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What Pastors Need To Know About Managing Conflict

By Michael B. Ross

What went wrong? That is the question we asked more than 400 former pastors — men and women who had prematurely left full-time ministry. Some left voluntarily, some were fired by their congregations, but all were no longer pastoring. Furthermore, many of them said they probably would not pastor again.

Why? That is what we at The Pastors Institute wanted to know, so we asked. We used questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups. Why did these trained and gifted ministers, who were committed to a lifetime of pastoral ministry, leave the pulpit? No single answer stood out, and some of the answers were what we expected: burnout, lack of spousal support, and educational loan indebtedness.

We encountered some surprises though. We discovered that most of these pastors had not planned to leave full-time ministry. “It just happened. We did not see it coming,” we were told again and again. We wondered how they could have been unaware that they might exit their pastorate when most of those questioned mentioned multiple and escalating flash points — tension-filled incidences where their values clashed with the expectations of their congregations.

The biggest surprise, however, came from the former pastors’ willingness to reflect truthfully on their pastoral experiences. After skipping across surface issues and no longer feeling the need to blame someone else, most participants in our focus groups seemed willing to trace their journeys to find honest answers.

The surprise? What went wrong was not in their last church; it was in their first church. Early in their vocations patterns had been established that led to their exiting pastoral ministry. In their words: “It finally caught up with me.”

Flight or Fight?

Many times a pastor establishes patterns and develops skills in his first church that enable him to sustain a successful ministry. In his first church he learns to be a leader with a vision that leads to congregational health and effectiveness. It is also where a pastor learns to cope with the realities of congregational life. But a new pastor can also become disillusioned when he realizes that the church is not heaven, everyone does not get along, and conflict is a part of most congregations’ ethos.

In my first pastorate I was conducting a monthly board meeting when one of the members became angry at the board’s discussion and decisions and announced he was resigning from the board and leaving the church. He exited the meeting and slammed the door behind him.

Another board member approached me after the meeting and calmly said: “Oh, you have done it this time, Pastor.” I immediately assumed the blame for the behavior of the disgruntled board member. Later I learned his conduct that evening was the continuation of a pattern he had begun long before I had become his pastor.

My initial reaction, though, was to take the steps necessary to resign. I had really done it this time. I decided to contact my district superintendent, mass-produce and distribute my resume, and inform my wife that we would soon be leaving.

Some of the congregation’s leaders came by my office later that week and told me that I should confront the hostile board member. “Someone needs to stop him,” I was told. “Your predecessors would not. Maybe you should. We will stand behind you.”

Thus, in my first church I began to see conflict as a flight or fight issue. I could either leave, or I could confront the troublemaker. I chose to leave. In fact, the pattern I formed as a young pastor followed me in other churches.

Years later the flight solution I learned in my first church finally resulted in my leaving full-time ministry. I never lacked opportunities to go to other churches, but it was easier to move than to maintain the struggle necessary for a congregation to define its mission. Even though I had successfully pastored one church for 9 1/2 years, I left that church because of the conflict resulting from growth and the need to relocate.

During this time I never took a conflict-resolution course, even though I recognized I was repeating the same behavior — only the location and the name on the church were different. Somehow I felt I did not need counseling or more training. Finally, I resigned from my last pastorate — tired and disconcerted.

It is unfortunate that I never asked for help. In my thinking, only pastors who were weak and incompetent asked for help. It is even sadder because there were many people to whom I could have turned: my district superintendent, a seasoned pastor in my own denomination, or even an area pastor of another denomination. Had I consulted someone, I might have learned that accepting a call to pastor another church was not always the best solution.

Other pastors choose to fight. They publicly and privately confront the people and issues they believe hinder the church’s progress. They begin to maneuver people and situations to force their resignation or create an opportunity for those who would fit better in another congregation to peacefully change churches.

A friend of mine was recently asked by his deacon board to resign. He has been pastoring this denominational church for more than 8 years. Tension was wrecking the church and hurting his family. He wanted to know what he should do.

Before he was asked to resign, we met often. I listened and sometimes repeated back to him what I thought he was saying. I felt he was unaware of his anger and his confrontational responses to the congregation’s lay leaders. Within a few months a little spat became a full-blown war that quickly became unmanageable, and he was asked to leave. He had chosen to fight and nobody won.

