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Staying Cool When The Heat’s On:
Causes And Cures For Conflict

By Norman Shawchuck

As a young pastor who had recently graduated from Bible college, I pastored a congregation of about 20 people. Almost immediately I found myself embroiled in conflict. I felt much of this conflict was senseless and debilitating to anything I wanted to accomplish in the church.

Through this experience I learned that conflict is a normal part of human behavior. I also realized that if I was going to help the churches I pastored, I needed to learn how to manage conflict.

Conflict Defined

To manage conflict, pastors must first understand the nature of conflict. Conflict occurs when two or more people try to occupy the same space at the same time. Conflict in the church develops when two or more people vie for leadership positions or contend for their personal goals and objectives. As people begin to collide with each other, they feel their goals, positions, or objectives are being threatened. The conflict that erupts is a protective reaction. When people are challenged and their psychological identity is threatened, their feelings and emotions can become stronger than thought or reason.

Causes Of Conflict

Conflict is a normal part of human relationships, even in the church. The New Testament shows that Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and even Jesus had conflict with people — even with other Christians. Understanding the source of conflict, however, will not only help minimize conflict, but will help pastors prevent and manage it as well.

Interpersonal relationships

Some conflict unique to the church stems from the fact the church is a volunteer organization. In volunteer organizations most people believe they own the organization. This can be positive. If people in a volunteer organization do not feel ownership, the organization will not be effective. Conflict erupts, though, when one or two people or a particular group believe they should be in charge. A hotbed for trouble exists when 25 or 100 people feel they own the programs and personnel of the church.

People care deeply about their church. They also care deeply about their personal goals and opinions. But people may not care as deeply about the same issues or programs. At times people may have valid positions concerning different issues. Conflict can occur when the pastor and other church leadership, such as the church board, have strongly held but differing opinions. Conflict may also occur when the goals and values of senior adults differ from the goals and values of younger congregational members.

Another factor that can intensify conflict is what I call an overlay of God. When I believe or cause you to believe that God has told me how or what I should do in the church, then God has also told me how you should behave. This creates an unusual kind of conflict where a God-dimension is introduced. Conflict in religious organizations can be brutal when opposing sides both claim God is on their side. When this happens, people often question each other’s motives and spirituality. It is also difficult to deal with conflict when various people claim, “God told me.”

Personality issues

Christians are human. When people are converted, they do not automatically shed their predisposition, upbringing, or personality traits. When they bring these into the church, it creates conflict. Sometimes a person’s upbringing causes him to have dysfunctional predispositions and personality traits.

Another source of church conflict is the fact the church is a haven for disenfranchised, broken people who may not function well in society. People who do not function well in society often migrate to volunteer organizations because they believe the volunteer organization will care for them. It is one thing to work alongside people who are emotionally healthy, but it is another thing to work with people who are emotionally unhealthy. How do we structure our programs and our goals when we are working with people who can sap hours of our time and energy? In a straight-line organization — a nonvolunteer organization — they fire them; the church cannot do that. It is important, then, that pastors be trained to understand volunteer organizations.

The pastor cannot be and is not intended to be a therapist. But many people come to the church with needs that require a therapeutic structure or approach. For that reason, people who are preparing for pastoral ministry need training in sociology and psychology. Pastors should not be psychologists, but they need some training in human behavior to know their limitations. When a pastor is dealing with this kind of person, he needs to be able to say, “I think it’s beyond my limits and my training.” The pastor must then have the courage to refer this person to a qualified Christian therapist or counselor.

Most pastors are highly reticent to refer a marginal or dysfunctional member to someone else for treatment. But if these people do not receive adequate help, they take hours of time away from the church staff.

Unclear goals and visions

When there is no vision, people perish. When there is no vision, the church will lose its way. A vision represents the goals a church has for developing its future. A church’s vision comes from its values and mission and is often influenced by traditions and boundaries.

Many pastors and board members have difficulty clarifying goals and leading a congregation toward a good, worthwhile vision. Unclear goals and an unclear vision only bring a congregation grief. The important questions are: Are these the right goals? Is this the right vision? These are big and sometimes difficult questions to answer.

Problems in organizational structure

Without structure there is chaos. Too much structure, however, is a straight jacket on the organization. Organizations must have structure, but within the structure accommodation must be made for creativity and entrepreneurship. Because churches are volunteer organizations, they need to accept people who are on the edges and may not be as aligned as pastors might want them to be.

To lessen organizational conflict, each church ministry needs job descriptions and clear guidelines for people who want to become involved. If the church and its ministries do not provide guidelines, people may create opportunities that are not orientated to the church’s vision and goals.

Pastoral issues

Sometimes conflict arises because a pastor and the congregation have different views of the pastor’s role. Pastors often place unrealistic expectations on themselves. At other times, the congregation might expect its pastor to perform duties he feels should be done by members of the congregation.

