Sarah HowellI ended my second year at Candler about as burnt out as a person could be. After a year of juggling the loss of a family member, a heavy course load, my second year of Contextual Education, a part-time job, candidacy in the UMC and moving apartments only days after finals, I felt completely spent. For this reason, I was a mixture of apprehensive and excited as I sat down in the orientation for Candler Advantage at the end of May. I was excited for the opportunities to try my hand at something new in a new context, but I was also exhausted mentally and spiritually. 

Candler Advantage is a competitive summer internship program for Candler students who have completed their Contextual Education II requirements. It is meant to provide an opportunity to work in a ministry context over the summer that students would otherwise be unable to participate in due to financial constraints. This year students are working in a variety of contexts from Atlanta, to Pittsburgh, to Japan!

I have been working in Chapel Hill, in the North Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church with their Conflict Transformation Ministries (CTM). I have had the opportunity to work with Rev. Molly Shivers, the director of the CTM office, and try my hand in the specialized area of ministry I am hoping to make my vocation. Conflict transformation differs from the traditional understanding of conflict resolution or management, and is different from mediation proceedings, in that it understands conflictual situations as potential opportunities for growth and transformation within communities. It is largely about working with a community to find shared goals and common values that transcend individual conflicts, and seeks to improve overall health and wellbeing within groups of people.

In my particular context in the NCCUMC, I have had the opportunity to not only discuss with Rev. Shivers the theoretical framework behind conflict transformation, but to observe and practice this ministry in practical ways. The conflict transformation office works on a referral basis, and can be contacted by local churches, pastors, district superintendents, etc. to work with a congregation or individuals experiencing conflicts of all sorts, ranging from relatively minor issues like worship service times or the presence of flags in the sanctuary, to more urgent situations like pastoral misconduct or racial injustice within congregations.

I have had the opportunity to take part in new referrals, as well as dig into the records of previous referrals and examine the process by which the office has engaged with congregations across the conference. Additionally, I am working with two local congregations in case studies to examine the current state of their congregations, including membership decline, aging members and lack of new and young individuals in the church. It has been a unique opportunity to sit down with congregants, many of whom remind me of my own grandparents, and take the time to learn about them, their relationship to their churches, the history and identity of their congregation and their hopes (and fears) for the future.

A big part of the framework of conflict transformation is the idea that people are much more likely to grow in positive ways as a result of interpersonal conflict if they are willing and able to stay at the table and be in communication, rather than retreating to ensconced camps and lashing out from behind protective barriers. I even saw this mirrored on a large scale as Rev. Shivers and I attended the Uniting Methodists Conference in Dallas, Texas, which aimed to look at how members of the United Methodist Church can remain at the table together, despite vastly different interpretations of Christian sexual ethics.

In these final weeks of my internship, I have begun to reflect on the lessons I have learned over the last two months. I have had the time and space to reflect deeply on both my inner faith journey and my exterior presence as an individual called to ministry in the United Methodist Church, in a way that I was not able to do during the hectic nature of the school year. I have been unpacking what the definition of fruitful ministry means, especially in my vocational context. I’ve come to realize that even when there are not neatly and easily explained “measurable outcomes,” the relational impact and Kingdom impact makes the work fruitful. I have been reminded of the importance of being in conversation with those with whom we disagree, and that it is much harder to completely discount the Imago Dei, or image of God, within someone if you actually get to know them.

As I head towards my final year at Candler, I hope to further refine and expand the theological stepping stones I have built through my experiences this summer and remain open to the way God is moving within me… and within the people with whom I disagree.

Learn more about Candler's Justice, Peacebuilding, and Conflict Transformation concentration.

Get to know Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of Christian ethics and conflict transformation.