Conflict in the Church – Part 1: Minimizing Conflict

Conflict reared its ugly head during my tenth year as pastor of a mainline Congregational church. Prior to my arrival a decade earlier, the church been in steep decline for 30 years, and when I arrived, it was functioning more like a country club. The message from the pulpit was increasingly theologically liberal. Because this watered-down gospel had little compelling power, no one was converted, members aged, and the church shrank. By the time I took the pulpit, there had been talk of either closing down the church or merging with one of the three other Congregational churches in town. Instead, the people took a chance and called this newly minted pastor. It was my first pastorate.

I began to preach the gospel and do my best to care for my flock. Very slowly, we began to see spiritual and numerical growth. However, not all was well in the land. A small group of people was decidedly not happy. They were critical of my leadership and the biblical focus; they especially resented the younger outsiders who were drawn to biblical preaching. These newcomers were joining the church and moving into leadership, and that provoked a pushback from the old guard. At first I tried to work with the dissenting group, but I became increasingly aware that they were undermining my leadership and turning others against me. I suspected they were trying to force me out, as they had my two predecessors. Some of my supporters said I was being paranoid, others suggested that maybe I was the problem. I was confused, deeply troubled, and beginning to doubt my call. After ten years of what I thought was fruitful ministry, I was beginning the most difficult time of my pastorate, as it appeared that the church might split or I might be dismissed. (The story continues next month.)

As pastors, we face few experiences in a church’s life as painful as conflict: it produces sleepless nights, churning stomachs, anxious thoughts, opposing sides, and winners and losers. We all hate conflict and try to avoid it, but as we make the difficult choices necessary to lead a church back to health, conflict becomes inevitable.

Let me suggest some ways to minimize conflict—that is, to reduce its amount and intensity.  

Introduce Change Thoughtfully

Conflict in churches often comes in the form of pushback by members against changes introduced by pastors. Granted, change is necessary if dying churches are to live. The question is, how to lead change without creating chaos and turmoil for the church. Pastors should first take the time to win the hearts and minds of the people by clearly explaining the reasons for any proposed change. Further, the proposed changes should not be personal preferences but strategic steps to bring the church into alignment with the biblical mission of the church and the principles and practices around the mission. Take the time to bring the congregation on board with the changes you envision. It often takes much longer than a pastor anticipates to LEAD change, not PUSH it.

Establish Fair Fighting Rules

While it may be impossible to avoid all conflict, it can be minimized by following biblical principles for fairness and mutual respect, such as the following:

Matthew 18:15-17: If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

 II Corinthians 13:1: “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

 I Timothy 5:19: Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.  

Ask your leadership board to agree to these common sense, biblical rules. This will reduce anonymous criticism and frivolous complaints. If people do not have the courage to own up to their concerns or sign a complaint, then you should not entertain their censure. Pastors and church boards should be approachable and accessible so that members can readily bring their concerns. Ironically, Pastoral Relations Committees, popular in many churches and designed to foster communication and harmony, often have the opposite effect. By creating a third party (the committee), they create triangulation. The complainant can bring a criticism to the committee, not the pastor. Often these committees then shield the identity of the complaining party. This is patently unfair to the pastor since he or she has no idea who the source is. It’s far better for the pastor and church leaders to foster clear and open lines of communication. If pastors create a climate of availability and approachability, then third party mediators are not needed.  

Furthermore, church leaders should make it clear that personal attacks on pastors or other leaders will not be tolerated. Pastors should not have to defend themselves, their families, or their staff from ad hominem attacks. In the same vein, discourage unplanned, unscheduled, or unofficial meetings. Because small churches operate casually like families, unofficial meetings do take place, but key decisions and discussions should include all members. Likewise, limit electronic meetings unless everyone has easy access to them.

