In evaluating society, few things are more universal than conflict. Conflict has been occurring between people regardless of race, culture, civilization, or religion through the ages. Today’s society in general has become overridden with conflict and disputes. Fewer people are seeking peaceful ways to resolve their conflicts and sadly, litigation has become the norm. Unfortunately, conflict does not stop at the door of the church. Even those who promise peace for humanity, those in the church, are often riddled with conflict. Churches are splitting over minor issues that have escalated and denominations are dividing over often power struggles and who holds the money. Angry members on both sides frequently are spewing their bitterness all over social media. Even litigation has become involved and lawyers are called to argue cases for Christians against fellow Christians in secular courts.
Too often Christian benevolence and love is pushed aside and forgotten when conflict occurs between Christians. Rarely is the church mentioned in the news media today unless it is conflict they are highlighting. Churches and denominations have almost become more known for their public conflicts than ever their love. Conflict has become quite an obvious problem for Christian people today. For those in leadership within the church, conflict management cannot be ignored or pushed aside even if one’s church seems harmonious now. In addressing conflict management, this article will address: (1) what are the sources of conflict in church today; (2) what are the effects of conflict; (3) how can some conflict be prevented; and (4) what are some techniques for managing conflict.
- SOURCES OF CONFLICT IN THE CHURCH
Conflict comes in all sorts and sizes in the church today. First, a definition of conflict. Conflict is a dynamic in which concerns, needs, interests, or positions are opposed to one another either by perception or in reality. A dispute is different in that it is a crystallized conflict problem that offers the possibility of settlement. A conflict has to be managed. All confrontations are not necessarily evil. Marriage counselors point out that conflict is inevitable in a marriage relationship, and an argument joined with the right attitude can actually clarify issues, promote a better understanding of viewpoints, and fuse a decision good for both. Conflict is a natural part of life. The key is how one response to conflict which makes a difference. Too often times bitterness slips in, relationships are hurt, and destructive anger evolves. The church and people involved then become divided.
In Acts 6:1, one of the first conflicts in the early church broke out “while the disciples were increasing in number.” Church growth can produce conflict and success in numbers may create a false sense of harmony. When most people change churches (for example, due to a move or a problem in a previous church), they bring to their new church expectations and assumptions based often times on their former church. When those expectations and assumptions are not met, disappointment occurs and sometimes it is not dealt with in a healthy way. People take their frustration and bitterness from their previous church, and deposit it in their new church.
Selfishness in church today is epidemic. In our fast pace, instant gratification world, people feel they have a right to immediate happiness and satisfaction. Sadly, this attitude has become prevalent in church. People want to be entertained and the question is often asked, “what’s in it for me?”
James 4: 1-2 says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but you don’t get it?” Pastors wanting power in denominations for titles and control. Members want recognition and to have their demands met. In churches and denominations, people confuse the difference between biblical absolute and personal preferences. They insist on their desires ruling the day without the possibility of compromise on minor issues to those not in power. Far too often, people demand one’s own viewpoint as the only one permissible on minor matters and refuse to listen to other viewpoints. When Christians attack others with a judgmental heart, they are splitting and dividing denominations and churches alike.
Selfishness and desire for power have become idols in churches and denominations. People with natural leadership qualities who are not in leadership positions often become destructive critics for the complaining minority. They feel they have to be in opposition to serve their function. The more capable they are, the more difficult they are for the pastor or leader. The selfishness and the desire for power (which usually go “hand in hand”) are a major source of conflict.
Gossip within the church has been around since biblical days and is a major source of conflict as well. The morsel of gossip does not have to be true to be destructive. Like a fire, rumors, gossip, and baseless criticism all need oxygen and combustible material to spread. Solomon said in Proverbs, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 26:20). If someone deprives those spreading gossip of a listening ear, they quickly die down. All too often church members listen and respond to things they should not. Unfortunately, conflict grows when rumors are not addressed in the light and their accuracy is not researched. Too often times, people don’t have the integrity to go to the person mentioned in the gossip and ask, “is this true?”
People with a bitter or negative spirit often stir up conflict within a congregation. Focusing only on the negative aspects of the church or its leaders. Seeing only weaknesses and not strengths disrupts church harmony and causes division. Continuous negative discussions rarely lead to positive, practical action for improvement. Hebrews 13:1 states, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority … Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Satan has been active and moving in churches today. He has used all types of methods to stir up conflict within the church; whether it is selfishness or the desire for hunger, jealousy, gossips, or even a negative spirit. The source of conflicts in church today are almost too many to count but one thing is sure, it usually causes division and strife.
