It was Outwit. Outlast. Outplay from day one. The newly elected Church Chairman and I lived on different planets. We were light years apart on our views of leadership, preaching, and worship. I was a visionary flying at 40,000’. He was a bean-counter, stuck in the weeds. During weekdays, he hung out at the local courthouse, putting bad guys behind bars. On nights and weekends, he hovered over the church like a helicopter searching for fugitives. During our first board meeting together, he staked out his position with bold clarity: “Reverend, this is my church. It’s the only church I’ve ever known. Pastors will come and go, but I’ll be here long after you’re gone.” It was a shot across the bow. Nothing amiss was going to happen under his watch.
I thought it was my job to chart the direction of the church. He thought it was his job to chart the direction of me. He ran Elder meetings by the books: Robert’s Rules, the OPM (Operations and Personnel Manual), and the Bible. Pretty much in that order. After fighting tooth and nail for 3 hours, we’d go out for pie at Village Inn. It was surreal.
Before long, our epic battle for control of the church seeped out of the boardroom and into the pews. He had his supporters. I had mine. Church became a chess game. The moves and countermoves became exhausting. Every week there was a new brush fire to put out. Every day, another mosquito to swat.
Eventually, the situation became intolerable. With shrapnel flying around in every direction, the Elders decided that the church had had enough. Both lightning rods had to go.
That nightmare happened almost two decades ago. The older and wiser version of me looks back wishing that I’d have handled things differently.
You don’t need a master’s degree in organizational leadership to figure out that church conflict is inevitable. Wherever there are strong personalities mixed with multiple-choice answers, there’s going to be rumbles. We can avoid them, ignore them, minimize them, or bully our way through them. But none of those options lead to good outcomes.
Handling Church Conflict
So, here’s my top 10 on handling church conflict:
1. Ask questions to understand.
Tune your ears to wisdom and concentrate on understanding (Prov. 2:2, NLT).
2. Listen well.
Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish (Prov. 18:13).
3. Watch your words.
No snarky insults or profanity. Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut (Prov. 21:23a).
4. Check your body language.
No finger-pointing, crossed arms, or eye-rolling. (It’s a sin to belittle one’s neighbor (Prov. 14:21, NLT)
5. Stick to the truth.
No embellishing, hiding facts, or shading details. Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an axe (Prov. 25:18, NLT).
6. Don’t run at the mouth.
Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut (Prov. 10:19, NLT).
7. Assume honorable intent.
No one is ‘all bad’. If you search for good, you will find favor; but if you search for evil, it will find you (Prov. 11:27, NLT).
8. Pay attention to how you’re coming across.
Fools deceive themselves (Prov. 14:8, NLT).
9. Stay CALM.
Breathe. Speak slow, low, last, and without flinching. A gentle answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1a, NIV).
10. Be the first to apologize.
The best words for preserving the unity of the Body are “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me. I love you.”
You will face conflict. Every church leader knows to expect it. But how you respond speaks volumes about your maturity in Christ… and capacity to lead.
(For more practical help on responding to church conflict, check out Listen Well; Lead Better and visit HarlingLeadership.com)
Steve and Becky Harling are veteran church ministry leaders, authors and speakers. Certified by the John Maxwell Team the Harling’s have served as Pastors both nationally and internationally. www.harlingleadership.com