Conflict can also arise over the pastor’s leadership style. People in the congregation believe the pastor is the source of conflict because of his perceived lack of leadership or his wrong direction in leadership.

One of the most predictable times of conflict is the transition between pastors. This is a stressful time for a church.Anytime there is a pastoral change it is wise to pay close attention not only to the pastor as he is leaving, but also to what might be occurring within the congregation. If the leaving pastor is passing through spiritual or physical disruptions or depression, it can be worse.

Two extremes exist concerning pastoral issues: If a pastor has served well for many years in a congregation and is replaced, displaced, or retires, it is like a father has been taken away. During these times of transition, people often cannot distinguish what is happening in the organization from what is happening in their lives.

Second, if a pastor is going through a serious spiritual or physical disruption or through depression, the church will also be affected. A pastor may have been hurt in a previous congregation and brings that hurt with him to his next pastorate. Church board members can also carry hurt from what a previous pastor has done. Pastors and board members need to be aware of these issues so they can provide healing and support for each other.

Different seasons of the church

Pastors need to understand that certain times of the year and different events are more prone to conflict than others. Christmas and Easter are often times of conflict. (See sidebar “Ten Most Predictable Times Of Conflict.”)

Environmental stressors

A church is not isolated from the problems or stressful situations in the community. If the community is in a period of economic downturn or community disaster, the congregation will also be affected.

Numerical decline or growth

During a numerical decline the congregation may try to maintain the structure it had during its prime years. Members may put significant energy into maintaining this structure instead of finding a new structure for its present condition. A church may not have enough qualified people to fill ministry positions, so unqualified or poorly trained people are placed in positions of leadership. When they fail at their tasks, the situation worsens and people become even more frustrated and discouraged.

Numerical growth is as stressful to a congregation as numerical decline. Numerical growth should cause celebration, but significant numerical growth causes some people to lose their influence. New people bring new and different ideas, and old members find themselves smothered by them.

During numerical growth, the pastor often gives a great deal of attention to the new people. While previous members of the church may celebrate because of the growth, they may also feel neglected.

When a church is experiencing numerical growth, the pastor needs to pay attention to the existing congregation. I have heard people say, “Since my church grew larger it doesn’t seem the same.” What they are expressing is a need.

The organization of the church must change to accommodate new growth. Different accountability structures and new programs to accommodate new people must also be in place.

Curing Conflict

The New Testament contains several examples of conflict. Jesus sometimes evaded conflict. On other occasions He stood His ground. The question is not whether we should have conflict or not. We need to determine when and how to have conflict.

Conflict that is not managed can wear people and congregations down and bring effective ministry to a halt. While some people fight to the end, others will leave the church.

A careful study of conflict management in the lives of Jesus and Paul shows that conflict, when it is handled well, can and will produce important and powerful results. Pastors, then, need to learn how to manage conflict.

Confide in others

A great tragedy in Protestant churches is pastors embroiled in conflict who are too embarrassed to ask for help because they feel it will make them appear inept. The reason pastors experience this embarrassment is because the church has failed to provide training where pastors can talk these matters through.

Pastors in smaller churches are often isolated and may not have anyone with whom they can readily talk. When they cannot handle conflict, they may begin to think they have a personality or spiritual flaw. They believe their inability to resolve conflict reveals their weakness.

Pastors may also be too embarrassed to go to their board for help, but they need to be able to confide in their board. Pastors must have opportunities to talk these things through with church leadership.

One way for pastors to learn how to manage conflict is to talk with another minister or district superintendent. Together they can think through conflict and plan how to deal with it.

Study conflict-management resources

Pastors often circumvent conflict until they can no longer avoid it. One of the main reasons they do this is their lack of formal training or conflict-management skills. However, few leaders realize what conflict avoidance eventually leads to.

Pastors and church leaders will benefit by studying conflict management and family systems theory (dysfunction). Today there are several resources to help pastors learn how to manage conflict. My three-volume workbook How To Manage Conflict in the Churchcan help pastors discover their own conflict management style and learn how to effectively manage conflict. (See sidebar “Conflict Management Resources By Norman Shawchuck.”)

Develop a biblical theology of conflict

Every church has a theology that guides its beliefs and conduct. The same is true of every Christian. We develop a biblical theology through the prayerful process of studying God’s Word to discern how God thinks and acts in a given situation. Many times, though, our theologies are based on our assumptions about God rather than on biblical truth. And these assumptions influence our thinking and actions.

If our theology of conflict is based on our assumption of how we think God views conflict, this theology will influence the way we think and act during conflict. Even spiritually mature Christians can have an incorrect theology of conflict.

I have discovered that Christians have three common misconceptions concerning conflict:

All conflict is bad.Since these people believe conflict is bad, it must be stopped. However, not all conflict is bad. In fact, conflict may at times be good for a congregation. Conflict gets our attention. Normal and healthy conflict can help a congregation clarify its goals. It can also be the catalyst for making necessary changes.

