A triangular strip of ocean off the coast of the little island of Bermuda has long been feared by sailors as a place of mysterious disappearances and destruction. Of course, mythbusters have demonstrated that one can measure similar triangular areas of well-traveled sea and find similar numbers of mysterious disappearances and shipwrecks. Nevertheless, the attention given to the now infamous 'Bermuda Triangle' has catapulted it into history.
There is a potential deadly triangle present in all areas of church life that can be as destructive in Christian communities as a stormy sea can be to ships. This destructive triangle of communication is known as 'triangulation.' It occurs when a third party gets involved in a conflict in order to absorb anxiety or cover over differences instead of facilitating loving confrontation of real issues between the parties. Instead of resolving issues, triangulation adds to the confusion and distrust of the situation, even if the third party involved has good intentions.
My First Experience in the Triangle
Sally and Mike (not their real names) were having marital difficulties. I was new to pastoral ministry, still in seminary. Sally began coming to church and Mike was reluctant to participate in church. Their ongoing marital struggles seemed to escalate as her church attendance increased. He had a growing problem with alcohol, which also made him violent at times. She was trying to kick her alcohol habit and provide more stability to their two young children.
As things got more out of control at home, Sally began confiding in me and in several church members, increasingly, about her situation. We prayed with her. Provided the best advice we could. And we encouraged her to seek counseling for herself and to invite Mike to participate with her.
Unexpectedly, Mike showed up at my office one day. Obvious that he had been drinking, he shared that he and Sally had a fight earlier that day and she locked him out of the house. This was the first time Mike had ever addressed me beyond a simple greeting we exchanged on the few times he had shown up at church.
He began to cry and share some rather incriminating things about his wife: she was still drinking, she could be violent, she was not the person she 'pretended to be' on Sundays. I was shocked. I thought I had seen actual progress in Sally's life. I was also confused.
Now I felt betrayed by Sally and found myself siding with Mike (while not condoning his drinking or his outbursts) in the marital relationship. I even conveyed to him some things I had heard from Sally about the way she sees the marriage, thinking that my articulation of the issues would be much clearer and more objective than hers. Mike had found an alternate place to stay for a few days 'until things cool off.' I prayed with him before he left.
A few days later, Sally called asking if I had seen Mike. I told her that he visited me, and that I was disappointed that she was not being up front about the 'whole story' of their relationship. I began advocating for Mike in hope of buying time for him to do the right thing. She began to cry then cut the conversation short. During the next two weeks, I took calls separately from both Mike and Sally, each time doing my best to interpret the words shared with me by the other, hoping that my pastoral intervention would give them enough basic material to restart their troubled marriage.
Finally, a few weeks after my initial conversation with Mike, the two of them came by my office. I smiled, glad to see that perhaps my intervention had paid off. They were not smiling. And for the next several minutes each of them took turns expressing disappointment in me for sharing with the other things that were said in confidence. Furthermore, they agreed that the tensions related to the church's and my involvement was what brought them back together.
They now wanted a new place of worship and a different pastor. I was stunned as they left in anger, and I never saw them again. It took months and some guidance from my wife (who was training to be a licensed counselor) and from a helpful seminary pastoral counseling professor before I discovered why my good intentions turned into a disaster.
Triangulation: The Enemy of Healthy Communication
The approach I took in that early encounter was a classic case of triangulation. Christian psychologist Ron Richardson, in his book Creating a Healthy Church, compares church communication to the way family systems communicate. According to Richardson, triangulation occurs when two parties or groups have a conflict and one seeks to utilize a third party to exercise influence upon the other, instead of confronting issues directly. It is basically a kind of 'ping pong' for the person being triangulated: running back and forth between parties trying to be a hero, instead of trying to follow the biblical model (Matthew 18) of peacemaking.
Often, two of the three parties have a bond that makes the role of the third party unbalanced and potentially unfair in the process. A longtime church attendee who is particularly close to the pastor may triangulate the pastor in order to influence a lesser known church member. A church member who has been involved on the district level may attempt to triangulate a district leader in order to pressure the pastor, instead of approaching the pastor directly.
In these cases, the leaders have a choice: they can facilitate a coming together of opposing parties to deal with issues or can try to take all responsibility for the resolution of the conflict and attempt to be a 'hero' instead of a true peacemaker. In the triangulation model, rarely if ever, do the two parties in conflict actually address one another, and if they do, it is the third party of the triangle who often becomes the focus, instead of the issues themselves.
A Checklist: Triangulation vs. Healthy Intervention
Every intuitive Christian wishes to be a peacemaker, following the example of Jesus. However, becoming involved in a conflict in order to bring about healthy resolution always has risks of unhealthy triangulation. This listing can be a helpful reminder to help us check our motives and actions when we are asked to be involved in a conflict between two or more people:
- Intervening despite knowing only one side of the issue.
- Sharing too much information about another outside of that person?s presence.
- Involving too many people too quickly.
- Seeking to be the source of wisdom or heroic intervention.
- Saying things that will simply appease one or both sides of the conflict.
- Intervening only after obtaining clarity about both sides of the issue.
- Insisting on bringing the two parties together once getting the basic information from both sides of the issue.
- Limiting the intervention to only those on a 'need to know' basis, in order to avoid confusion.
- Seeking to facilitate the healthiest communication between two parties in conflict, even if it means little recognition to the one intervening.
- Speaking the truth in love and encouraging the same from both parties, even if it risks discomfort.
- Charles W. Christian, 'Ten Rules for Respect,' Leadership Journal, Summer 1999, Vol. XX, No. 3, p. 55.
- Roy Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.
Charles W. Christian is pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Cameron, Missouri.