This post was originally published for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts newsletter, October 2011. We include it here because it is essentially the story of someone making a choice between “bankruptcy” and “beloved community.” Doug helps us remember that the choice is always ours.

I will confess to almost starting three email flame wars. If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, this is when one email triggers a nasty response from the recipient, who also shares it with others. As the interchange escalates so do the number of people drawn into the demeaning, self-righteous, bitter and even shocking interchange. And, yes, this was church-related.

I don’t actually know how email flame wars end because, fortunately, I never pressed the “send” button. I had indulged my own self-righteous anger long enough to write the scathing email but withdrew my finger from the trigger in time. What I remember most is how much time and energy that self-indulgence cost and how exhausted it all made me feel.

Doug-Zelinski-FBConflict costs. Whether we trigger flame wars or suppress conflict with polite denials, it costs. The price we pay is our time, attention, and energy. Some members pay that price until they are spiritually wounded or even bankrupt. But other members have learned to leverage conflict so the time and energy it costs becomes their investment in the beloved community.

One critical sign of a vital congregation is not the absence of conflict but rather the presence of members who approach conflict as faith formation. Every conflict we encounter provides the opportunity for each of us to re-examine our relationship to the mission of the congregation and the values of our faith community. Better still, it then usually requires us to act on those values — faith in action of the most personal kind.

Conflict is inevitable. In fact, it’s normal. In the last five years, 65% of all congregations across denominations report having high levels of conflict. What matters is how we choose to pay the price  — on the road to bankruptcy or on the path to beloved community.