How to Navigate Church Conflict
Mapping your way to successful resolutions
A fun fact about me is that I am terrified of frogs. I don’t know why, or when the fear of frogs started. I just know that when I get near one, something in me is convinced that the frog’s mission in life is to jump on my face. I break into a cold sweat and walk to the other side of the street or sidewalk to avoid them. I don’t think they’re cute, and no, you can’t convince me otherwise. I feel similar feelings about snakes, but snakes aren’t typically going to jump on me and I am 100% CONVINCED that the frog will. We live beside a pond, so the spring and summer months are basically full of me zigzagging around the neighborhood in an effort to avoid frogs lying in wait to pounce on me while I take my dog out for a walk.
As scared as I am of frogs, there is something else that prompts that same “fight or flight” response for me: Conflict. I am what some might call “conflict-avoidant.” For me, conflict triggers the same response that frogs do– I break out into a cold sweat and start looking for a way to get around it. I just want to be through it as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately for me, conflict in ministry is as inevitable as the frogs in my neighborhood. It’s not a matter of “if” we experience conflict in church, it’s a matter of “when.” Sometimes the conflicts are simple, a small matter easily resolved. But some conflicts are bitter and hard, and they can leave us wounded and weary as we seek resolutions.
Our initial response to conflict can be very revealing of who we are as a person. There are those like me, for whom conflict is uncomfortable and frightening. We may have grown up in a household where fighting was common, or where showing emotions was not acceptable (either extreme can lead to conflict avoidance). Or you may be someone who looks forward to conflict as an area where you can assert yourself or your ideas. But something we should remember is that when we are faced with conflict, we are often reduced to our natural, self-destructive sin nature.
Knowing how to manage our conflicts is the key to seeing conflict properly– not as something to be afraid of, but instead as something to embrace. Too often, we think of conflict as a sign that we are failing. “If I was doing better, I wouldn’t have these issues,” we think. But the truth is, conflict can be a sign of health! In fact, handled correctly, conflict can provide us with great opportunities for spiritual growth and relationship building.
The Starting Point for Handling Conflict
On the Replant Bootcamp podcast this week, JimBob2 walked through what it looks like to handle conflict appropriately with the help of Michael Hare’s book, When Church Conflict Happens: A Proven Process for Resolving Unhealthy Disagreements and Embracing Healthy Ones. As a church conflict consultant, Hare has helped hundreds of people resolve conflicts in a healthy way.
Hare describes conflict in three categories:
- Unhealthy conflict- this type of disagreement often goes unrecognized until interpersonal disputes and church factions arise
- Benign conflict- this usually occurs because of organizational deficits and oversights that are unintentional
- Healthy conflict- disagreements that are recognized, acknowledged, and responded to in a biblically constructive manner.
When we are presented with a conflict, the most helpful question isn’t “what are you fighting about?” Instead, we need to look for the root of the disagreement. It’s not about the carpet color being changed, it’s more likely about the memories associated with the carpet or the fear of change in general. When we seek to understand the underlying emotions, we are cultivating a better church culture. Hare writes, “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.”
Most of the time, in addition to the emotions of those involved in the conflict, we also bring our own bias into the equation. When we mediate a conflict, are we looking for compromises that won’t provide lasting resolution? Are we rushing to judge each person instead of listening to both sides? Are we responding with empathy, always keeping in mind Ephesians 4:15 and speaking the truth in love? Are we focused more on the unity of the body than on personal preferences? Emotions run high during conflict, and we must remember that our emotions are at work just as much as anyone else’s.
When we begin from a place of empathy and understand, we are responding redemptively. Hare describes this as something that isn’t natural for us– we have to train ourselves to begin at this point. He writes, “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.”
Hare believes one of the ways we become better at mapping out conflict is to “demystify” it, or to remove some of the “unknowns” regarding conflict. Hare writes that conflict typically happens within 5 overlapping areas:
- Intrapersonal: the conflict going on inside the individual person, a spiritual or emotional battle.
- Interpersonal: the conflict between two people
- Intragroup: the conflict within a group
- Intergroup: the conflict between two groups
- Structural: something within the organization that creates conflict.
When we are looking at a disagreement, we can typically see where this is happening and address each area accordingly. Hare uses the example found in Acts 6 to illustrate this overlap. In the disagreement among the Greek and the Hebrew widows, we see the apostles acknowledging the interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts and responding with action. They didn’t avoid the conflict; they addressed the issue and found a way to continue the mission of the church.
Another key way we can “demystify” conflict is to look at potential structural causes for conflict. Many church disputes stem from disorganization within the systems of the church. (One group reserves a church vehicle for a conference only to find out another group takes an annual trip to the mountains that same weekend and have never had to sign out the vehicle.) Sometimes bylaws (or the lack of them) can cause misunderstandings. If you’re mediating a conflict between two groups or two people, it can be helpful to recognize areas where your church’s structure has contributed to the dispute and address those to avoid it in the future.
Kingdom Mindsets have Kingdom Resolutions
In resolving conflicts, we must move from a mentality that says “either/or” to one that says “both/and.” Using Acts 6 as an example, we see that the Apostles weren’t looking at the conflict as “Greeks versus Hebrews.” They didn’t feel like one group was more important than the other or that one group was better than the other. They found a way to say both groups are vital and we have to make sure that we are continuing the work of the Lord and making sure the needs of these people are met.
When we look with a Kingdom mindset, we are seeking the kingdom of God over our personal preferences and petty differences. We are looking not just in the best interest of our specific church, but in the best interest of God’s Church, the Bride of Christ. We are recognizing that we love the church too much to allow disputes and conflicts to gain a foothold in our unity and potentially drive a wedge between us.
Our ability to properly map out a conflict can mean the difference between an angry argument or a biblical resolution. Take time today to think about the most recent conflict you experienced. Would you handle it the same way now that you know how to map it out?
(There are multiple resources out there to handle conflict, but one that I found helpful was this list from NC Baptists of 20 ways to resolve church conflict.)