What do we make of the rising tide of conflict in local congregations?

First of all, is there actually an increase in conflict?

Anecdotally, the number of calls and conversations we are having around conflict seem to indicate that local church conflict is becoming more frequent and widespread.

Statistically, patterns of terminations for clergy suggest that, indeed, life as a minister in the 21st century is more stressful, more toxic and more likely to end in termination than ever before. An excellent source for multiple studies is available at Body Anatomy & Church Health Development.

The rates at which parishioners change churches are increasing. No longer do members endure dry seasons in the life of a church patiently. If a favorite minister leaves, or music styles shift, or relationships fray and conflict erupts, the exits are clogged with people on their way to another church home. The resulting loss of attendees invites conflict.

Many times conflict renders a church wounded for at least one generation (15 to 20 years) after it occurs. Clergy may move on and protagonists pass away, but the church continues to limp along for years as a result of a season of conflict.

It is difficult to measure the impact of conflict upon the unseen aspects of congregational life. The loss of passion and vitality for the gospel, the reduction of sacrificial giving, the jaded spirits, the ministry thwarted, the disillusionment among younger people, the loss of hope, the cynical attitudes that conflict leaves in its wake are all very real, but not easily quantified.

Our witness to the world, at a time when it has never been more needed, is in danger of being derailed by critical spirits and incivility. Mirroring the mood of the public square, local churches often share more in common with the harsh rhetoric of political parties and incendiary talk radio than with the spirit of Scripture, the stories of the Bible or the witness of Christ.

How might we begin to turn this tide of turmoil?

Healing from conflict begins when we humble ourselves. Humility and repentance precede any healing for God’s people. We must turn to God in humility, admit our own shortcomings and confess our own sin.

As tempting as it may be to confess the sins of all those around us, the path to healing begins in the prayer of David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit in me.”

I am struck by how difficult those words are for us to pray with integrity. Forsaking genuine humility, we settle for self-justification. We honestly believe that if the facts were known, we would be exonerated. When honest, we think we are right and others are wrong. Deep down, we refuse to consider the notion that our motives are mixed and our intentions impure. We see ourselves as we wish we were, not as we truly are.

God’s people have always had a love-hate relationship with humility. We want and demand it in others while we excuse its absence in ourselves. From the garden to the exodus to the prophets to the disciples and the church, the Bible is filled with examples of people taking themselves far too seriously and God far too lightly. When Jesus established his church, humility was a foundational ingredient for the new community. Christ is the head of the church, and no one else need apply.

When conflict visits our fellowship, the beginning point of turning away from a dead-end future is for all Christ-followers to humble themselves, turn from their sins and seek to embody his spirit and presence. It is only then that the journey back toward health and life can begin for a church.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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