When she first became executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Donegal, Erin Cox-Holmes approached two small congregations about the possibility of sharing a pastor.
They told her, “That would never work. We were on opposite sides in the Revolutionary War.”
“I realized then that conflict was the normative story in Donegal,” she told mid-council leaders gathered in St. Louis for meetings October 13–17. “I was serving in an area that had conflict as part of the DNA.”
In a workshop titled “Leveling Up: New Ways to Look at Conflict,” Cox-Holmes used art and insights from narrative therapy and gamer theory (which she described as “thinking like a game-player”) to offer participants new ways of approaching church conflicts.
Her first clue to resolving conflicts more creatively came from playing video games with her son, Cox-Holmes said. She wondered, “What we can learn by understanding how games work?”
From games and the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, she learned the importance of establishing a “transitional space” between parties in a conflict to allow the development of trust. “Creativity and play are important to establishing an environment of trust,” she said. “Playing games produces creative space.”
In Donegal Presbytery, she said, “We began to realize that presbytery’s intervention often escalated the conflict,” because congregations perceived presbytery leaders as judgmental rather than caring.
Referencing the work of therapist Milton Erickson, she said, “Now when I’m going into churches, I try to cultivate the idea that I’m going in with a twinkle in my eye, to listen to them, not to try to analyze and fix their problem.”
We must acknowledge the problems, she said, but don’t dwell on “the problem-saturated narrative.” Look for “sparkling events” to build a different story.
Cox-Holmes advised church leaders who are dealing with conflict to “think like a novelist or screenwriter. Think more playfully about all of it. Bring light and humor into the situation. Listen for what is life-giving and healthy.”
She incorporates the language of gamers in what she tells young pastors who are struggling with difficult people and problems: “This is giving you experiences that will level you up. This is not something you will die from.”
“Look at problems as quests,” she tells them. “Having challenges in your ministry gives you hit points.”
And in games — as in the Christian faith — there’s always “the grace of a replay.”