Why are so many congregations experiencing conflict these days? The answer is simple. By design, conflict in church life is unavoidable. The very nature of a congregation brings it into conflict with individuals and groups outside of the congregation and also creates conflict within congregations themselves.
Ever since it was founded, the church has been called upon to promote change in society and individuals. The historic mission of the church includes ministries of evangelism, discipleship, justice, healing and compassion. These ministries call people to action. They also call people to change.
Congregations are called to campaign for change, and change often leads to conflict. The church regularly persuades society to act more humanely and more compassionately. Congregations ask individuals to abandon former ways of living in order to embrace the principles of Jesus Christ. Whenever someone joins a congregation and exhibits a certain style of relating, or possesses a need not already contained within the group, that congregation must change in response to the new member.
Congregations that do not change are not fulfilling Christ’s mission. Jesus did not call the church to live adjacent to the complacent. Rather, he asked the church to preside juxtaposed against the predisposed.
Congregations also do not evolve into new forms of identity without experiencing internal change and conflict. An organization must change in order to move from point A to point B. As certain individuals grow spiritually more than others, as members are asked to commit resources toward reaching a neighborhood in transition, as teams seek to design worship services that appeal to multiple generations, they will inevitably disagree over methods and motives.
It is interesting to note that the source of the conflict often differs according to whether a congregation is growing. Growing congregations will usually disagree over procedures. Maintenance congregations will usually disagree over programs. Declining congregations will usually disagree over how to care for their assets. But the bottom line is that all congregations experience natural internal struggles.
Because change is inevitable in congregations seeking to fulfill Christ’s mission, conflict also is inevitable. It is important to understand, however, why change often leads to conflict, especially in congregations.
People do not resist change per se; they resist loss. If the phone rings and someone offers you $100 for simply answering the phone, most would gladly accept that piece of good news. The good news, however, shifts to bad news when we discover that the $100 will only be mailed when we change our long-distance carrier to the one recommended by the caller.
I would assume that for most people, $100 is simply not enough to go through the pain of losing familiarity with one’s current long-distance carrier. Even when the salesperson espouses the virtues of the new long-distance carrier and points out the clear advantages of switching, most of us decline because we do not want to face the potential loss of what we have now.
Even after we are convinced that point B is better than point A, some of us will resist moving to point B simply because we do not want to leave the familiar surroundings of point A.
Many changes in congregations lead to conflict because the changes involve loss. Giving up old habits in order to live out God’s will for our lives involves loss. Giving up my preferred style of worship in order to accommodate the worship needs of a greater diversity of people involves loss. Giving up a piece of my status associated with a previous role in order to more effectively use my spiritual gifts involves loss.
When individuals discover that they are about to lose something as a result of a proposed change, they naturally oppose that change. Conflict among groups occurs when people recognize that they are experiencing similar losses associated with a proposed change in the congregation; they battle others perceived as responsible for the change.
People need time to grieve, which is a process that may be long and difficult.
Different types of conflicts often require different types of interventions. In the next column, I will explore various interventions for dealing with conflicts that arise within a congregation.
Jeff Woods is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Ohio.
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