When Matthew 18 Isn’t Enough: Developing a Deeper Model for School Conflict Resolution

When Matthew 18 Isn’t Enough: Developing a Deeper Model for School Conflict Resolution

Have you experienced conflict within your Christian school? How were you instructed to approach it? Were you encouraged to use the model described in Matthew 18:15–17? How did that work out for you? In my ministry of providing Christian conciliation services, I have become painfully aware that this excellent teaching of Jesus has been misunderstood and misapplied in many schools. Thankfully, the Word of God has the remedy for such a difficult situation, if we are prepared to lovingly look hard at our own hearts and commit to stepping closer together and pursue true peacemaking.

The Entrenchment of Matthew 18

I have been hard pressed to find a Christian primary or secondary school that sufficiently addresses how to handle relational conflict. Most schools simply encourage their faculty, staff, students, and parents to embrace and employ the teaching of Matthew 18:15–17. I have also been unable thus far to uncover scholarly and professional literature to explain why this is so. What I have discovered are three things, in general: 1) we don’t have a proper definition of what conflict is in regard to the school environment, and how conflict is different from other disagreements that are faced more often; 2) we have not encouraged a journey to understand other biblical models for conflict resolution; and 3) we have not put into practice real steps to reconcile and grow a peacemaking culture.

Defining Conflict and Applying Within the Matthew 18 Context

Judy Dabler, a Certified Christian Conciliator who has been a pioneer in biblical peacemaking for decades, presents a thoughtful working definition of conflict as, “the righteous, sinful, or fallen desires of one person (or group) competing with the righteous, sinful, or fallen desires of another person (or group)” (Dabler 2015). We learn definitively from the Bible where conflict comes from when James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (James 4:1, NIV)? While we remain on this earth, then, we will wrestle with the desires of our heart which can so often be sinful.

Are these desires within us always the sin that Matthew 18:15 describes? Not necessarily. When Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (NIV), what does that sin or fault consist of? Christian schools are using a very clear model regarding church discipline without digging sufficiently into the understanding of what is actually at dispute. If a student is offended by the way a teacher talks to him or her, or a parent is angry that a coach isn’t letting his or her child get enough time on the court, or a teacher is bitter about an evaluation process from the administration, has an actual sin been committed that requires this kind of confrontation?

Dabler (2018) offers some vital observations to consider. Within a Christian school environment, many times there occur instances that are in reality concerns or complaints, which ought not to be treated as conflicts. Learning the difference is important because with a concern (a matter of interest or importance to a person) or a complaint (a concern rising from a perceived violation of policy), it is entirely possible that no sin has occurred, just competing desires which may or may not be sinful to the extent of requiring church discipline.

Even if a serious relational conflict happens in which the competing desires of two or more parties causes anger, bitterness, resentment, anxiety, depression, and/or a breakdown in ability to communicate, seeking biblical justice may not only be unwise but also potentially disastrous for a school community. This is because the ultimate goal of Matthew 18—the eventual reconciliation and restoration of the unrepentant sinner back to God and back to the church—is often overlooked. Biblical justice without making room for biblical reconciliation is unloving and invokes the truth of Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs” (NIV).

Another Model for Resolving Conflict

Though many of the disputes within a Christian school will be concerns or complaints, real conflict can still happen and needs to be worked out biblically. How is this done? We are blessed to have God’s Word to guide us in this process, and we are doubly blessed because this enhanced model for conflict resolution also works for concerns and complaints!

We have to first remember that even before Jesus taught us the Matthew 18 model, He commanded all believers to be reconcilers. From the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus clarifies many aspects of Jewish law for those who would become His disciples. After working through the issue of murder, Jesus immediately says in verses 23–24 (NIV), “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

It is fascinating to consider how the direction of sin is treated differently here than in Matthew 18:15—not going to someone who has committed a fault against you, but rather you going to someone you realize you have wronged. For me personally, I am instructed by this passage that in the midst of my service to God through my profession, my family, and my inward life, if I realize there is conflict between me and someone else —no matter who is at fault—I am to put aside that work (leaving the gift at the altar) and reconcile first with that brother or sister, then resume my service to God.

The final passage to consider in our new model is Philippians 4:1–9. Here, Paul instructs the church of Philippi in the reconciliation process between two beloved Christians, and we discover some amazing attitudes to adopt. We are exhorted to rejoice in the process of conflict resolution (again I say, rejoice!), to be gentle, to present our case to God first, and to, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (v. 8, NIV). If we adopt the attitudes of Philippians 4 and apply them in a loving manner toward those with whom we share conflict, what might that look like?

