Rethinking conflict in the local church setting
“One of the first steps leaders can take to develop a safe environment in the midst of change is to recognize the value that conflict holds for them.” – Rendle, G. R
The tendency towards forced termination of church leaders is epidemic in North American. Ken Sande (2003) declared that all the reasons for forced exits can be summarized in one word: conflict. “When a pastor is forced out of ministry, it is usually because he has been unsuccessful at resolving differences with other people in his church”. A survey by Christianity Today (La Rue, 1996) states that 45 per cent of ousted pastors think they could have done more to avoid it. Resolving conflict was the primary action they wished they had taken sooner. They also stated that conflict management was the area of training most lacking in their seminary or Bible college education.
It seems to me that we do not respond to conflict very well in the church. Several years ago, I sat on the sundeck facing a distraught friend and fellow pastor. He was a casualty of mismanaged congregational conflict that resulted in a forced termination. His story illustrated to me the fact that churches and their leaders often avoid handling conflict until its too late. When we do handle congregational conflict it often results in removing the opposition from the church. Others choose to leave one congregation for another down the road only to find that the same problem exist in the new congregation. It followed us. It is us. I have come to believe that if we want to see a reduction in mismanaged congregational conflict we must change the way the local church understands and responds to conflict.
In addressing the issue of conflict in the local church I recommend two excellent resources: Ken Sande (The Peacemaker) and Jim Van Yperen, Making Peace. At the same time having good resources does not guarantee that we will use them. So what needs to change in order for us to take full advantage of the available material on biblical conflict resolution? I offer three suggestions for your consideration.
A change in thinking
In the seminars I teach, the first thing we do is ‘think’ about the word ‘conflict’. I am convinced that unless we change the way we think about conflict we will not change the way we behave in conflict. The majority of the participants think of ‘conflict’ only in negative terms: stress, anger, frustration, hurt. This is usually based on past destructive outcomes of conflict. Restricting conflict to the realm of negativity does not provide a great platform for dialogue on the benefits of conflict. To a large extent the church believes conflict is a result of the fall. However, conflict existed before the fall (between the serpent and Eve in Gen 3:1) and before creation (in Lucifer’s fall). Somehow in God’s sovereign plan ‘conflict’ serves a greater cause.
There is a positive side to conflict. It can produce growth, strength, positive change, or new ideas. An example of this is the creation of new ministries in Acts 6. The Apostle James states that it is through trials of many kinds that perseverance and maturity are developed (1:2-4). Conflict can create an opportunity for growing up in our understanding and application of living as a Christian.
If we changed our thinking and embraced conflict as God’s mechanism for forming Christ in us could that change the way the church manages conflict? I think so. The difference between the potential for negative or positive outcomes in conflict is found in our responses to it. In every conflict situation we have the freedom to choose how we will behave.
A change in behaviour
According to most conflict management resources there are five ways to respond to conflict: avoid, compete, collaborate, compromise and accommodate. The argument is made that in order to improve the way we behave in conflict we must identify our predominant style, learn the other styles, and then apply the appropriate styles to any given conflict. Conflict outcomes become negative when we consistently default to only one style. For instance, if we always avoid conflict we may never learn how to be assertive in a positive and healthy manner.
It is an interesting exercise to ask the question “What style did Jesus use when he faced conflict?” In the seminars, participants come up with stories in the life of Jesus that indicate he seemed to use all the styles. The difference between his behaviour and ours is that he responded according to what he heard from the Father. We often react to conflict and later go to God for reason why our reactions caused more destructive conflict. However, our behaviour can change if we take the time to think and choose a different behaviour instead of our yielding to our default patterns. There are biblical principles for responding to conflict but that is for another article.
A change in relationships
If we will rethink our view of conflict and if we will determine to behave biblically in conflict then will we see a change in the way relationships are managed during church conflicts? I believe we will. However, it is up to us as individuals to take responsibility for how we manage relationships during conflict in the church. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18-19)
The church, more than any community on earth, has the greatest resources to manage conflict in a healthy manner. Jesus Christ has given us the message, the means and the method for reconciliation. I believe that if we will view conflict differently, behave in conflict biblically, and manage relationships responsibly then we will reduce mismanaged conflict in the church.
Sande, K. (2003). “Strike the Shepherd.” Retrieved October 9, 2002 from HisPeace.org.
Rendle, G. R. (2001, 3rd ed.). Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders. Alban Institute.
La Rue, J. (1996), “Forced exits: High-risk churches.” Retrieved August 8, 2003, from ChristianityToday.com.
This article by Alan Simpson (BTh., MA) was published in Outreach Canada’s Transitions Newsletter, April 2005.