Richard Pershing, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at La Sierra University, talks about why mediation training is important, how the pandemic furthered the work of the center, and how Adventists around the world are benefiting from learning the skills of conflict resolution.
Question: You are the director of La Sierra's Center for Conflict Resolution, an organization that supports individuals and organizations in mediating conflicts outside the courtroom. Can you tell us a bit more about your work?
Answer: While we have worked in direct mediation, our emphasis is on training the rank and file of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in mediation. Our goal is to help each and every worker (and member) in the denomination understand that conflict itself isn’t the problem—it is just the messenger—and that the God who has saved us has given us the power to resolve conflict.
How many people have you trained?
The center has trained nearly 1,000 people in its 12 years of operation. The training has ranged from transformative mediation and conflict coaching to restorative practices and bullying prevention through the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
We have worked with nearly 200 schools in the North American Division, giving training in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
We have trained all of the pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ireland and the South England Conference in the British Union, and are in the process of training some 20 pastors in the North England Conference. The project in Ireland has evolved into the Center for Conflict Resolution-Europe.
We have trained all of the pastors in the East Caribbean Conference, and this project has evolved into the Center for Conflict Resolution-Caribbean.
The Europe project is further along in development, but both projects have been slowed by COVID restrictions. With respect to Ireland, Ireland requires all mediators to be certified by a national certifying agency, which involves a test and observed simulation. I am pleased to report that all of our pastors passed and received credentialing. Our goal is for them to continue training but also to be available to help resolve conflict as it arises, whether in the church or in the communities they serve.
In Barbados, the home of the East Caribbean Conference, we are in discussions with the local court system on making our pastors available as mediators for the court, particularly family court.
What are some of the issues in family court that your trained mediators might be able to assist in? Divorce?
The hope is that some marriages could be saved, but of course, mediating divorce is a very thorny issue for our denomination and for pastors. There is always a segment of our constituency who views any facilitation of divorce as promoting divorce. (Of course this is nonsense since the divorce statistics are as high as they are with or without assistance.)
What our congregants fail to recognize is the disservice to our families and congregations when we fail to help spouses who are going to part, to part in a way that keeps the family in the community of faith, the children accepted and participating in our schools and participating in our denominational children’s ministries, such as Pathfinders. All too often, we lose both parents, the children, the extended family, and even the circle of friends. This can happen especially in a small church where the divorce results in the creation of alliances that can divide and even destroy the congregation.
When and how was the Center for Conflict Resolution founded?
The center is the initiative of the Versacare Foundation and was first conceptualized by then-President Robert Coy, Vice President Ron Wisbey, Board Member Robert Macomber, and myself (a board member and legal counsel).
The vision was to help the denomination implement the resolution that the General Conference Executive Committee issued in 2002 after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York entitled “The Seventh-day Adventist Call for Peace.”
In that resolution, the denomination called for the teaching of peace by every pastor and in every Adventist school worldwide.
Unfortunately, the resolution was mandated without any budget allocated to it. The Versacare Foundation decided to invest in offering training.
Peace means many different things to different people. Our focus was on teaching individuals how to allow the Prince of Peace to install in them a heart of peace by learning such skills as mediation, conflict coaching, and restorative practices.
So you really only work with Adventist clients?
Our trainings have included individuals who are not Seventh-day Adventists. For example, at one point a Seventh-day Adventist human resources office for a Catholic hospital asked us to train all of their department heads.
But yes, our trainings have focused on presentations in both the eleven o’clock services and Sabbath afternoon seminars in congregations, as well as multi-day seminars for pastors in various conferences.
Our work in schools has been primarily in the Adventist school system but three of our trainers have conducted training for public schools as well. Two of our trainers became regional leaders for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program—one in Illinois and the other in Minnesota. This program is the world’s most recognized and effective program for intervening in bullying behavior by effecting change in the school climate and collecting valid data on behavior from the students. The center has brought Adventist education and its unique adaptation of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program to the front and center of both the efforts of Clemson University and the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).
