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Christian Reconciliation Gains Believers

Courts: Mediators in Orange County say a religious approach to conflict resolution saves their clients time, money and privacy.

November 14, 1998|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To encourage forgiveness during a reconciliation, mediators Gary and Kim Beck of Orange place an empty chair in the middle of a conference room to represent the presence of Jesus.

"God swoops in there and changes people's hearts," said Gary Beck, who with his wife has handled imbroglios ranging from landlord-tenant squabbles to intellectual-property disputes and partnership dissolutions.

Christian Arbitration and Mediation Services of Tustin, the couple's nonprofit organization, is among a growing number that offer mediation with a religious bent. Experts say religious mediation has reached beyond its traditional realm of divorce reconciliation and is an increasingly common way to resolve other disputes in and out of the church.

The trend is growing on top of the increasing popularity of litigation alternatives generally, said J. William Breslin, executive editor of the Negotiation Journal, published in collaboration with Harvard Law School.

"In all segments of society, there is increasing acceptance of alternative dispute resolution," he said. "You see it in the corporate legal sector, in government, public policy, international relations and labor management."

The appeal of Christian mediation and arbitration stems from a literal biblical interpretation, said Larry Sullivan, assistant director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu.

"When Christians have conflicts, they'd rather solve them outside the courtroom," he said, citing verses from the Bible. "A lot of people take that Scripture to heart."

An example, from the first verse of 1 Corinthians 6: "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?"

Both faith-based and secular mediation and arbitration services are less formal than a trial, maintain more privacy than a civil trial, and tend to be less expensive and time-consuming.

"There is a widespread disenchantment with the delays and the cost of litigation," said Breslin.

Mediation and arbitration are different processes used in different circumstances.

Mediation is a voluntary process in which a facilitator--chosen prior to the meeting by both parties--doesn't make decisions or offer opinions, but rather leads the parties through a structured conversation to settle on a solution.

In arbitration, by contrast, an arbitrator can make decisions on behalf of the clients at the end of the process. Arbitration, commonly required in labor contracts, also continues even if one party withdraws and includes a process for appeal.

In both cases, however, the overarching theme of faith-based conflict resolution is that of repentance. Those involved in a process with a religious backdrop tend to worry first about the state of the soul and second about the minutiae of negotiations.

"There's an adage among lawyers that says a good settlement means both sides are unhappy," said Jack Parker, state membership director of the National Christian Legal Society. "But in the Christian conciliation context, the effort is to restore the relationship and facilitate forgiveness."

Out of the secular confines of the courtroom--some meetings are actually held in a church--faith-based mediators also recite prayers, invoke biblical passages for guidance and consider God to be the ultimate judge.

As a faith-based conflict mediator for 20 years, Sister Kathleen Schinhofen has listened to countless unsavory allegations--including pedophilia and embezzlement--without losing her faith in the ability of people to settle difficult disputes.

"I have seen so much courage in situations of conflict where people decide to work out the problem and make peace," she said.

A nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, Schinhofen was a local pioneer of this national trend to keep the faithful out of court.

"The methods of conflict management have changed a bit over the years," said Schinhofen. "We don't burn anybody at the stake anymore."

Breslin said he finds the lurking missionary zeal of faith-based conflict resolution somewhat troubling.

"There are people who feel they're transforming society by participating in this process," he said. "Mediation isn't the place to get new souls."

However, advocates of the profession like the Becks and Schinhofen relish their role as proponents of religious resolutions.

"God's grace is present in every situation of conflict," said Schinhofen. "Conflict is an opportunity for people to change a relationship, gain learning or to grow in wisdom."

Schinhofen said some mediators do have a narrow evangelical bent and use a strictly Christian framework during mediations. She said her method is more of a pastiche that blends Catholicism, organizational psychology, chaos theory and other concepts.

Not all conflicts should be resolved with quick or repeated forgiveness, Schinhofen noted, and some situations are beyond resolution or require a hearing in court. But she encourages her clients to procure an olive branch during the conciliation process.

"Jesus has invited us to forgive countless times," she said. "His essential point is not to give up."

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