Both options (flight or fight) produce similar results. The flight response leads to a pastor moving on to another congregation. In the fight response, confrontationists are often asked to leave. If not, they soon tire of the battle and seek shelter and rest in another church. Either way, nothing is resolved.

Occasions arise when it is best to leave a church and move on to another pastorate. However, situations may also arise that need to be confronted, even if the short-term impact seems damaging. It is the destructive flight-or-fight cycle that needs to be broken.

Many pastors make a common error. Studies show that the average tenure of pastors is less than 4 years. A fresh start in a new church may seem appealing and renewing for an embattled pastor. He may believe that in a new pastorate the past can be written off and the future will be bright. But what will he do when he experiences conflict in his new pastorate?

It may not be a fresh start for the congregation as well. Short tenures by pastors prevent a congregation from fully realizing its identity and mission. A pastoral change every 3 or 4 years does not give a church the time it needs to focus on its mission. The flight-or-fight approach to conflict tends to keep a church stagnant and ineffective. Also, the departure of its pastor may only provide the congregation a temporary reprieve from the issues that divide it. Electing a new pastor may seem to begin a new era of peace and unity, but this is an illusion. The dynamics creating the congregation’s struggle to accomplish its mission have not been resolved. Something, perhaps even something insignificant, can trigger a battle, and the cycle continues all over again.

Conflict and Its Value to the Church

Conflict resolution has a third option other than flight or fight. To run from conflict or to confront those causing conflict assumes that conflict is wrong and unnatural. Either response buys into the belief that, if possible, conflict should be slain when it shows its ugly head. I wish I had known in my first pastorate that I could do more than accept another church or confront the perceived troublemaker. The man who stormed out of the meeting may have been on to something. Maybe he had a point worth hearing. Perhaps there were issues I did not see.

Could it be that conflict is a friend of the church, not a foe? Could it be that more damage is done when we choose to ignore conflict? The third option, then, is to embrace conflict and welcome it into the rank and file of church membership. Some former pastors would still be leading congregations today if they had, at the first signs of conflict, said, “Come on in. You are welcome here.”

One thing is certain — I was too inexperienced and one-sided in my perception of my role as pastor to know how to resolve conflict. My understanding of conflict was much too limited — me versus them (my way or the highway). I wish I had known then what I know now about conflict in the church.

Out of my experiences, I organized The Pastors Institute. This institute helps pastors develop effective conflict-management skills. Stories from former pastors and survey results from the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Inventory have underscored the importance of ministerial relationships. These relationships provide support, accountability, and instruction in managing conflict in the church. (To become a part of this survey, visit http://www.spei.org/.)

My son is several months into his first pastorate. He is fresh out of seminary and pastoring a small congregation. I asked him recently if he enjoyed pastoring. He said he loved worship, preaching, and the opportunities for pastoral care.

“But,” he added, “how do I handle disagreements in the church? We are having serious discussions in our board meetings about things that do not seem important to me. I do not feel I am ready for this aspect of ministry.”

I had flashbacks as we continued the conversation. I relived the slamming of a door and a woman’s suggestion that it was entirely my fault. I remembered my decision to move to a new pastorate that I hoped would be more peaceful. I thought of the hundreds of men and women who told me they were no longer pastoring because of conflict in the church. They had suffered and bore the scars while taking a stand for the good of the church. They were disillusioned, skeptical, and suspicious of church members.

I prayed as my son continued bemoaning what he was discovering about the church and himself. The church has flaws, and he was unprepared or at least unaware of what do to. “Why can’t people get along,” he asked. “I think I would enjoy ministry a lot more if they did.”

As he talked, I realized he was struggling with more than his lack of conflict-resolution skills. He was battling with idealism — a hope that the church was an Eden of peace and unity. I was honored that he had chosen to follow in my footsteps and accept God’s call into pastoral ministry. Yet, I realized I had not taught him about the dynamics of conflict and its potential benefits to a church.

What Every Pastor Should Know About Conflict

Many former pastors wish they could talk to the church about the mistakes they made that contributed to their leaving full-time ministry. Many also feel isolated from the mainstream of the church. They wish they had a forum to teach what they learned the hard way.

