Jun 24 2009

Resolving Church Conflict

Someone once said, “Where two or more are gathered together, there will be conflict.”  As someone who has been involved in ministry and church leadership for over twenty years, I think there is some truth in this.  While I would like to believe a good church would be conflict-free, with everyone “in one accord,” the New Testament reveals that even the Apostles were not immune to conflict.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing; Paul exhorts the Galatians to confront heresy, and tells the church at Corinth, “…there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”  Conflict can be the result of sin, but it is often the reality of our “seeing in part;” sometimes we just have differing points of view.  Disagreements and discord are simply a part of the human condition; as long as the church is comprised of humans, there will be conflict.

In a 2000 survey of 14,301 churches by Faith Communities Today, 75% of churches reported having some level of conflict in the five years prior, with 25% reporting serious conflict.  A follow up study found that over two-thirds of churches experiencing conflict reported a loss of members as a result, and about 25% suffered the loss of a leader.

While conflict can be beneficial, it has the potential to be damaging to both the church and the individuals involved.  Often it seems the real damage results not from the issue in conflict, but by how the conflict is handled.  As with any adversity, conflict can either make us better or bitter; how we approach conflict may be the factor that determines whether a church is strengthened or shattered.

What not to do

The worst thing that a pastor or leader can do when he or she recognizes there is discord is to ignore it exists.  Conflict doesn’t just go away – people do. People usually don’t leave churches because they see something they like better; they leave because they are unhappy where they are. And, if those who leave are in close relationship with others in the church, they often aren’t the only ones who leave.  Certainly there are people who simply can’t be pleased, and they will come and go.  However, discord of any nature can be poison to a church.

The next worst thing a pastor can do is to take an authoritarian approach, either by “pulling rank” and issuing his verdict on the issue, or by enacting a “don’t talk” rule.  Besides being un-Biblical, it won’t work for everyone and these attempts to silence the opposition will only add fuel to the fire. Again, unresolved conflict will not simply go away; however, people will go away, and possibly lead others to follow. The only way to deal with discord or conflict in a church is to address it, as Paul said, so “those who are approved may be recognized among you.”

Conflict is not sin

It is important for churches to recognize that conflict is not put in the same category as sin; many churches err by attempting to be Biblical in following the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Matthew 18 specifically deals with someone who “sins against you,” not someone who simply disagrees with you.  Calling on Matthew 18 automatically presumes that one side of a dispute is in sin. That being said, a process that facilitates communication and has reconciliation as its goal is essential.

If two people cannot resolve an issue by themselves, it is wise to suggest the use of a third party to act as a mediator or facilitator.  The results of a poll conducted by Christianity Today indicated that of congregations which found themselves in conflict, 78% waited too long to seek outside assistance. Many churches simply don’t recognize the seriousness of the conflict until it erupts.  The use of a mediator to work through issues differs significantly from the Matthew 18 approach, which is focused on convincing someone they have sinned and encouraging them to repent. A mediator remains neutral, taking the side of neither party. In both cases, of course, reconciliation is the ultimate goal.

Neutrality

It is essential that a mediator be completely impartial (and remain so), which often becomes difficult in church settings. If the third party has an opinion on the issue or has a stake in the outcome, he or she might favor one side. Often the dispute is between those in the congregation and the pastor and/or leadership; in these situations, it may be impossible to find a true neutral party within the church and someone completely outside the church should be called in.

Going even further, it may be wise to bring in someone from outside the denomination, to completely avoid any potential conflict of interest (conflict isn’t bad, a conflict of interest is).   A mediator should not come in any position of authority – not even a hint of it.  A mediator’s job is not to “fix” the problem or decide who is right or wrong; a mediator is a servant, whose job is to facilitate communication, resolution and reconciliation.  There are church consultants/mediators who will issue their “findings,” acting more as an arbitrator or judge.  This may resolve the issue, but it likely won’t result in reconciliation. Rather, the “losing” side will likely leave, or just “smolder” within the congregation, poisoning those around them.

The goal is reconciliation

I can’t emphasize enough the principle that reconciliation – restoring understanding between people in disagreement – should be the goal in resolving any dispute between Christians.  As Paul wrote in II Cor. 5:16-19:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

I know countless people for whom reconciliation has never happened. I find it difficult to understand how churches can continue where there are unresolved issues, especially when the wounded are left behind as some sort of “spiritual roadkill.”  It is a very poor testimony indeed, and more than that, should prevent us from continuing our worship activities.  Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24,

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Church conflict is a fact of life, whether resulting from sin or from differing viewpoints. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing; however, every conflict has the potential of resulting in sin and suffering if not handled properly. If we really believe that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, it behooves us to look at issues of conflict in church as an opportunity to see God’s grace at work as issues are resolved and relationships are restored.

For more information on mediation, visit Innovative Conflict Resolution.