Have you ever carried the imbalanced weight of acting as a “facilitator” in peacemaking roles? It’s the kind of situation where you, as the pastor or leader, end up having the conversation with each party involved rather than simply facilitating… It’s easy to cycle into this role, but it’s important to understand the dangers of the “relationship triangle” that often stems from this kind of approach.
A relationship triangle arises when two people pull in a third party to ease the tension between them. We see an example of this in Matthew 20:20-28 between Jesus, the sons of Zebedee, and their mother. Jesus avoided triangulation by addressing the sons directly.
Pastors are often the person asked to “talk to” someone about something by somebody else. And it can feel useful! The upside to triangulation is that it works temporarily, and the leader may feel good because he/she has been useful. The downside is that the solution is only temporary because the two individuals who need to work out their differences have successfully avoided doing so. The leader ends up carrying the burden of keeping the peace.
There’s no doubt you as a ministry leader want to be helpful and a peacemaker in these kinds of situations (Mt. 5:9). Unfortunately, with triangulation, leaders end up being the only ones practicing peacemaking; in order to keep the peace, they must also keep the anxiety instead of letting anxiety help the original pair grow and mature.
Temporary triangles are a normal part of congregational life. But they lead toward dysfunction when triangulation becomes the habitual way of doing church relationships.
How can you model peacemaking while at the same time reducing your likelihood of being the third point of a relationship triangle? Consider these five points of wisdom:
- Know your triangle tendencies. Pastors can willingly volunteer for triangles or they can unwittingly be drafted into a triangle. Ministry leaders often offer to “speak to” someone for somebody else instead of encouraging the two people to talk directly to one another about their issue. Other times, people will ask the pastor to talk to someone on their behalf. How often do you volunteer to speak on behalf of someone (volunteering)? How often do people ask you to talk to somebody else in order to change the other person (drafted)?
- Manage your own anxiety. Resisting the pull of a triangle can make you as anxious as being in one, especially if “repositioning” yourself (i.e., not taking responsibility for solving the problem between the other two people) is a new behavior for you. How comfortable are you in redirecting people to talk to each other about their differences?
- Be helpful without taking over. People approach church leaders for relationship counsel and advice. These conversations are not creating triangles, although they can sow the seeds for one! Wise church leaders encourage people to try to understand their own motivations and anxieties in an effort to support direct one-to-one interactions. How often do your pastoral counseling sessions center on the person who is not in the room instead of focusing on the anxieties and fears of the person sitting in front of you?
- Stay connected. Triangles are often about “taking sides,” or have that appearance. Stay in emotional contact with others who have a corner of the triangle so you can contribute to a calmer, less anxious environment. Are you aware of avoiding others in your congregation? If so, can you identify what is driving your anxiety?
- Sustain a non-anxious presence. Because triangles are essentially about relationship anxiety, you can be most helpful by fostering a non-anxious presence when you sense triangulation. Often your non-anxiety can “rub off” on others. In this way, you can assist them in thinking more clearly, compassionately, and creatively about their own relationship dilemmas. How do you tame your own anxiety when it arises during a conversation so that you can think clearly, compassionately, and creatively?