Practical Steps Toward Reconciliation

Ken Sande’s (2004) foundational book, The Peacemaker, presents a compelling set of actions with which to approach conflict resolution. First, we are to attempt to handle the conflict personally (within ourselves) by:

  • overlooking and forgiving an offense;
  • not jumping to conclusions about the meaning of the other person’s words, actions, and intentions;
  • remembering what we know to be good about the other person; and
  • reminding ourselves of how blessed we are to already be forgiven by Jesus Christ.

If, however, the conflict cannot or should not be handled internally, we are to handle the conflict privately (involving only the two involved parties) in a way that:

  • brings glory to God as we recall the attitudes of Matthew 5 and Philippians 4;
  • gets the “log” out of our eye before confronting the other person’s “speck”;
  • gently helps the other person see their part in the conflict; and
  • makes every effort to reconcile as quickly as possible.

However, should the conflict not be able to be handled privately, we are to seek the help of one or two others by meeting togetherwith a trusted leader, or else seek the assistance of a trained Christian conciliator, counselor, or other third party that both individuals agree to consult.

Continuing the Conversation

There are four additional recommended steps to continue this conversation toward investing in a culture of peacemaking:

  1. Consider how to enhance school policy beyond Matthew 18, and consider how to provide education and training on how to achieve the model.
  2. Consider how to empower specific individuals within the school to competently serve as conflict resolution mediators for those cases that truly need significant reconciliation.
  3. Invest in further training on the crucial elements of biblical reconciliation—repentance, confession, and forgiveness (Sande, 2004)—which we have not had room to discuss here.
  4. Invite stakeholders from the school community (e.g., leaders, teachers, parents, students) into a dialogue about ways to create an intentional culture of peacemaking at your school.

I deeply believe that conflict can bring new opportunities to draw closer to God, to ourselves, and to one another. The love we show to the world in how we deal with conflict is what I believe Jesus desired when He prayed to His Father in John 17:22–23 (NIV): “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

References

  • Dabler, J. 2015. Peacemaking Principles. Training seminar. Creative Conciliation, www.creativeconciliation.org.
  • Dabler, J. 2018. The “4 C’s” in organizational life. Education module. Creative Conciliation, www.creativeconciliation.org.
  • Sande, K. 2004. The peacemaker: A biblical guide to resolving personal conflict. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

About the Author

Maxx Godsey is a Christian conciliator and founder of Renewal Conciliation Services (www.renewalconciliation.org). He is also a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who recently worked within the Christian K–12 school environment as a teacher and administrative intern. He will complete his Master of Arts in pastoral counseling with Liberty University in December 2018. He is passionate about seeing peacemaking cultures grow, particularly in Christian schools. You can reach him via email at maxx@renewalconciliation.org.

 

The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

You may think that Christian schools—whose missions can often be boiled down to “Serve God, Serve Others”—may be leading the way in implementing service-learning. However, in their new book, Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, authors Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig say that often the power of service-learning is unrealized in Christian schools. Instead, it’s more likely that Christian schools have been doing some service activities, instead of genuine service-learning.

Serving or Service-Learning—What’s the Difference?

I am convinced that the phrase service-learning needs redemption—a basic reboot! When I mention service-learning to others, I hear the same mixed and often-confused responses that I mentally conjure up in response to those words. To this end, Swaner and Erdvig draw some helpful distinctions between what is serving versus service-learning. Service-learning is not any of the following service activities:

  • Service hours with no link to the curriculum;
  • Service limited to the inside four walls of the school community;
  • An activity or project that does not provide direct contact with those being served;
  • A one-time event instead of ongoing service (which helps facilitate relationships); and
  • Service that is done from a “charity” perspective, as opposed to community-minded.

 If these kinds of activities—though potentially valuable for students, teachers, and the community—are not service-learning, then what is? According to Swaner and Erdvig, it is “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school.” They explain that service-learning:

  • Connects community service or outreach with classroom learning and the curriculum;
  • Takes students outside of the school setting and into the local community, to address real community needs;
  • Creates authentic, meaningful relationships between students and those being served; and
  • Increases and enhances student learning, as well as students’ desire and ability to serve others.

 They further suggest that the true purpose of service-learning is “to address real needs of the community partner” (bold emphasis mine).

They also provide two key questions for administrators to help us differentiate and further develop our understanding of service-learning:

  • The first question is, “Are the service opportunities offered by the school also available to students in other settings, such as their churches, youth groups, or families? (Food and clothing drives are good examples of fairly universal service activities.)” If the answer is yes, then what’s being offered might not be genuine service-learning, as it does not harness the educational power of the school.
  • Conversely, and second, “Is there a meaningful connection between current service opportunities at the school and ‘real work’ of learning in the classroom?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the odds are that true service-learning is happening.