2. EFFECTS OF CONFLICT
Conflict can be destructive, divisive, and demoralizing to a church. Unfortunately, too often it is not considered as “sinful” as other sins. It does not receive the same attention and concern that doctrinal or lifestyle errors attract. It somehow has been lowered on the “hierarchy” of sins within the church. Conflict causes the church to lose its impact in the world for Christ. When serious conflict infiltrates a congregation, the church loses its power, strength and purpose. It cannot attract and keep genuine seekers, it cannot motivate or encourage its volunteers, and it cannot meet its budget because its power is gone. The church loses its respect in the community and its opportunity as a witness for the cause of Christ weakened. People do not want to be apart of a body that is divided and full of bitterness for one another. Lost people may be sealing their fate for an eternal damnation because the church has lost its credibility in their eyes to draw people to it to share the Gospel’s saving message.
Conflict causes the heart of God to grieve. Paul talks about this in Ephesians when he says, ‘”Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as Christ Jesus forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:30-32).
One day those in the church and denominations will have to give an account to God for the division and strife they have caused. Conflict causes the youth of today to turn away from denominations and church. They see their elders engaged and bitter over conflict and decide they do not want to continue in this battle mode. It turns them away from even pursuing a life in ministry if they watch their leaders constantly berating those “on the other side” like it is a military battle. Even seminary students feel current ongoing battles within denominations as ‘”not their battle” and are choosing to either join independent churches or flee from conflict as best they can. Those in conflict also give a portion of their lives over to the influence of evil. Christians lose their focus on Christ and give Satan a foothold. Relationships are weakened, lines of communication are broken, and health is sometimes harmed when conflict prevails.
Time wasted on conflict is lost forever. Time is a precious thing, and it needs to be used for furthering the kingdom of God. The effects of conflict no doubt leave a bitter taste in all those involved. Most importantly, God is not honored and it grieves Him to see His children fighting amongst themselves. The effectiveness of the church has been hurt and conflict must be addressed before it does more harm.
3. PREVENTION OF SOME CONFLICT
Conflict ultimately is inevitable but there are some ways it can be prevented before it begins to form. Leaders in churches and denominations should expect conflict but should work to preventing as much as possible. Honesty and openness will go a long a way toward that goal. A good way to prevent conflict is to begin with oneself. Proceed in the ministry with humility and grace. Your doctrine may be right but your attitude may be very wrong. Ministers need to have the integrity to ask for forgiveness, apologize, and admit, “I was wrong.” Ministers especially need to set an example in forgiveness and in reconciliation for those in the congregation to follow. Christ said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5). Personal evaluation is key as well as control of the tongue. It must be controlled and bridled. James says, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” People need to ask themselves, “how is Christ being glorified in this?” If He is not, the activity or statement should be dropped.
To prevent conflict, people need to promote unity in their congregation rather than arguing over petty things. Paul advises Timothy, ”Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel.” (2 Timothy 2:23-24). “As a general rule, it is best to major on the majors and minor on the minor.” People who go through life seeing every issue in bold print letters are going to frequently find themselves in conflict.
One author/pastor in trying to prevent conflict recommended having a ”Front-loaded Pastor’s Class” where the pastor leads the new members class. Have the pastor hit controversial issues head on and not shrink from the difficult questions. This writer says his goal is ”to let everyone know what we are about” up front and not be shy about what these new members will expect in the church. The pastor is there because new people desire to meet him and feel he is the authoritative word on the church’s positions. This writer has the new members class held in a home because people are more relaxed and would be less confrontation if they disagreed with a stance the church holds. Old adage, “We fight with strangers and discuss with friends” holds true here. He also tries to hold new members classes as often as possible so everyone will get a clear explanation about the church.
A church that has a clear stated purpose and mission statement that is supported by its members would eliminate some future conflict. The positives of the church will be emphasized, why God established the church will be stated, and parameters for church activities and qualifications for leaders will be outlined. Make sure every member has access to the clearly, stated purpose and mission statement of the church. A church can now begin to make their decisions based on their new clear, written purpose and mission statement. Both staff and church members clearly understand how their involvement contributes to the purpose and outreach of the church, and they are accountable for the accomplishment of their assignments. Debate over who should be chosen for leadership positions may be somewhat lessened. Conflict over what direction the church is headed and which activities are planned may be lessened as well. Church staff conflict occurs just like any other area of the church.
