From Surgery to Acupuncture: An Alternative Approach to Managing Church Conflict from an Asian American Perspective

December 1, 1995

From Surgery to Acupuncture: An Alternative Approach to Managing Church Conflict from an Asian American Perspective

by Virstan B.Y. Choy

published in _Congregations_ (Alban Institute: Nov.-Dec., 1995): pp.16-19.

A Case Study of Public Communication of Intergenerational Differences

Wanting to explore the theme “Improving Harmony and Communication in Church,” an Asian American congregation invites a White counselor to be the keynote speaker for its annual All Members’ Retreat. The speaker focuses one of the sessions on intergenerational communication.

To encourage openness in sharing, the speaker asks the youth present to identify issues about which they and their parents disagree. No youth responds. The speaker rearranges her audience, asking the adults to sit on one side of the room and the youth to sit on the other. She then rephrases the question to the youth, “Think about the last time you and your parents had an argument. What was it about?” Still no youth responds.

One of the adults new to the congregation tries to help. “Maybe the youth need more time to think up some things to say. Maybe they need anonymity. How about if we break up into two groups – one for the youth, one for the adults – for the next half hour so that each generation can come up with a list of what bugs them about the other generation. Each group could choose its own reporter so that we won’t know who actually made the complaint in the first place.” The retreat leader agreed with the suggestion. The members divided into the two groups and meet.

Thirty minutes later, the groups return to the plenary room. The youth are given the opportunity to report first. Their designated reporter reads from a small piece of paper, “As the youth generation of the church, we appreciate the opportunity to share our opinions at this retreat. However, what our parents and we disagree about – well, we don’t feel it’s right to bring it up in public. We love our parents. What we argue about is between us.” She looks to the other youth. They nod in agreement. She turns back to the audience, says “Thank you,” and returns to her seat.

A Case Story on Facing Conflicts in a Public Meeting

In an Asian American congregation, a lay leader is aware of a conflict among some of the members and is unsure how to respond. She consults a member of her denomination’s regional staff, who offers to visit the church and to engage the members in some conflict resolution exercises.

In his visit with the congregation, the denominational executive emphasizes “openness in communication” and encourages members to come forward so that, “face-to-face,” they might “openly confront” their problems. He asks the members to devote the day-long open meeting to the practice of conflict resolution techniques “effective in other churches that have experienced conflict.”

The church members dutifully cooperate with their executive, participating in activities engaging them in presenting their “side” of the issue, answering his questions about background history, and in trying exercises in open communication.

At the end of this process, he presents to the congregation his “findings,” his analysis of the conflict based upon these findings, and his recommendations for what the congregation needs to do. One of the findings is the revelation that there is more than one conflict in the congregation, that some members reported disagreements with other members that have existed for over two decades – disagreements “allowed” to remain unresolved.

Included in this report is his “power analysis” of the congregation, revealing his perceptions of how power and authority have been skewed in favor of the older generations of the church for over two decades and how dysfunctional it would be for the congregation not to change such a situation. The executive then lists the changes that need to be made in order for the members to resolve their conflicts and to move forward together. He concludes his report by noting the positive results of confronting conflict and the importance of continuing such a “face-to-face” process. He thanks the congregation for its cooperation. The members thank the executive for his time and efforts and close with prayers for him and the church.

The day after this meeting, citing the statements about one another made in public the day before, many of the members announce their decision to leave the congregation.

From a Human Relation Model to a Preserving Relationships Understanding

Most current approaches to church conflict management are based upon conceptions of congregations as organizations (and congregational leadership as organizational leadership). These conceptions have been primarily shaped by human relations theory. The preceding stories of two actual cases in Asian American congregations show how such approaches are influenced by a psychological understanding of relationships within congregations, which encourages confrontation of disagreements, engages the persons involved in a conflict in direct interaction, and emphasizes communication skills (self-disclosure, assertiveness in expressing demands, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration). The use of such approaches to conflict in Asian American congregations has not been effective.

To understand why, it is helpful to refer to Asian and Asian American researchers (several are listed in the “Selected Resources” section at the end of this article) who remind us that, for Asians, society is not individual-based, but relationship-based. This focus upon relationships is rooted in Confucianism, in which human beings are expected to develop and conduct themselves as “relation-oriented” individuals. Accordingly, attitudes that enable and sustain this relational orientation are cultivated in the Asian family and Asian community. Three such attitudes or relational postures are:

* continuous awareness of one’s networks of relationships.
* recognition of the importance of “face” (public self-image) for those with whom one is in relationship
* fulfillment of the obligations involved in maintaining one’s relationships.

