You write that conflict is something to be expected as part of our human experience—that wherever there are human relationships, sooner or later, there is conflict. What makes conflict that happens in a church more complicated than conflict in other contexts?
Most organizational conflicts tend to be complex because of the different levels from which the root causes of these conflicts originate (within individuals, between individuals, within groups, between groups, and from organizational or structural deficits). However, church conflicts can be even more complicated because of the deeply held values of the individuals involved. Because believers not only hold differing viewpoints and opinions but often see their positions as a part of their Christian identities (personal religious convictions that they may view as absolute), they often can’t separate their personal opinions from their own sense of faithfulness to God. Of course, in some cases this is appropriate if the disputed issue relates to primary biblical truth. However, all too often, the issues causing division are not about biblical absolutes but rather personal preferences (i.e. tastes in music, preaching styles, orders of service, etc.). The key to finding healthy resolution to these kinds of conflicts is to help the people involved sort out which issues are primary and which ones are not—in biblical ways that further mutual understanding and foster unity rather than division.
In over a decade of being a church conflict consultant, have you noticed some common pitfalls that pastors and church leaders often fall into when dealing with church conflict?
Pastors and church leaders are just people! All of us can find ourselves greatly challenged during times of conflict, especially in the church. However, church leaders have a greater responsibility to respond to conflict in a redemptive manner because of the high calling we have received to shepherd the flock of God. So, when church conflict happens, the pitfalls which 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 in contrast 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 to be training ourselves in godliness so that our immediate responses are Christlike instead of defaulting to our natural, sinful inclinations. Having structured and practiced processes of resolving conflict provides safety for us, for our leaders, and for the whole church. When, during times of conflict, we are examples to the flock offering biblical models of biblical conflict engagement and reconciliation, we become instruments of cultural transformation within our congregations.
Can you name a few things that pastors often do out of good intention but end up making things worse?
Probably the most common unhealthy response by pastors when conflict arises is to avoid or postpone dealing with it. I’ve found most Christians are conflict avoiders and pastors and church leaders are no different. Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict. Jesus sometimes did that (John 10:39). But this is the exception, not the rule. Most often, it is wise to engage the conflict in a discerning and biblical manner to help sort out the issues and take a holistic approach to problem solving and relational reconciliation. A second common mistake is to assume that interpersonal conflict is limited in scope to simply a disagreement between two or three people. In my experience, 90% of church conflicts have direct or indirect root causes that are organizational (structural) in nature. By structural, I mean organizational deficits in policy, procedure, leadership, and culture. For example, if the job descriptions of two church staff members are poorly written their roles may be ambiguous and/or overlapping. These two leaders might therefore be placed in an unavoidable conflict through no fault of their own. And, unless the underlying structural problem of unclear job descriptions is resolved, any success in achieving interpersonal reconciliation between these two leaders is temporary at best.
Can you explain how we can use our spiritual gifts for the purpose of conflict resolutions?
It is quite normal to view differences of opinion and conflicting perspectives as threatening in nature even in the context of the church. However, our natural reactions are often counter to spiritually correct ones. As the Scripture reminds us, the flesh is contrary to the spirit (Galatians 5:17). In the New Testament, the biblical design for the church is one of interdependency growing out of the diversity of spiritual gifts given. No one has all of the gifts but every believer has one gift or more. These gifts are clearly intended to function in a complementary fashion (Romans 12). When allowed to function in a biblically healthy way, these differences operate as a multifaceted whole, creating unity through diversity. Viewing differences this way allows us to reframe disagreements as potential resources rather than just as threats. Understanding gift-driven differences as God-given perspectives can help surface a wide range of ideas and transform the conflict dynamics from a confusing set of apparent contradictions to a broader model for collaborative decision-making therefore utilizing everyone’s gifts. This can eliminate the tunnel vision and avoid our individual blind spots from limiting problem-solving options unnecessarily.
DR. S. MICHAEL HARE has recently completed a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution after 15 years of working as a church conflict consultant. He also serves as a senior staff chaplain and ombudsman for Compassion with its nearly 4,000 employees ministering in 26 third world countries. Dr. Hare has served as an adjunct instructor in several universities and is currently teaching mediation courses in a doctoral program in Denver. He is the author of When Church Conflict Happens: A proven Success for Resolving Unhealthy Disagreements and Embracing Healthy Ones (Moody Publishers, 2019).