Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Copper or Plastic?

"Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword,
but wisely spoken words can heal.” Solomon (Proverbs )

Our growing rural congregation in Central Pennsylvania was in the process of building a Sunday school addition. Who would have thought that a church situated among sparsely populated farmland would outgrow their facilities? Excitement and enthusiasm for the project ran high!

Money wasn’t plentiful, but determination was! As a cost-saving factor, the men of the church were volunteering all the labor for the undertaking. In our little corner of the Susquehanna Valley many of the families had proudly ‘stick built” their own homes and so were truly experienced in construction. Several of these people, along with the pastor, made up the building committee.

One evening at a planning meeting for the building, the members were discussing the type of pipe to use for the plumbing. Earl, a gentleman from the “old school” insisted on copper, while Dave, a younger man who worked for a local trailer manufacturing company, claimed plastic was the only logical choice. In a matter of minutes what started out as a difference of opinion turned into a heated argument with flaring tempers, raised voices, and unkind innuendoes.

My husband, Dick, as pastor of the church, had commented to me many times that maintaining good relationships throughout the building project far outweighed the project itself. From past experience we knew that any kind of building construction added strain and stress to a church, not just financially, but physically, and spiritually also. Dick felt responsible for assuring good communication and interaction.

Though several people tried to interject a calming word or two, it soon became evident that no peaceful resolution to the conflict would be forthcoming during the meeting. Dick stood and, in a precisely controlled voice, informed the committee that they would be adjourning immediately. He requested that each member go home and pray about this situation—not just for wisdom about the choice of materials, but also for a spirit of cooperation. Not wanting to let the problem fester, he advised the group that they would re-convene at the same time the next evening.

When I heard Dick coming in the back door that night I glanced at the clock and was surprised at the time.

“My, you’re home early! How did the meeting go?”

One look at his face and I knew the answer to that question.

Sighing as he flopped down on the couch, he proceeded to tell me all about the seemingly innocent discussion that escalated into a full-blown argument. Dick despises conflict and agonized all evening about what had happened in those few short minutes, replaying the scene over and over in his mind.

We also discussed possible outcomes of the fiasco. Would both men quit the project? Would the members of the committee discuss this with others and spread the contention? And, most distressing of all, would our church lose two fine families over this?

Dick planned his strategy for tomorrow night’s meeting. We discussed what he would say and how he could handle several scenarios that might occur. Then we prayed together and went to bed, trusting that the outcome of the meeting did not rest with Dick.

The next evening the group warily gathered in a Sunday school classroom, uncomfortable with each other after the way things had ended the night before. Dick opened the meeting with prayer and as soon as the “Amen” was said, Earl asked to speak.

“I just want to start off by apologizing for my behavior last night. No matter how I felt about the issue, I shouldn’t have handled the situation the way I did. I’m sorry, Dave, for what I said and how I said it.”

Then turning to the committee Earl said, “I also have a suggestion to make that might resolve the conflict we have here.”

Dick signaled that they were all listening and would welcome any solution Earl might suggest.

“I have a lot of experience with siding and roofing. Dave here does a lot of indoor construction. How about if I oversee the outside of the building and Dave oversees the inside? And we just trust each other’s decisions on the project. What do you think?”

Everyone turned their head in Dave’s direction. With a mildly surprised but admiring look in his eyes and a faint smile on his lips, Dave nodded his agreement.

A collective sigh of relief went up from the group as they embraced the wisdom of Earl’s idea. All the agonizing and dramatizing of the night before had been needless. We had forgotten for a moment the indwelling good will and integrity of the men involved. The meeting ended with smiles, handshakes and good-natured slaps on the back.

Just as quickly as the argument had flared up, the point of contention and source of conflict was resolved with the cooling balm of a few humble, well-chosen words.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories for a Better World
(AUG 2005) ©Pamela D. Williams