Strive for Leadership Unanimity Where Possible

Since it is the job of the elders to discern the direction of the church, an elder board should operate on the principle of unanimity. As Christ is the head of His body the church, it is logical that the head will not direct some members of the body one way and other members a different way. We can have confidence that Christ will lead the body in agreement. Until the elders concur, they should not move forward with a decision. When matters are settled by simple majority vote, winners and losers are created. Every church leader knows about those parking lot meetings held after a vote, where the winners gloat and the losers stew. This can further divide a church. Reaching full agreement may require more discussion and more prayer, but in the long run it is worth it. This is also a reason to have a manageable number of elders, so that complete consensus is achievable. It may take years before there is enough trust and harmony among the leadership to adopt a unanimity principle, but it is a goal worth striving for.

Prepare Well for Large Meetings

Large or open meetings, which are common in congregationally governed churches, can be very unpleasant and even destructive to church unity if they get out of hand. Chaotic, town-hall-style meetings, controlled by a few angry members, will drive the civil members away. Being well prepared can diffuse or derail conflict; for example,

  • Hold a pre-meeting, with all the leaders present, to agree on the agenda and the hoped-for outcomes. When the leadership is unified, a few screamers are unable to control the large gathering.
  • Offer hearings with the congregation before a major vote. This way, you show respect to, and get input from, the wider church.
  • Share a meal before a meeting to reinforce the bond among the members. It is harder to get angry at people with whom you have just broken bread.
  • Above all, prepare spiritually for the meeting, with the leaders yielding in prayer to the Head of the body. Pray for the fruit of the spirit to be exhibited in the lives of the members, leaders, and pastor.    

Follow Your Constitution

Submit yourself to the governing authority in the church, whether that is a board of deacons, vestry, elders, church council, or congregation. Romans 13:1 reminds us that we are all under authority and that God honors authority since He has ordained it. Even if we are not sure if those in authority are committed to Christ, we are still called to respect and follow their authority. Remember that the Apostle wrote these words when the evil Nero was likely the emperor. We need the Holy Spirit as our ally as we lead our churches to greater health, so honor God by honoring the authority structure He has ordained.

Be Aware of Your Emotions and Manage Them

In the midst of conflict, emotions run strong and can easily get out of control. Pray for self-control, the last but hardly least in the list of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). In addition to IQ, intelligence quotient, there is EQ, emotional quotient. EQ means being aware of your feelings and those of others. By differentiating your feelings from those of others involved in conflict, you are better able to listen and understand different viewpoints. Be alert to those situations that cause anger or defensiveness to arise in you. I found that when an angry parishioner confronted me, it helped to invite them to sit down in a private place and tell me their concern. I became a lot less defensive and annoyed simply by sitting down. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, EQ is “keeping your head, while all others are losing theirs.” By staying cool in hot situations, you will demonstrate godly leadership that others will want to follow.

Check Your Attitude

Sometimes conflict is unavoidable, especially when the Bible is clear about a matter but some choose not to follow it. The pastor’s attitude will greatly influence whether the way of reconciliation can help a church navigate conflict. It takes two parties to have a war; if one party chooses to seek the way of peace and unity, division may be avoided. In Ephesians 4:2-3 the Apostle Paul urges his listeners, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO KEEP THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT THROUGH THE BOND OF PEACE.” Our attitude should be the pursuit of unity and harmony.

Above All, Trust Your Call

God has placed you in your position as pastor of this church. You are there by His sovereign choice, not by accident. Conflict is not a sign that you should leave. It may be a sign that necessary change is taking place and that is making some uncomfortable. Or it may be a sign that you are moving too fast and getting too far in front of your flock. Seek to understand what the conflict means, but don’t interpret it as a sign to leave. Instead, see it as a sign to stay and work through it. In I Corinthians 7:17 the Apostle Paul seeks to strengthen the resolve of the Corinthians to stay faithful in the midst of difficult times. He exhorts them to “retain the place in life that the Lord has called them to.” You can significantly minimize the threat of conflict by trusting your call and the One who has issued it, believing that you are where the Lord means you to be.

(Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, 2018, Overseed Press.)  

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