A Proven Process for Resolving Unhealthy Disagreements and Embracing Healthy Ones
When Church Conflict Happens
WHO: Michael Hare, senior staff chaplain and ombudsman for Compassion International.
HE SAYS: “The question is not whether you church will experience conflict but rather what you will do when it comes.”
THE BIG IDEA: This book helps readers recognize problems that can occur when trying to resolve church conflicts.
Section 1, “The Problem,” describes some of the common mistakes made by church leaders. Section 2, “The Model,” provides information on how to create a functional model for analyzing and resolving conflicts in a biblical and healthy manner. Section 3, “The Workbook,” offers practical exercises and tools to help church leaders evaluate and implement the model. Throughout the book are stories and examples of churches facing common conflicts.
“You don’t need to dread conflict. You can learn to make the most of the opportunities it offers to transform your church for good.”
A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL HARE
What do most pastors generally get wrong when it comes to church conflicts?
Pastors, just like all of us, often find themselves greatly challenged during times of conflict, especially when it occurs in the church. A major difference for pastors, of course, is the added responsibility church leaders have to respond to conflict in a godly manner and to live their lives as an example before their congregations.
I’ve found most Christians are conflict avoidant and pastors and church leaders are no exception. So, when church conflict happens, ignoring or trying to sweep it under the rug usually makes things worse. The pitfalls that most often occur are those of reacting in natural (carnal or sinful) ways instead of with supernatural (spiritual) responses. I’m simply referring to the difference between being hijacked emotionally, becoming defensive, and striking out in harmful ways as opposed to allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us in our thoughts, words and actions.
Learning to respond redemptively requires intentionality and discipline; it doesn’t happen naturally. We must be self-aware enough (with God’s help) to recognize when dangerous circumstances arise and be engaged in training ourselves in godliness so our immediate response becomes Christlike instead of defaulting to our old natural, sinful inclinations.
As church leaders, having a structured and practiced process of resolving conflict provides greater safety for us and for the whole church. When we become examples to the flock in ways that offer clear demonstrations of biblical conflict engagement and reconciliation, we become instruments of cultural transformation within our congregations.
What are the three facets of church conflict?
Most of us, including pastors and church leaders, avoid conflict because we tend to view it in only negative terms. However, there are at least three ways we can categorize the conflicts we experience in churches: 1) unhealthy conflict 2) benign conflict and 3) healthy conflict.
Unhealthy conflict, unfortunately, is the most common. It occurs as the result of responding sinfully or avoiding dealing with situations until disagreements fester and relationships are highly strained and/or damaged.
Benign conflict refers to those disagreements resulting from unintentional organizational (structural) deficits. An example of this type of conflict is when poorly written job descriptions put church staff members at odds with overlapping or ambiguous role definitions.
Healthy conflict, on the other hand, refers to problems that are recognized, acknowledged, and engaged with in a timely, constructive, and biblical manner.
Although all conflicts can become unhealthy, it doesn’t have to go that way! Creating and practicing biblical strategies and methods of engaging and resolving church conflict not only redeems the immediate circumstances for good but equips and em powers church leaders and members to do the same—not only with each other but with their family members, at work, and in their personal lives.
The key, then, is for church leaders to be able to recognize the differences between these three categories so they can respond appropriately to each one. Although there is an initial learning curve, once learned, the same pastoral and leadership gifts and skills used every day enables us to become confident and effective in dealing with every kind of conflict. In much the same way we develop poor habits in dealing with conflict, we can build new habits that will serve us and our congregations well in the days and years ahead.
What advice would you give to the pastor who avoids conflict at all costs?
Even Jesus avoided conflict sometimes (John 10:39). Avoiding conflict can sometimes be the best course of action—but this is the exception, not the rule. As painful as confronting conflict can be, it is usually the right thing to do and when done biblically, can create a healthy platform for constructive problem-solving and spiritual growth.
In my experience, 90% of church conflicts have structural roots. In other words, although the presenting issues almost always surface in the form of interpersonal disagreements, these disputes are most often just an indicator of deeper, more fundamental organizational issues which are vital to resolve to ensure church health and growth. From a church culture standpoint, the manner in which church leaders respond to conflict sets the tone for the entire congregation and either provides a godly example of the “ministry of reconciliation” or pushes conflict under the surface causing all kinds of trouble both in the present and in the future.
If the senior pastor is not the most spiritually gifted leader in peacemaking skills (of course he can certainly be learning new skills) it may be wise to utilize other leaders in this process who are more gifted and/or better equipped. In larger churches, teams can be created and trained with varied skill sets to engage in different aspects of this important ministry.