Undo triangulation in the church: Practice Matthew 18

Everyone in the church wants to be in a healthy church. And the promise of Jesus is His church will be full of healthy relationships filled with love – the kind of love He showed us on the cross and continues to give us through the Holy Spirit. We all want love.

But the church is filled with you and me, so we have to admit that we are on the way to love; we have not mastered it. We have to work at it. It is easy to look at the church and see places where our love is not all that might be expected from Jesus followers. What’s more, in a church like Circle of Hope, which is committed to embracing whoever wants our attention, we have all sorts of unbelievers, unfinished and downright wicked people who might be part of the mix at any given moment. So we contain lots of people who know very little about the Lord’s love. As a result, relationships in the church are not going to work out right all the time; we’ll have to keep making them. Otherwise, we might look like this church building:

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It would be better to look like Matthew 18:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. — Matthew 18:15-22

The passage is a little working doc for how to act out forgiveness and maintain reconciliation in the church. I want to highlight one part of it today: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” That teaching is a fundamental antidote to the disappointing lack of love in the church.

When I was at the Watermark Church meeting last Sunday, the speaker told us we should have a 24 hour rule – if you need to work something out with someone, don’t let it go for more than 24 hours and don’t spend those 24 hours talking to a bunch of people about your bad feelings. As the passage says, including others in the process comes after you have failed to work things out person to person, individually. Likewise, if you are hearing some gossip or ill will about someone, you should ask the person who feels hurt if they have talked to whoever has sinned against them or just offended them. Plus, you should remind them that you will not be keeping their gossip or slander secret.

That’s all great in typical situations. But let’s be clear. As one of my readers pointed out, there are people in relationships from which they need to be rescued. Where there is  violence or abusive domination, a person cannot be left on their own to take steps they cannot take. This post is not about that sin. I always err on the side of helping such a victim escape before we even consider getting into what this piece is talking about — perpetrators and victims have even lived in my house!  Even then, I know there is more discernment to receive about what God is doing and my power versus the perpetrator’s power is not how the world is saved. And, ultimately, the abused and the abuser stand before God, just like me, and any judgment I have about their situation is provisional.

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Triangulation

A 24-hour rule would be very useful to combat what social psychologists call “triangulation” in relationships. There are well-worked theories about this common experience, since it is one of the aspects of the workplace that undermines morale and creates a lack of safety. Triangles are even more dangerous in church, where relationships are often more intimate, or at least people think they should be.

The spiritual and emotional health of a church and its effectiveness in mission is directly dependent on how often triangulation occurs and whether or not it is tolerated by leaders. Triangulation names an experience with which we are all likely acquainted. It occurs when two people don’t speak directly to each other. Jesus tells us to let our “yes” be “yes” – to speak honestly and forthrightly – no subterfuge, no fear. When we are not following Jesus, two people may try to mediate their concerns through a third party. Cell Leaders and pastors are tempted to be that third party all the time. When triangulation is tolerated, it produces gossip, rumors, inefficient practices, factions, misunderstanding and victimization. It creates an unsafe culture and an ineffective process.

It is easy to imagine why Jesus had to teach his disciple crew about how to stay reconciled. The disciples undoubtedly had habits that did not produce open, honest, fearless love relationships, just like the rest of us. They probably experienced stereotypic situations just like Stephen Karpman pictured when he defined his famous “Drama Triangle” in the 1970’s. Karpman’s three roles are easy to spot in an unhealthy triangle:

Victim–Victims blame and fault others (or situations), but not themselves; they don’t typically take responsibility for their own lives. They show up as angry or pathetic, in response to perceived injustice. They send out a vibe that says, “Help me. Rescue me. Need me. Be with me. Love me.  Organize me,” to all rescuers within range. They may exaggerate the level of harm they’ve experienced to gain pity or sympathy from a rescuer. The victim’s guilt or blame is the fuel that keeps the drama-triangle cycle spinning like a flywheel.

Stereotyping does not help much, so remember that Matthew 18 is centered in prayer and is about discernment, not objectivity or judgment. A victim may also be the challenger every system needs. And helping someone who feels injured work out their issues is exactly our speciality. That doesn’t mean we let them lead the whole cell or congregation before they have some consciousness about their process.

Persecutor–In order for there to be a victim, there must be a persecutor. The persecutor can be a person, circumstance, event, or thing. Persecutors become the target of the victims’ need to blame something outside themselves for their problems.

Again, this is a label to help define a common situation. There may be actual oppression going on, not just projection of inner turmoil by a “victim.”  Conversely, “persecutors” often feel like they are victims of an accuser’s ire or criticism. They are tempted not to listen, as Matthew 18 prescribes, because they feel some injustice and use their privilege or power to silence the victim.

Rescuer–The rescuer thinks of themselves as the hero of the drama-triangle story. Rescuers see it as their role to help the helpless, and feel their motivation is pure. Quite often these people are extremely helpful in difficulty. They are friends. But often  they are tempted to swallow the sin happening between people like they are Jesus protecting the church from a grenade. They often don’t view victims as capable, so they act in their stead, often without realizing the full consequences of intervening.  Sometimes they rush to protect others’ vulnerabilities because they’re reluctant to face their own.