These attitudes and postures continue to shape behavior, not just for the immigrant Asian generation as it arrives in this country, but for the American-born generation as well – even to the third and fourth generations. They are predispositional in nature – so influential that they are perceived by some Asian Americans as a sort of “cultural DNA” – not always consciously present, but functionally operative in predisposing Asian Americans to a distinctive posture for engaging in interpersonal interactions in the family, in the community, and in the congregation.

At first look, approaches to congregational conflict emphasizing human relations theory and process may seem consistent with and appropriate to the relational orientation of people belonging to Asian American congregations. Yet, from the perspective of many Asian Americans, the confrontational processes and techniques actually violate the cultural values and norms regarding relationship, face, and obligation at the root of their understanding of human relationships. For many Asian Americans, behavior is based, not primarily upon one’s own feelings, interests, and motivations (as emphasized in the majority American society), but rather upon those of the persons with whom one has relationship. A cultural collision occurs when persons acting out of this posture are placed in conflict management situations emphasizing attention to one’s own feelings and calling for expression (and negotiation) of one’s own needs and interests.

Sensitivity to the following key factors may lead to more effective response to conflict in Asian American congregations:

* the power of the relational orientation
* the predisposition toward preserving relationship
* the preference for nonconfrontational interaction
* the paradox of solidarity in the midst of conflict.

The Power of the Relational Orientation

Relationship (rather than individual needs or interests) is at the center of the Asian American orientation to conflict. As reflected in the first case story, this relational orientation influences interpersonal behavior in conflict or potential conflict situations. Understanding this orientation is therefore foundational to the development of any culturally relevant conflict management approaches for Asian Americans.

The Predisposition toward Preserving Relationship

In situations of conflict, the relational orientation leads to a predisposition toward preserving relationship with those with whom one is involved in a disagreement. Consequently, as reflected in the second case story, differences and even disagreements may be allowed to remain unresolved over a long period of time in order to preserve the face of others (“save face”) and therefore maintain some form of relationship (“save relationship”). In such situations, what non-Asian American conflict managers may perceive as passivity or inability to make decisions may actually be an intentional, culturally shaped decision not to engage in interactions that threaten face or confrontations which jeopardize relationships.

The Preference for Nonconfrontational Interaction

In face-to-face interactions between Person A and Person B, there are four possible outcomes: A might lose face, B might lose face, both A and B might lose face, neither A nor B might lose face. Since three of the four possibilities result in loss of face, the odds do not favor a face-saving outcome in most processes calling for face-to-face interactions! Consequently, the predisposition toward preserving relationships lead to the preference for nonconfrontational interaction. This is not a preference for inactivity, but on active nonconfrontation in conflict interactions with one another. Such nonconfrontation in conflict interactions with one another. Such nonconfrontation takes the form of subtle or indirect engagement of parties in disagreement, e.g., through trusted third party “go-betweens” who serve as avenues for indirect communication (rather than professional mediators who engage disputants in direct communication).

The Paradox of Solidarity in the Midst of Conflict

The predisposition toward preserving relationships enables the toleration of ambiguity in these relationships in times of disagreement. Some Asian American congregations have remained together in the midst of their differences, deferring debate or other open efforts designed to resolve the dispute. Some Asian Americans have characterized such congregational cohesion in the face of conflict as “solidarity in conflict” in contrast to the “unity in diversity” emphasized in some mainline denominations. This difference has theological implications: how might a theology of solidarity be different from a theology of unity or a theology of reconciliation in shaping our conflict ministry?

From Surgery to Acupuncture

In addressing problems in interpersonal and intergroup relationships, many Asian Americans are inclined to adopt a position of subtlety, indirectness, and nonconfrontational interaction. They are not inclined to adopt most current approaches to church conflict management, which involve direct, face-to-face interactions, personal disclosure in public settings, as well as provision of private personal information to outsiders or strangers. Like surgery, these approaches involve cutting the body open, exposing for examination (and therefore exposing to risk) delicate parts of the body, and sometimes even cutting and removal of parts of the body. Like surgery they risk causing trauma to the body. Like surgery, they sometimes cause the death of the body.