Are there similar centers at any other Adventist institutions that you know of?
Not that we know of. Andrews University has offered some course work in peace making and there is an Adventist college in Africa also offering some peace studies. There was a mediation program and mediation club at the junior high school at the Adventist college in Spain—Sagunto—but that has not been continued. We are hopeful that the work we are doing in the British Union through the CCR-Europe and in the Inter-American Division, through the CCR-Caribbean, will take root and expand.
Alternative Dispute Resolution, or the settling of disputes outside the courtroom, has become increasingly popular and utilized in the US, which is known as a particularly litigious culture. But it sounds like you have also done significant work in other countries.
As popular as it may seem in the United States, some parts of the rest of the world have far exceeded what is happening the US. In the US, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is primarily arbitration that most lawyers will tell you is almost as expensive as general civil litigation, and that some lawyers in the labor sector and the consumer sector will tell you is a method mainly used by large enterprises to limit the rights of employees and consumers.
Mediation in the US has still a long way to go. For example, in my local county court system, mediation has become integral for helping the judges manage their caseload. In Los Angeles County, however, mediation has been reduced substantially.
In New Zealand, the country rewrote its laws to focus on alternative resolution methodologies. Australia has done similar work, in particular with respect to divorce and criminal matters involving its indigenous people. China has also done a lot of work in mediation and the creation of mediators.
Here in the US, divorce continues to be big business, and parties to divorce have little in the way of role models or public discourse to encourage them to seek a collaborative process.
The law firm of which I am a part is somewhat unique in that it seeks to offer collaborative divorce. The problem is that both sides and their attorneys have to want to collaborate.
For the most part, mediation in the US is funded by the Dispute Resolution Programs Act (DRPA) which provides the funding for the volunteer mediators at small claims court, neighborhood mediation programs, and the mediation programs sponsored by the local court systems. Without DRPA, it is highly unlikely that what mediation work is being done would continue.
So training is the foundation of the work at the Center for Conflict Resolution. Can you describe in a little more detail the skills that you are training people in?
Yes, training is the primary focus of the center. There are many flavors of conflict of resolution. The flavor promoted through the center is based on restorative practices, whether in mediation or in school climate management.
Restorative Mediation was developed by one of the members of our team, John-Robert Curtin, PhD, as part of his doctoral studies at the University of Louisville. This form of mediation relies heavily on concepts long taught in the field of restorative practices, also known as restorative justice. Restorative practices emphasize the value of every party to a conflict and reject the notion that any person is disposable. In other words, we reject the notion that problems are solved simply by kicking a person out of the relationship. This doesn’t mean we believe that every relationship can return to its status quo ante. What our teaching emphasizes is that there is value in the relationship brought to it by each person and that while the realities of the conflict may be severe, there still can be some form of relationship that affirms the value of each person involved in the conflict. In other words, there are relationships in which there will necessarily be distance and less interaction, or even no interaction going forward. The transition from the prior relationship to the new relationship can still be value-affirming. Combatants can part in peace and be at peace in their hearts after the parting.
How did the pandemic impact the work of the center?
The pandemic was helpful to the center in that we developed a model that allowed us to continue presenting our transformative mediation entirely online. It also helped us develop restorative practice implementation using Zoom. We have helped church congregations and schools develop new understandings of their presenting conflicts and their underlying relationships using these techniques.
One of our trainers conducted restorative practices for a neighborhood where a church congregation had already been trained, inviting neighbors to participate in restorative conversation on local issues of race. The city learned of this and asked our trainer to assist the city with conversations between racial groups in conflict over a particular community art project. The conversations were a great success and were handled entirely over Zoom.
All of the pastors in the South England Conference have been trained using our online mediation program. Our school culture initiatives have also become virtual and remained effective. We launched an emotional support initiative with several conferences for teachers and pastors using virtual methods. Likewise, we have launched a virtual school counseling initiative, thanks to COVID.