Most of what they would say concerns conflict — the conflict they did not survive. The flight-or-fight cycle did not serve them well in the long run. So, I will speak for many of them and tell you what they believe every pastor should know about conflict.

Conflict is like fire. It often burns, but it also gives light.

Conflict can be damaging. It can result in anger, revenge, and schisms in the church. It can seem superficial at times. Some congregations have fought over the color of carpet. This type of conflict produces heat.

Conflict can also give light. Conflict is the great revelator. It shows the unobvious and the significant. It brings to the surface the issues intrinsic to effective ministry: worldviews, values, and missional development.

Most people I know, both churched and unchurched, are seeking to connect with something unexplainable. It may be a reaction to living in an age of logic and reason. But whatever the cause, there remains a widespread hunger to touch and be touched by the mysteries of God. Many believe their significance comes from outside themselves and their community.

Congregational conflict may indicate that adherents are searching for meaning and function within the kingdom of God. When church members cannot find a better way, they often give birth to their search for lasting values by creating tension in the congregation. If our goal is simply to avoid conflict, the resulting darkness may hinder the congregation’s search to know God.

Do not take it personally.

Many attacks directed at the pastor are not about the pastor at all. A member may see his pastor as a safe person toward whom he can direct the frustrations he may be feeling about a job or family crises.

I had been Daryl’s pastor for 3 years. He had always been one of my strong supporters and close friends. One evening as we rode home from a church softball game he became vicious. His anger was apparent as he challenged my pastoral abilities and questioned my love for the church.

There was some truth to what he was saying, and I took it personally. I was stunned to hear his attacks and to sense his anger. I was surprised by his feelings toward me and my leadership. I listened, but I was angry. After I dropped him off at his house and continued home alone, in my mind I let him have it.

His wife came by later that week and apologized. She told me that Daryl was losing their life savings in a business that was no longer profitable. They were considering bankruptcy.

I then realized that Daryl was misdirecting his frustrations toward me. He had no one else he could vent to except me. I knew, for his sake, I would never tell him what I had rehearsed in the car after I dropped him off. What I had said alone would not be repeated to anyone.

Was transferring his frustrations over career failures toward me fair? No. I was not to blame for his business failure. But I represented God to him. In his mind, the faithful God I proclaimed had failed him. He said to me what he probably believed he could not say directly to God.

Many former pastors realize too late that they took the attacks of others too personally. They could not get past the injustice of it, and they defended themselves and maybe even retaliated.

I am not advocating that pastors should be whipping posts. I do believe, however, that pastors should be aware that what seems to be a personal attack may not be personal at all. Many church members have not learned how to express their frustrations or do not feel they have a sounding board other than their pastor — the one who makes visible the invisible God.

It is not about the music.

In 2001, Faith Communities Today released the findings of the most inclusive survey of local religious groups ever undertaken. (To view the entire report, go to http://fact.hartsem.edu/.) Sponsored by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the study shows that 75 percent of congregations had experienced some level of conflict in the last 5 years. The research also indicates that the degree of conflict was in direct proportion to the amount of change in worship over the same 5 years.

One could quickly assume that worship style is the hot button causing much of the tension in congregations. The Pastors Institute has interviewed many former pastors who have indicated that worship styles were the focal point of the conflict that led to their leaving pastoral ministry. Many defended their desire to change to a more contemporary style of worship. “We just wanted to reach the unchurched and the young,” they noted.

FACT makes clear, however, that music and worship styles may simply be the catalyst that triggers the conflict. The greater problem, according to the study, is the unwillingness of congregational leaders to deal openly with conflict. Eighty percent of congregations that consider themselves to be spiritually vital were able to deal openly with conflict. By contrast, the congregations that are least able to manage conflict are not as likely to be vital.

Any issue, whether it is worship style, music, sermon length, or a building project can become a distraction from what is more significant — openness and authenticity in the church. Many former pastors have expressed regret that they did not spend more time and effort to create an atmosphere that allowed and encouraged church members to struggle with the congregation’s culture and mission.

When a congregation has no impetus to fulfill its calling and feels no significance in the kingdom of God, it is more likely to become embroiled in conflict about trivial matters.

The Correlation Between Church Conflict and Lonely Pastors

The Pastors Institute uses two tools to gather most of its information. Our former pastors’ questionnaire is a feedback tool that allows those who have prematurely exited pastoral ministry to express what they feel went wrong.