In contrast, acupuncture is less invasive, less incising, and less risky. Rather than pre-surgery X-rays, probes, or the introduction of other foreign chemicals or instruments into the body, it involves noninvasive external observation of key points of the body. Rather than involving surgical incisions, this approach calls only for the gentle insertion of small needles. Rather than identifying, examining, chemically treating and/or cutting out parts of the body, acupuncture seeks to keep body parts in healthy relation to one another, working to free the flow of energy within the body and between its parts. For many Asian Americans, acupuncture is an attractive metaphor suggesting new ways of intervening in church conflicts.

Given its emphasis upon maintaining balance in the body and enabling the free flow of energy within the body, the acupuncture metaphor provides an opportunity for reconceiving intervention, mediation. and the use of third-party consultants in conflict situations. Consultants need a posture less like that of an “outside expert” in objective process and more like an intermediary – not necessarily mediator nor arbitrator, but more a “go-between” who provides an avenue for subtle and indirect contact between people in conflict. A “shadow consultant” who works informally in the background rather than directly and visibly may provide the sort of non-invasive intervention suggested by the acupuncture image.

Some Questions for Responding to Asian American Conflict

For people seeking to utilize the observations and proposals in this article, the following questions may be of help. They are offered, not as a new protocol to be followed for an Asian American conflict, but as questions to be asked in an acupuncture posture or spirit by those working with Asian American congregations.

Assessment of a Conflict Situation

1. In what ways is ethnicity a factor in this congregation? How has such ethnicity been a factor during times of previous conflict?

2. In what ways are the four key factors and dynamics affecting Asian American conflict present and operative in this congregation?

3. How does the culture of the congregation’s members provide ways for people in conflict to manage or resolve their differences? Which of those ways are operative in this congregation?

4. To what extent does the congregation already use third parties or “go-betweens” in interpersonal interactions, decision making, conflict? How have they been helpful in the past in this congregation?

Developing a Response to a Conflict Situation

5. In a conflict situation, what might constitute an “acupuncture-like” approach to responding?

6. Given the “energy flow” image in the acupuncture metaphor, how is the energy flow of the congregation at this point? What keeps it flowing? Is there any blockage? What is needed to “unblock” the energy flow?

7. If “go-betweens” are used, are any “available” (willing) to assist in enabling nonconfrontational communication and interaction between the parties in the conflict?

8. How might a shadow consultant be acceptable and used in this conflict?


The five key factors in Asian American conflict and the proposal for an acupuncture-like approach presented here represent initial discoveries on the path to a culturally sensitive approach to conflict management in Asian American congregations. Such a proposal does not represent a dismissal existing approaches by church consultants and denominational executives. It does represent an alert to the limits and liabilities of approaches based upon one particular understanding of human relationships and the conception of interpersonal interactions following from it. In addition, this proposal may not be limited to use in Asian American churches. Just as some Western medical practitioners have become open to the appropriateness and benefits of acupuncture for certain health problems, leaders of congregations seeking alternatives to surgery-like conflict management processes may want to explore acupuncture-like approaches.

Selected Resources

Augsburger, David. _Conflict Mediation across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns_, 1992.

Kendis, Kaoru Oguri. _A Matter of Comfort: Ethnic Maintenance and Ethnic Style among Third Generation Japanese Americans_, 1989.

King, Ambrose Yeo-chi. “Kuan-Hsi and Network Building: A Sociological Interpretation.” In “The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today” _Daedalus_ 120:2 (Spring, 1991): 63-84.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. “Nonconfrontational Strategies for Management of Interpersonal Conflicts.” In _Conflict in Japan_, ed. E.S. Krauss. T.P. Rohlen. P.G. Steinhoff, 41-60, 1984.

Perrow, Charles. _Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay_, 3rd ed., 1986.

This article is based upon the work of the Alban Institute Action Research Team on Conflict Management in Asian American Congregations. If you are interested in having a team consult with your congregation or judicatory, contact Alban consulting and training at (800) 486-1318, ext. 229. For other information, contact the team convenor directly – the Rev. Bert Tom, Presbytery of San Francisco, 2024 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510) 849-4393. Dr. Virstan Choy is Director of Field Education and Integrative Studies and Assistant Professor of Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He is a member of Alban’s Action Research Team on conflict management in Asian American congregations.

Reprinted from CONGREGATIONS (Nov/Dec 1995), with permission from the Alban Institute, Inc., 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-3211. © Copyright 1995. All rights reserved.

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