If as faith-based schools this is a critical outcome of our missions, we need to redeem the term service-learning and do it right.

The Promise of Service-Learning

With this clearer picture of service-learning in mind, we can better answer the question of why exert the effort of engaging in service-learning (which the authors do not shy away from saying is resource- and time-intensive). Swaner and Erdvig present research that points to multiple benefits to students who engage in service-learning, such as positive gains in: 1) academic achievement, 2) civic engagement, 3) beliefs and values, and 4) leadership, spiritual, and personal development. All of these are in line with the mission statements and desired student outcomes of Christian schools.

Along those lines, I appreciate that, in the section on national service-learning standards, the authors have also formulated supplemental standards appropriate for Christian education. These standards articulate four additional areas: 1) Christlikeness, 2) worldview development, 3) servant-leadership, and 4) lifelong service. While service-learning is well-practiced in many different educational settings, it not only can find a place in Christian schools, but also is well-suited to what we wish to see in students’ learning and spiritual formation.

Ultimately, service-learning can help students to grow in their identity in Christ, and in their ability to be His agents of restoration in a broken world. They can learn about how they are uniquely created for good works (Ephesians 2:10) and can gain practical experience in walking in those works, with Christian school teachers as helpful mentors and guide.

In fact, I will take the risk to suggest that genuine service-learning exemplifies the best aspects of deeper learning—learning through real work—the endpoints of project-based learning and what is called FLEX (Formational Learning Experiences) in the TfT (Teaching for Transformation) model. Christian schools serious about increasing student engagement and mission distinctiveness through deeper learning for their students would be well served by this book, in shaping and re-shaping service-learning at their schools.

[Editor’s Note: This post is co-published by the CACE blog and the ACSI blog in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]

About the Author

Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting DB Consulting in May 2010, he served as vice president of Learning Services and director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Dan regularly presents on teacher evaluation and professional growth, curriculum design, school improvement, technology integration, faith integrated learning, and student faith development at regional, national, and international conferences. He is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning published by Corwin Press. He can be reached via email at danbeerens@gmail.com.

“Now or Never” – The Research Basis for Innovation in Christian Schools

“Now or Never” – The Research Basis for Innovation in Christian Schools

In Schools at Risk: An Analysis of Factors Endangering the Evangelical Christian School Movement in America (Nichols 2016), I investigated the nature, causes, and contributing factors to Christian school closures in the U.S. since 2006. A goal of the study was to identify implications for practice that these factors held for the future, as well as develop a set of recommendations to address this issue of school closure.

Ongoing Threats

The findings revealed that a confluence of significant factors combined, converged, and intersected to contribute to the closure of Christian schools, with a number of these indicators appearing two full years prior to the recession of 2008. These ongoing threats to our schools include:

  • financial stresses;
  • changing parental expectations;
  • cultural shifts;
  • failure of schools to detect and effectively deal with danger signs;
  • repetitive inaction or failure to act in a timely manner in the face of threats (or what I termed “repetitive inaction disorder”);
  • resistance to change at the school site level (e.g., lack of innovation, reinvention, and retooling for 21st -century educational challenges);
  • changing patterns of evangelical church attendance;
  • failure of leadership at the school site level (especially school boards and unsupportive pastors); and
  • failure of schools to effectively market themselves.

These are exacerbated by additional factors related to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession such as: the continuing rise of charter schools, homeschooling, and online K–12 schools; challenges to sustaining school mission; loss of homogeneity of vision and culture at the school site level; and competition from other Christian schools.

Getting to the Root Cause of School Failure

A major overarching finding across the research was that nearly all factors identified by participants invariably intersected with and were related to either: (1) leadership failure at the school site level; (2) cultural changes; or both.

Key to both leadership failure and cultural change was the seeming inability—or unwillingness—of Christian schools to adapt and change to the shifting social and educational landscape in the U.S. In fact, the study’s respondents saw this as a greater problem for schools now than it was a decade earlier, underscoring the degree to which many of our Christian schools have dug in their institutional heels and refused to change. But why?

Marsh (2007) and Wilson (1989) pointed out that when the conditions of an educational environment change, schools are faced with a dilemma. They can retrench themselves in longstanding and familiar ways of behaving, or they can soberly examine their own organizational behaviors and make the changes necessary for institutional success. Failure to do either can have negative effects throughout a school system.