We are definitely called to rescue the perishing. We are definitely wrapped up in what others are doing in the body of Christ, of which we are all an intrinsic part. There should be no implication that we shouldn’t get involved. It is how we get involved that makes a difference.

How the Drama Triangle Works

Here’s how the system of triangulation starts: a victim approaches a rescuer with information about what a persecutor has done. The rescuer might be their friend, their mate, and in the church it would not be surprising if they looked for a person in power to rescue them, like a cell leader, team leader, or pastor.

If the rescuer is a pastor, their compassion and sense of justice may be stirred. So they may try to use their  power to protect the victim. They may take the problem to a meeting. They may have a one-on-one with the persecutor to confront them or try to elicit a confession. They may try to sabotage or exact revenge on the persecutor, who by this time may be getting “tried” by semi-public opinion. A lot of time can be eaten up in this kind of drama.

A rescuer often enjoys the rush of being important in the middle of it all. They feel like they are building community and healing sinners. That might be true. But it may also be true that their need to be useful, or valued is what they are really all about. They may relish the power or precedence that rescuing affords them. They may just enjoy hearing and even spreading rumors or being in on secrets. Or they may like presiding as a judges effecting justice while appearing holy and above the fray.

Is it any surprise that triangulation can bring organizations and their productivity to a standstill?

3 Ways for Leaders to Reduce Triangulation

Make Matthew 18 the way the church functions. The leaders need to make it plain that we follow Jesus, not the difficult and often unconscious ways we relate. Violaters will not be prosecuted, unless they are committed to sin. But they will hear a lot about Matthew 18!

Help victims participate in reconciliation. Whenever a  victim approaches you, start by asking if they have already spoken to the persecutor. If not, instruct the victim to do so and report back on the conversation. Reporting back is important because otherwise the conversation between victim and perpetrator likely won’t happen. If the victim persists in trying to get you involved, and they might be persistent or even manipulative, here is what you might say:

  • I value our relationship and the one I have with who you are talking about. I do not think it is right for me to be in the middle, so please stop now.
  • What you’re sharing with me has little or nothing to do with me, and I feel uncomfortable. Please take this where it belongs.
  • This type of conversation is unproductive, and I would like you to take the Matthew 18 way to handle it.

Offer to facilitate some mediation. If the victim feels uncomfortable having the conversation directly with the persecutor, you could, on rare occasions, offer to sit in on the meeting to help support better communication in the future. When you attend this meeting, be sure to act as a facilitator, not a rescuer. If you pass judgment or take sides, the other two parties won’t be as inclined to own and resolve their issues. The drama triangle will continue or a new one will emerge.

4 suggestions for “step two”

People do not know how to reconcile and live in peace, that is evident. So it should not surprise us if we get involved in the second step of the Lord’s process. A “rescuer” is often one of the “first responders” when there are relational problems in the church. So they may be called in to make the process work. There are many things to learn about making and keeping peace, so I would never presume to sum it up in a blog post! But here are a few things that might help a conversation about conflict end up in community.

Name the conflict. If you’re facilitating a meeting between members of a drama triangle, ask each party to name the conflict. You could even write it down so they can both face it rather than just face each other. This might create enough detachment to get away from personal criticism. However, this is a mature way to talk and some people might be incapable of it. Be patient but frank.

Help the parties listen with curiosity. It is hard to be curious and angry at the same time. Help the victim first, then the persecutor develop an interpretation of the presenting event from the others’ perspective. What were they thinking? What did they feel? What would you have done in the same circumstance? The victim’s and persecutor’s curiosity might defuse their anger long enough to see the conflict from another perspective. They can then direct their curiosity toward how to resolve the conflict.

Ask for a commitment. Victims and persecutors get some sense of power from criticism, even though that criticism can cause cancer in the body of Christ. There is a positive way to see it, however. Criticism could be seen as a commitment put in negative terms. Rather than “You are a liar” try “I value the truth.” Some people say that if we want to know what we really care about, check out what we criticize and convert it to a commitment. When we are listening to someone else rant, tell them to what value it sounds like they are committed. That might reduce the toxins in the atmosphere.

Insist on requests. If an injured party can’t own what they think and feel and ask for what they want, anything they say probably makes the relationship worse.

Staying out is better than getting out of the Triangle

It will always be tempting to play the part of victim, persecutor, and rescuer in the next relationship drama. We may get triangled at times. We’ll live. Jesus has provided a way out and he will be with us all along the way. The Lord is deeply invested in his love casting out fear and creating the alternative community for which he gave his life and in which he lives.

Leaders, in particular need to help everyone stay out of triangles by encouraging direct address and refusing to play any of these roles, as tempting as they may be. Any of us may be asked to play the role of rescuer every day! It may feed our frayed egos to say yes. But every day we remember not to play we help save the church from the divisiveness that ruins the wonderful heart of love everyone wants and needs. Reducing triangulation leads to an increase in accountability and an increase in the healthy responsibility people need to develop for their own behavior, thoughts and feelings as well as their responsibility to nurture the love in Jesus in the church.

Thanks to CO2 for the business angle and general outline for this post.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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