The other tool, the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Inventory, is a tested and highly reliable inventory that measures the hallmarks of effective pastoring. The SPEI is for the benefit of those who are credentialed and are presently active in local church ministry. It is designed to help denominational leaders better plan and provide resources that are appropriate to their pastors’ needs.

Even though the two tools target different groups, they reveal a common finding: lonely pastors experience more congregational conflict. (See sidebar “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Inventory Summary.”) Former pastors who indicated they felt unsupported while pastoring also listed conflict as one of the major reasons they left the pastorate. Likewise, SPEI results show that pastors who feel disconnected from family and friends are more likely to feel unprepared to resolve conflict in their congregations.

The SPEI is uncovering that loneliness is one of the most critical issues of 21st-century pastoring. Pastors indicate that they find it difficult to confide in anyone about their self-perceived weaknesses and mistakes. In other words, they feel they have no one to turn to for guidance in personal or family issues.

Pastors who feel disconnected and unable to open up are more likely to mismanage conflict in the church. Without objective sounding boards, pastors can lose sight of the issues and fail to accurately assess their own involvement in causing tension in the church. Disconnected pastors are not only without the support they need, but also lack the objective feedback critical to managing and resolving congregational conflict.

Conflict: The Key to Growth

Conflict in the church is nothing new. The New Testament writers openly discussed conflict because they had learned that tension was often God’s way of directing them into effective evangelism and discipleship.

Managing conflict is more than keeping people happy and the church peaceful. Churches that learn to incorporate conflict into the development of the congregation are more likely to discover and implement biblical values.

Had the Early Church refused to acknowledge and address conflict, it may have remained a small Jewish sect. The desire of the Early Church to experience peace and unity was often overrun by tension-causing situations. (See the article “The Acts Method for Resolving Church Conflicts.”)

First, there was the conversion of some Samaritans. Philip, fleeing persecution, went to a Samaritan city and proclaimed Christ. Many in the city responded to Philip’s miracles and believed the message he preached.

When Christians in Jerusalem were told that Samaritans had accepted Christ, they learned something new. Christianity had broken out of the Jewish ranks.

Next was Saul’s conversion. He was an educated man and the ringleader of those who resisted Christianity. He plotted against the early believers, desiring to see them imprisoned and even killed.

A light and voice from heaven changed him. Saul was transformed into a synagogue preacher who began announcing Jesus as the Son of God.

The Jerusalem Church did not immediately welcome Saul, though they would later consider him an apostle. Many believers looked on him with suspicion. They were afraid of him and assumed he was pretending to follow Christ only to gain access to their ranks. It was a ploy, they feared, that would lead to their deaths. The tension grew.

Shortly after Paul’s conversion Luke recorded Peter’s visit to Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter proclaimed that God did not have favorites and that the crucified Christ had been raised from the dead for all people.

While he was still speaking, Cornelius, his family, and close friends were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Onlookers who had traveled with Peter to Cornelius’ house were astonished that even Gentiles were being born into the Kingdom.

The conversions of the Samaritans, Saul, and the Gentiles created tension in the Early Church. Not everyone agreed on the proper response — some were too suspicious; others were biased and threatened by what was happening.

In each case, however, the Church responded with grace and godliness. Church leaders mentored believers, a former enemy was forgiven and enlisted, and converts were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The Church had found its identity and was well on its way to becoming a worldwide movement.

Much could have gone wrong and caused the Church to remain small and ingrown. They could have chosen to ignore the significant issues of openness and inclusion. They could have withered in their fears and prejudices, but they did not.

The Early Church preached the gospel to all nations and grew because they allowed conflict to be their friend. They understood that the tension of church life was the catalyst that would motivate them to fulfill the Great Commission.

The same is true for you and your church. Ministry has no shortcuts. It requires struggle and authenticity. Conflict, managed with care and honesty, can result in a pastor’s sense of fulfillment as well as motivating a congregation to fulfill its mission. The result may be healthier pastors and more dynamic churches.

Conflict allows a church to adjust its worldview and more clearly focus on Christ’s call to be His people. Conflict can strengthen a congregation and mature it into a model of Christ’s coming kingdom.

MICHAEL ROSS, D.Min., Anderson, Indiana, is founder of The Pastors Institute.

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