Hire leaders or co-workers, not “gofers” to do all the tasks the pastor himself does not want to do. Form a team of peers who not only share the work but also the perks. Share the public ministry of weddings, funerals, and preaching God’s Word with associate pastors. Public ministry often brings attention, appreciation, and gratitude the senior pastor usually receives alone. Share the limelight and the applause. Too often staff in administration, visitation, recruitment, counseling, and youth ministry suffer from a lack of appreciation except for those directly involved. Emphasize staff teamwork but recognize ultimately the senior pastor will be held accountable. Turnover will fall.
4. TECHNIQUES FOR MANAGING CONFLICT
As stated before, conflict is inevitable. There are many techniques available in dealing with conflict. Mediators are becoming more prevalent and these peacemakers are now called to calm the rising tide of division. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he pleads with two women to end their dispute. He realizes they can not do it on their own and he asks fellow believers to intervene. He says, ”I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord, Yes I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women.” (Philippians 4:2-3).
Christians in conflict need help and they need the pressure and assistance of other believers. Paul called for peacemakers to come in and help resolve their conflict. Although no power on earth can force people to behave like Christians and reconcile, accountability will help. Reconciliation can be encouraged and mediators can provide their assistance in helping them find peace. Mediators can provide a very valuable service to helping manage conflict and help end disputes.
Paul called the Corinthians to end their lawsuits and find a wise Christian to mediate. (1 Corinthians 6: 1-8). Lawsuits harm the Christian witness and place secular courts over disagreements between believers. Steve McFarland of the Christian Legal Society says that Christians go to court thinking they are going to get justice. Instead, they get incredible delays, costs, and in the end, a very doubtful chance at justice. Christian mediation is becoming a very popular and appealing alternative to litigation. Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9).
The practice of Christian mediation is Biblical. Encouraging to those who seek peace, mediation has grown tremendously in the last twenty years. It is a viable option to managing conflict in the church. Mediation is fairly structured to allow for a reconciliation to occur. The mediator is a neutral third party who helps the two parties to come to an amicable and wise agreement to their conflict. He listens and helps to develop dialogue between the parties.
Mediation focuses on bringing the parties together and allowing each side an opportunity to express their views and interests.
- The sides present their sides and the mediator sets an agenda with them about what is to be accomplished.
- The mediator asks each party pointed and probing questions about their position and their set of facts.
- He helps them find their common interests as well as trying to “detoxify” some of their heated language and descriptions of the situation.
- The mediator also tries to reframe issues into workable problems that can be solved.
- Finally, the mediator helps prepare a written agreement that is fair and can be agreed upon by all parties. It is clear and concise and allows the parties to leave with their emotions calmed, their dispute resolved and reconciliation well on its way.
In leadership, sometimes bringing in a neutral third party is not needed or is not an option. Sometimes the best way to manage conflict is in the approach to it. Leaders need to address misunderstandings early and not allow it to fester.A good leader is one who can take a disruptive critic who causes conflict and turn him into a productive
“coach.” Ask those who are causing conflict to propose solutions and if they are an expert in an area, have them advice the leader in that area. Be bold and say that if people don’t have a better way of doing things, then don’t criticize. Where a leader is making a proposal, anticipate conflict and questions that will arise. Enlist those who may be the biggest complainers to support one’s proposal.
A church leader must lead in making constructive criticism a part of the culture of the church while destructive criticism is unwelcome. ”Lift up the responsibility of people to keep leaders from serious mistakes, to make sure we look at alternative solutions, and to keep us conscious of our responsibilities rather than our rights.” These are just some of the ways a leader can help manage conflict. A leader who sets a good example and lives a life that promotes reconciliation is key. The example the pastor sets in his own personal relationships sets the tone for the rest of the church. Being peacemakers is needed more than ever before.
Conflict is inevitable and is becoming more and more prevalent in churches
today. Litigation and strife are not left at the door of the church. Pastors need to be
keenly aware that conflict exists and know the sources of conflict. No church is immune to it although there are some ways to prevent some of it and techniques to manage conflict. This paper has addressed the issue of conflict management and has given
specific preventive measures to help leaders know how to address this pertinent issue. People will be accountable to God for their actions and words that they speak. Therefore, leaders need to live a life that will promote harmony, peace, and reconciliation. It is a high calling and the challenge is great, and never before has the need for people willing to model their lives after Christ been so desperately needed. Conflict will occur, but how one handles it is the key.