Monday, September 13, 2010

How Does Your Church Manage Conflict?

Rare is the church that has no conflict at all.  The question is not whether your church has conflict, but how the leaders in your congregation deal with it. 

Sometimes church leaders have a strong urge to stifle conflict.  This is a response driven by fear.   The problem is that ignoring the conflict doesn’t make it go away.  To the contrary, pretending that nothing is wrong can make matters worse.  Stifling the expression without addressing the cause leaves the splinter to fester deep within the wound, causing further irritation and even infection.  Some refer to this as faking peace. 

The problem is that a faked peace is not an authentic peace.  The cause of the conflict remains unchecked, leading to escalation of and worsening of division.  Sooner or later, the facade of a faked peace will come falling down.  Denial of a problem merely delays (and even worsens) the inevitable day of reckoning. 

One of the worst examples of denial being reported at the present time appears to be the tragic lack of response of the Catholic church to allegations of child abuse.  The only point of bringing up this tragedy and failure of leadership is to point out that lack of response to the tragedy led to broadening and magnification of the problem, not to its going away. 

On the other hand, there’s the other extreme, of a congregation that squares off against one another, forming factions that fight, lobby for position, and wage personal attacks against one another.  Rather than faking the peace, call this breaking the peace. 

Peace breakers deal with conflict in negative and destructive ways that are all too familiar:  by engaging in name calling and trash talk, through polarization and staking out extreme positions, by failing to take responsibility, by blaming others, by failing to listen or communicate, by failing to consider reasonable proposals, by escalating conflict through adoption of extreme “winner take all” positions that leave no room for compromise.  The peace breakers marginalize others, let anger (including self-righteous indignation) govern their actions, take “I win, you lose” positions, and are callous to the effects of using verbal barbs which leave their opponents wounded on the battlefield of conflict. 

The peace breakers are the worst nightmare of the peace fakers.  The peace breakers take over churches like a motorcycle gang, revving their engines and wearing leather jackets that say “My way or the high way,” and causing the less adversarial members of the congregation to run for shelter in churches elsewhere that seem more welcoming. 

In a recent tiff within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA denomination), a Pastor confronted a member of the governing board (an Elder) concerning comments by the Elder which the Pastor viewed as racist.  An article about the conflict, and the way the church dealt with it, appears HERE

The conflict was not dealt with perfectly.  There is no mention of any efforts at mediation or peacemaking, but there was an effort at a middle ground, which is to communicate, to acknowledge the conflict, and to deal with it in an appropriate manner.  The pastor confronted the Elder privately first and then publicly, and also began preaching sermons about racism.  The Elder, in retaliation, began lobbying for the congregation to fire the pastor from his position.  In a deeply divided and close vote, the congregation elected not to fire the pastor.  As the conflict escalated, there was some intervention by the ruling body of the denomination.  As a result, several families left the church, which is not an ideal situation.  Nevertheless, the conflict was addressed.  Now, the congregation has an opportunity to move forward and to heal from that conflict.  The article reports that the congregation is beginning to regroup and expand again, now that divisive issues and ideas have been addressed from the root. 

This conflict, and this report, is a reminder that sweeping negative issues under the rug is not always a good idea. But as the split in the PCA congregation illustrates, conflict that is escalated and dealt with in an adversarial manner will cause loss of congregants and deep wounds.  Is there a better way?

In a nutshell, yes.  The middle way is to “Make Peace”.  Peace making is not a skill that is particularly well taught in our society.  Just because someone has been selected to sit on a governing board does not mean they have good conflict resolution skills.   However, there are specific techniques and skills that can be taught during leadership development and utilized to help congregations address conflict constructively. 

Does your church’s leadership development program include training in conflict resolution skills?  Is your congregation equipped to address conflict in ways that uplift one another, that affirm the love that God has for each of God’s children, at the same time you work through conflict?  Is the gospel of peace and reconciliation not just part of  your weekly message, but is it part of your witness in how you live your congregational life?  If the answer is yes, great.  On the other hand, If this is not something your congregation or church leadership has given close attention to, consider seeking some training for your congregation in healthy leadership and conflict resolution skills.  

The potential for conflict exists in every congregation.  Conflict can be handled in positive or in negative ways.   Help your congregation develop skills in making peace.


  1. Humm... I tried to leave a comment earlier, but it suddenly just vanished!

    I love the term "peace breakers"

    I think the reason church membership is dropping so much in America today is directly related to how we deal with conflict. You suggest peace breakers

    "caus(e) the less adversarial members of the congregation to run for shelter in churches elsewhere that seem more welcoming."

    I agree, but I think by and large they just quit. People come to church seeking shelter from all the other places of conflict in their lives, and when church becomes just another place to fight and experience broken relationships, they just quit. Why bother?

    The "peace breakers" would have us believe its all about WHAT we fight about, but its really about HOW we fight.

    Peace fakers - another term I like - just make you feel everything is a farce. The complaint about lack of authenticity in the church is deeply related to this practice.

    Your blog and this post is a breath of fresh air. It gives me hope that somebody out there gets it.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Your positive thoughts really made my day. I'd like to publish them as a blog post unto itself.

  3. Thank you back. Curious to see where that goes.


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