This failure was evident in the research as a contributing cause to the closures of Christian schools. Ritzema (2013) stated in prophetic-sounding terms that unless Christian schools—meaning Christian school leaders—take note of the changing cultural, educational, and technological landscape of the 21st century and take action by innovating, retooling, and reinventing themselves, he predicted more schools would continue to close. He further asserted that it cannot continue to be educational business as usual; Christian schools can no longer simply open their doors and expect people to flock to them in huge numbers as happened three and four decades ago. For good or for naught, a new day has come. New methods are required.

Underscoring this reality, Frost (2015) found that one of the problems endangering Christian schools is the stubborn determination to perpetuate the status quo, rather than using inspiration to build the future by being creative and innovative while staying true to core Christian beliefs. He asserted that resisting educational innovation by hiding behind the misguided notion that remaining the same will preserve a school’s values only hastens decline. Failure to embrace new educational practices that can stimulate progress will prevent growth that is essential (Frost 2015, 2014).

Change, Innovate, Think Entrepreneurially—Now

The findings of the study led to several crucial implications for practice. Not surprisingly, one of those implications was directly tied to leadership’s ability to innovate: Christian schools must be willing to change, innovate, and think entrepreneurially, and then follow through with effective, timely action. This includes embracing technology, innovation, and instructional techniques to develop 21st-century skills in both students and staff members.

But it also means re-envisioning, reinventing, and retooling everything we do as Christian schools, eliminating silos and collaborating as we lean into the Holy Spirit and press into the future together. It means being willing to try new things, being willing to fail and then re-attempt. It means being “all in.” It means having a growth mindset as schools and as an entire movement, re-creating an educational culture that desires to be at the leading edge of not simply 21st-century learning, but rather biblically permeated 21st-century learning—with an unquestioned and unsurpassed commitment to excellence for the glory of Christ and the good of our kids.

Learning From One School’s Experience

At Alta Loma Christian School, that has meant the following:

  • inhaling new God-honouring research (e.g., the 2017 ACSI-Barna Group study: Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Options in a Changing Market; the joint Impact 360 Institute-Barna Group study: Who is Gen Z);
  • embracing new instructional approaches and embodying a new pedagogy;
  • modifying our vision statement and our Expected Learning Outcomes;
  • changing how we conduct an open house, redesigning our website and all of our promotional materials, and rewriting our advertising copy to retarget both millennial parents and Generation Z students; and
  • broadening our collaborative network of like-minded educators and sharing what we’re discovering in dialogue with the movement at large.

By engaging in these efforts, we’ve essentially transformed our entire school culture. We have been working the fields, and now God is bringing the rain: as we opened a new school year in August, we have experienced an 11.7 percent increase in enrollment compared to last year. In a marketplace with 44 private schools within nine miles of our campus, we consider that miraculous. But it also underscores to our school how truly non-negotiable change and innovation are right now.

To be clear, the urgent necessity to innovate and embrace change is not about the integration of educational technology or developing flashy new programs; it is about a return to institutional creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, empowered by God, that once marked the Christian school movement decades ago when it experienced remarkable, unmatched, meteoric growth. Now in a culture and global community marked by rapid change and post-Christian drift, we must rekindle and reignite our passion as Christian schools for change and innovation, especially in light of our divine mandate to be transformational change agents in the world.

Editor’s Notes:

This post is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.

Interested in learning about innovation in Christian schools with colleagues from all over the world? Consider attending the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) in San Antonio, January 30–February 1, 2019.

References:

Frost, G. 2015. Does your school have a future? Christian School Educator 18(3): 6.

Frost, G. 2014. Learning from the best, volume two: Growing greatness that endures in the Christian school. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.

Marsh, J. A. 2007. Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nichols, V. E. 2016. Schools at risk: An analysis of factors endangering the evangelical Christian school movement in America.ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 10160167).

Ritzema, R. 2013, October. Regional director’s report. Presentation delivered in Temecula, CA, to the Southern California District 4 meeting of the California/Hawaii region of the Association of Christian Schools International.

Wilson, J. Q. 1989. Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it. New York: Basic Books. In J. A. Marsh Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community, 101. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

About the Author

Dr. Vance Nichols is the head of school at Alta Loma Christian School (Rancho Cucamonga, California). He concurrently serves as adjunct professor of education at California Baptist University, and was an educational researcher, organizational leadership theorist, and 2015 Innovation Scholar at the University of Southern California, where he earned his EdD. Now in his 36th year as an educator, he co-authored Purposeful Design’s Elementary Bible curriculum, serves on the ACSI Southern California Regional Accreditation Commission, and speaks, writes, and collaborates to help reignite the Christian school movement in America. His school was recently honored by state, county, and local officials for educational innovation, including teaching computer coding to every student in their school system—starting in preschool. He can be reached via email at vnichols@alchristian.com.