His triangulation not only undermined his credibility but also damaged his relationship with the elders.
Example #2- A youth director has decided to raise some money so the youth group can go on a mission trip. Somebody isn’t happy about the fact they’re raising money to go on the mission destination selected by the group. He thinks the money should be raised and spent for a different mission or to send kids to the church camp. The concerned individual goes to the pastor or to the church council and shares his concern. In that moment of choosing to go to the pastor or the church council and not the youth worker, that individual creates a triangulation situation.
The Problem with Triangulation
What’s wrong with triangulation? First, it is not consistent with Jesus’ teachings. Do you remember the man who tried to bring Jesus into his conflict with his brother? It’s in Luke 12:13–14: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Remember what Jesus said, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Jesus would have nothing to do with this man’s attempt to draw Him into the argument. Another example would be the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees tried to draw Jesus in, but he threw the case back at them. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). Jesus teaches a clear, consistent message when it comes to conflict—resolve the matter with the person that has offended you.
Second, triangulation is wrong because it changes the way we perceive others. In the examples above, the families are likely to think less of their elders as a result of the pastor’s visit. The pastor or church council are going to have concerns about the youth worker as a result of the disgruntled member taking the complaint to them rather than talking to the youth worker. In their attempts to get others to join them in the conflict, those who solicit the help of others sow seeds of discontent or distrust.
Third, triangulation is wrong because it makes the third party feel obligated to do that which should only be done by the two conflicted parties. When we are pulled into the conflict, we feel obligated to respond. Unfortunately, our response is rarely focused on the true conflict, but on the distorted perception of the conflict presented by the one creating the triangle. Not only does this introduce confusion, it escalates the conflict. Rather than bringing peace, our efforts to mediate become biased and conflict spreads further into the church. The divide between the two parties will grow.
Fourth, triangulation is wrong because it undermines trust. If we cannot trust each other enough to speak the truth without having the other party form sides for an all-out assault, we really don’t have a base for a relationship. If the only way we have to resolve an issue is for one side or the other to gather a goon squad to come after the other side, we cannot have a foundation for healthy conflict resolution.
A Healthy Response to Triangulation
So, what do you do when someone comes to you to “share a concern?” The best thing to do, the healthiest thing to do, is to immediately stop the conversation and offer to go with that individual directly to the person with whom they have conflict, so the issue can be discussed. Sometimes that’s not practical; and sometimes the other individual is not willing. The best thing you can do in those situations is prevent the conversation from continuing. If you allow the person to share their concern, the conflict will get into your head and change your perception of the other party. Even if you don’t want that to happen, it will. Your thought process, your outlook and perspective will be changed by those words. The best thing you can do is to stop the conversation before it happens.
It can be difficult. Often, we are not aware that we are being pulled into a triangle until it has already happened. Here are some early warning signs that you’re getting sucked into triangulation:
– When the individual begins a conversation with a statement like, “Sometimes I just get so frustrated at…” Or “I’m having a real problem with __________; perhaps you can give me some advice.”
– When you sense the purpose of the conversation is to get you to agree with one position in an ongoing conflict.
– When the conversation implies the need for your active participation and engagement or response.
– When your urge to rescue and solve the problem goes into high gear.
When someone comes up to you and begins to pull you into the conflict, the best thing to do is shut it down right away. However, what happens if, after the fact, you realize that you’ve been suckered into a situation of triangulation? You’ve got a couple of options. First, you can go to the individual that brought the situation up and acknowledge that you realize you became part of the triangle and that’s not healthy. You can tell them that they will have to go directly to the individual with whom they have an issue to seek resolution. Second, you could call the individual and tell them that you recognize that you’ve become part of an unhealthy situation of triangulation and that you will certainly be glad to listen while both parties discuss their differences, but that you will not be part of the conversation.
Challenging Cases of Triangulation
What about a person sharing a concern about the pastor or an elected official, or someone sharing a concern about a staff member and you are their supervisor? First, it goes without saying that, if you suspect someone’s behavior is hurting another individual, you should report it to the pastor or elders. Yes, it is a form of triangulation, but the need to be proactive supersedes the need to avoid triangulation. In your reporting, you can minimize the damage of triangulation by reporting only that which you know rather than adding commentary. In all other cases, whether it is a staff position or a member of the church, triangulation is never healthy. Don’t encourage or reward triangulation. There may come a time, as a supervisor, that you need to intercede and intervene in a conflict. Do so only after the two parties have exhausted their attempts to bring about resolution.
If someone begins to complain to you about a person—let’s say Bill, whom you supervise—your response is to stop the conversation and ask them, “Have you talked to Bill?” If person bringing the complaint has not talked with Bill, then challenge them to come back to visit with you after they’ve had a chance to talk. If the person says they have talked to Bill, ask them, “What did he say?” Then invite them to go with you as you let the two of them discuss the issue between them. Again, you should not be a part of the conversation, just a listening party. Your job is to facilitate the healing process, not solve their problem.
Good leadership is founded on strong relationships. Healthy relationships are predicated on the assumption that we love each other enough to speak the truth in love. It may be difficult and uncomfortable, but for the sake of healthy relationships and the health of our ministries, recognize those moments when you are trying to draw others into a conflict that you have with another person and prayerfully, lovingly, seek reconciliation. When others seek to involve you in their conflicts, resist the temptation to fix the problem. In so doing, we protect our ministries from the disease of conflict.
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