Churches, though, need to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Churches sometimes mistakenly identify healthy conflict as sinful. They may overlook the sinful aspects of conflict and fail to see it as destructive.

Conflict that is ignored or poorly managed often results in sinful behavior. This includes acting in ways that destroy others. When conflict spills over into character assassination and/or psychological or physical destruction, it is sin. Whenever love is lost to hatred, gentleness to maliciousness, truthfulness to dishonesty, and humility to selfishness, it is sin. When this happens, relationships are broken and the mission of the church is blurred and ministry is disrupted.

It is also disturbing when church members who are divided in a conflict try to bring in other people who are not involved in the dispute. This behavior needs to be watched carefully.

Conflict is the result of spiritual immaturity. Some people feel the church should never have conflict. They believe that if everyone were spiritual there would be no conflict. If Christians prayed more, conflict would not exist. But did Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and others have conflict because they were not spiritual enough, or because they were outside of God’s will? If the great men and women of the Early Church experienced conflict, we can expect conflict in our churches.

Conflict is the pastor’s fault. People often hold the pastor in high esteem. They think he should be able to solve any problem. When he is unable to solve conflict-related issues, someone in the church is blamed, and it is often the pastor.

One of the best ways to prevent, lessen, or help people deal with conflict is to develop a biblical theology of conflict. By studying different conflicts in the Bible, pastors and churches can identify principles to help them develop this biblical understanding. (Volume 1, section 1, in How To Manage Conflict in the Church, provides a basic study in developing a biblical theology of conflict management.)

Teach conflict management to your church

Conflict management skills are valuable to the whole church, but especially to the church board. Pastors and churches in Protestant congregations are often reluctant to train those elected to the board. In fact, most board members have no training or orientation in conflict management. When conflict happens, board members do not have the skills to solve the conflict. If pastors will train leaders, teachers, and board members before conflict happens, the results are far more conducive to growth.

Pastors can utilize a variety of ways to teach their boards and congregations about conflict. Many resources on conflict management are designed to help pastors teach new board members. A pastor in a neighboring church might be available to teach conflict management. District superintendents can provide training in conflict management. Many times the district superintendent comes when the church is overcome with conflict. That is not the best opportunity to teach conflict management.

Handle hidden conflict

Sometimes a pastor comes to a church where interpersonal conflict or church conflict has been hidden and simmering for years.Pastors who find themselves in this situation should not preach about the conflict. That is a temptation. Some people in the church may not know there is conflict. Others may know the conflict is there but are not interested in it. They attend church because they want to worship. They want to be in God’s house. We need to find these people and, if necessary, encourage them not to get involved in the conflict.

If a pastor is new to a church and hears rumors about conflict or senses there is conflict in the church, he should be careful not to address the issue immediately. On the other hand, he should not ignore it but should prayerfully wait for the right opportunity to address it. A period of time exists when a new pastor can get by with almost anything. I encourage pastors who are new in congregations to take advantage of this time. During visitation the pastor needs to get to know his people. He can then identify those who are causing conflict and bring them together to talk about the conflict. If a pastor puts this off too long, that moment is lost.

Discover the true source of conflict

Sometimes what appears on the surface to be the source of conflict is not the true source at all; it is only a symptom of the real problem. The source is almost always below the surface. (See sidebar “The Issue Is Not the Issue: The Real Causes of Congregational Conflict.”)

Pastors need to find the real source and deal with it. The real source can be found by using our God-given senses. What do I see? What do I hear? What are my senses telling me? These allow us to tune in to the dynamics of the congregation even though we have no hard data. A church that is in trouble has a feeling about it. The Holy Spirit can also reveal things to us that provide insight into conflict. The Holy Spirit will use our five senses. He also provides the gifts of the Spirit, including the discerning of the Spirit.

Discernment is important. It was certainly important to Paul. Even though in charismatic and Pentecostal circles discernment has been abused, we still need to allow the Holy Spirit and His discernment in our lives.

Conclusion

Pastors should be encouraged to not be afraid of conflict. Conflict can be frightening but pastors need not to run from it.

Unfortunately, most conflict management is introduced after the conflict has become full blown. If pastors will become trained in conflict management before conflict occurs and then allow people opportunity to express themselves before a conflict occurs, conflict can become a friend, rather than a foe. And the undeniable result of church conflict management is that the church functions better.

Note: In the summer 2005 issue of Enrichment, I will explain various conflict-management styles, how pastors can determine their default style, and how to use different styles to effectively manage conflict.


Norman Shawchuck, Ph.D., is the president of Shawchuck & Associates, Ltd., and specializes in management consulting to faith-based organizations. He serves as adjunct professor in seminaries across North America. He has authored more than 20 books on spirituality, conflict management, and church leadership. He can be reached at nshawchuck@shawchuck.com.

 

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