One of the saddest truths I have come to understand about conflict in congregations is how destructive it can be.
Years of progress and effective ministry can be negated by unhealthy conflict. Careers can be ruined. Faith and hope in Christ eroded. Growth of the Kingdom of God thwarted. With so very much at stake, it is imperative that every congregation deliberately cultivate a capacity for managing conflict.
One key component of such a capacity is to clarify our expectation that conflict is inevitable and expected. Conflict is normal. Just as with your biological family, when human beings live in close proximity to one another, conflict will follow. Every church I know is comprised of unique and diverse people with multiple opinions and convictions. While that diversity makes us strong and interesting, it also means we will not always agree.
The New Testament’s descriptions of life as the body of Christ presume that our differences will become one of the traits that make us strong. 1 Corinthians 12 celebrates the diversity of gifts within the family and suggests that our unity is not a result of identical opinions and practices, but of a shared love for Jesus as our savior.
Decriminalizing conflict is a good place to start. As my friend, George Bullard, declares, “Every church needs a little conflict.” One of the ways we know we actually care about our faith, our church and their future is that we have enough passion to contend for our position or opinion. If issues at your church do not matter enough to move you, or if you haven’t thought about an issue enough to form a substantive opinion, then you probably need to ask how much your faith actually means to you.
Healthy conflict is one of the most effective means for a church to grow deeper in its understanding of spiritual truth that God sends us.
On the other hand, when conflict overwhelms the mission of the church and becomes the primary way we experience congregational life, it has become far too pervasive and needs intervention and healing.
Knowing when we have reached that point is always a difficult call.
However, there are some warning signs that indicate you have crossed the boundary from healthy conflict into unhealthy and destructive behavior. Here are some simple things to look for that suggest the need for help with managing conflict.
1. People change in the way they interact with one another. You begin to sense suspicion, avoidance, coolness, eye rolling and so on.
2. There are significant or sudden decreases in general budget giving or increases in designated giving.
3. There are significant or sudden decreases in volunteerism or attendance at particular events.
4. Small groups begin to meet in private to discuss church-related issues.
5. There is orchestration or coordination of meetings or voting, including meetings before the meeting or after the meeting.
6. You experience the dreaded e-mail or telephone campaigns.
7. You see disproportionate responses to stimuli. This overreaction takes the form of anger, frustration or conflict that emerges over what were previously insignificant issues.
8. There are unexpectedly high turnouts for business or informational meetings.
9. You sense a steady increase in criticism of pastor, staff or lay leaders.
10. There is growing polarization within the congregation. Members begin using “we” and “they” language.
When you see these indicators, it is time to act.
An essential ingredient in any congregation’s successful navigation of intense conflict is the use of objective guidance. When severe conflict visits a congregation, outside counsel is indispensible. While in the midst of congregational conflict, one’s vision and perspective become clouded by subjectivity. It often takes someone looking from the outside into a congregational system to see the path out of the conflict. If you can find a trusted and mature guide for that journey, the chances of emerging from a season of conflict intact increase significantly.
Surely God’s people can agree that his design for his church is that it be a source of life and encouragement to its members and the world around it.
The way we are to treat one another is to serve as a compelling invitation to the life of faith. When we fail to model the fruit of the Spirit, we have forsaken one of our central reasons for being.
May God give you the wisdom and courage to build a church that leaves your community marveling: “See how they love one another!”
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.