Do the organizations who ask the center for mediation pay for the services they receive? Do the mediators get paid? Is the center entirely funded by the Versacare Foundation?
La Sierra University, through the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business, agreed to be the academic home for the center, just as Clemson University is the academic home for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program for North America. La Sierra University and the School of Business have graciously done this at no charge to the center. All of the funds received from Versacare Foundation have been invested in bringing training to Adventist schools, congregations, and pastors around the world.
Yes, the trainers are paid, and many of the conferences and schools have assisted by contributing to the costs of lodging and the purchasing of materials needed.
Directing the Center for Conflict Resolution is only a sideline for you. Your day job is as a lawyer, and you recently joined a new law firm. Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of law that you practice?
I started out as a business attorney and discovered that my clients had failed to plan for the continuation and succession of their businesses. This prompted me to include estate planning in my practice, which has become a primary focus of my practice.
Interestingly, my practice has been one of the first to work with guardianships and conservatorships administered by the tribal court in my locale. Learning about Native American law and history has made me ever more sensitive to the cultural dynamics that I had overlooked most of my life. In conjunction with my work through the center, I was fascinated to learn that many, if not most, of the Native American languages do not have a word for “criminal.” I learned from one of the tribal judges that the best approximation the Native American languages had for the term criminal was this: “He who acts as if he has no relatives.” In other words, someone who acts without thinking about the consequences to other people for whom they would ordinarily be concerned—but instead acts as if there is nobody for whom they should have concern, and perhaps fail to recognize who has concern for them. Many of the Native American tribes in the United States and the First Peoples in Canada have adopted restorative practices as their model for dealing with conflict, including crime, because they wish to focus on the relationship of the person to the group and to the persons within the group.
How did you get interested in mediation? I believe you also hold several qualifications in mediation. What are they?
I had a situation where two of my clients, a hospital and a physician for whom I had handled a variety of matters, were at war with each other. Each side had spent over $50,000 in attorney fees over a year or so. One day I happened to mention to the attorney representing the physician that I was tempted to offer myself as mediator but hated the idea of being in the cross fire between these two clients I liked. Within an hour of having made that comment, the lawyer called and said his client wanted me to mediate and asked me to call the other party. I reluctantly did so and to my surprise, the other party jumped at the opportunity. The day came when the physician and hospital president were to meet in my office. I was tied up on the phone when they arrived and my secretary put them in my conference room—together. When I entered the conference room, the two of them looked at me and said these words, “We don’t need you.”
Prior to that, I had believed that what I had learned in my law school mediation course was not accepted by most attorneys. I had done an externship and been told by the supervising attorney that mediation was nonsense—after I had enthused about the concept.
When the physician and the president told me they did not need me, it resurrected that prior sense, and I decided I would be a person who would help disputants discuss the difficult issues keeping them from resolution.
My training as a mediator started in law school in a course taught by federal mediators. Later I went through a 40-hour course offered through Pepperdine University to our local judges. I took the training with thirty-five lawyers and six local judges. We all thought we knew something and all discovered we would benefit from learning a lot more.
What do you do when you aren't working as a mediator or lawyer? What other projects are you involved in? Do you ever have time for fun?
My wife, Debbie, is an educator and when we launched the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program effort in 2012 at the North American Division teachers’ conference in Nashville, Tennessee, there were no Seventh-day Adventist educators who had been trained in this program. She agreed to take the training and helped me present it at the NAD conference.
From that effort, we received invitations and over time found other like-minded individuals willing to take up the torch. Our spare time for ten years has been consumed by this effort.
As others have picked up this work, Debbie has now become an expert maker of books, such as junk journals, and both of us love to paint, particularly watercolors.
You can also find us playing music, Debbie at our piano and me on my cornet or recorder.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum
Title image courtesy of Richard Pershing
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