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Conflict Management — Part One

Church Conflict: Good Or Evil?

By Bryan H. Sanders

Pastors and church leaders resist discussing church conflict. Their resistance often stems from the belief that all conflict is negative and to be avoided, if not ignored, at all costs.

Is this belief legally or scripturally sound?

Consider the following scenario: A pastor has a church with 250 members that continues to grow for a variety of reasons. Beginning next month, a building program will be launched to expand the sanctuary to seat 900 — a real step of faith. In regular business meetings to discuss the new sanctuary one influential member of long standing in the church offers to pay up to half the cost of a new steeple if it will play “Amazing Grace” to announce services on Sunday morning. Another member, who is new to the congregation and a recent convert, offers to pay for the entire steeple system if it does not make a sound at all. Suddenly the pastor is faced with a conflict. Is it positive or negative? good or evil? a conflict at all?

The correct response depends on the definition given to the word conflict, which may be defined to include any matter that terminates, limits, or prohibits Christians from acting or interacting with one another in a spiritually compelling way and, therefore, affects their ability to serve the Lord according to Scripture.

Someone said that conflict is neither good nor evil — only inevitable. The Bible seems to agree. Jesus made it clear that we would experience conflict even as Christians (Luke 17:1). Scripture lays out the proper way to handle conflict, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to deal with conflict competently, yet the church often remains unwilling to learn how to manage its conflicts in a way that will be beneficial to the kingdom of God. Conflict should be viewed as an opportunity to help people grow in faith. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of conflict in the church — divisiveness, power plays, and control issues — the church should begin to recognize conflict as the ability and opportunity to create action from inaction.

In the above scenario, we have people willing to be actively involved and a wonderful opportunity to place a steeple on the new sanctuary. Rather than panic over the potential conflict between church members, the pastor should rejoice over the opportunity to work with two actively involved members who are willing to put up money to back their requests. Without healthy conflict in a church, there is probably not much creative, productive activity. Being in one accord does not necessarily mean that a church does not have conflict; it simply means the church is focused together on the end result.

Individuals (confronted with a dispute have five typical styles of conflict management that may be used to varying degrees: avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise, and collaboration.

Avoidance

Avoidance is the most common and is employed when the individual withdraws, avoids, suppresses, and denies the existence of conflict. This action — or, more appropriately, inaction — will typically cause the conflict to resurface at some point in a more dramatic or adversarial form. Avoided conflict almost never goes away — it is simply postponed.

Accommodation

Accommodation is a conflict management style that reflects a high concern for preserving a relationship, even if it means conceding one’s own goals. The person who uses this approach will bear the responsibility for maintaining the relationship between the individuals.

While this appears as turning the other cheek, a number of difficulties come with this approach, including the high probability for resentment to develop. Again, the possibility of a more dramatic conflict developing cannot be dismissed.

Competition

Competition is characterized by a high concern for achieving personal goals. This style is usually destructive to the relationship of the parties and to the organization. The person who uses this style will most likely be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve a personal goal.

Compromise

The growing style of compromise is a mixture of accommodation and competition, usually for the sake of preserving the relationship or, as applied to our scenario, at least the membership of the person in the church. It can lead to a halfhearted commitment by both parties. At times moral issues can be ignored for the sake of compromise.

Collaboration

Collaboration combines a high concern for both people and objectives and works best when all parties are committed to the resolution of the conflict — a solution that will honor God. The parties focus on the problem, not the personalities. The collaborative method has been given a boost in the secular field of conflict resolution through the best-selling book, Getting to Yes — Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Second Edition, Penguin Books, 1991).

Considering the conflict over the steeple, the use of collaboration to resolve the conflict will allow the pastor to explore the reasons why the parties have made their offers and focus on the needs of the church and the role they can play in helping the church as a whole. First, it is important to see if either party is steadfast in the position he or she has taken. Find out why one wants “Amazing Grace” while the other wants silence. A collaborative solution could find that the song brings back painful memories for the one member that would make church attendance difficult, allowing for an opportunity to counsel with the member. Knowing this, the other member might suggest another song or possibly apply the donation to a new organ or other useful purpose.

Recognize that the option here is to be proactive and concerned for the spiritual well-being of all concerned. While there is no one correct answer to this situation, a less well-reasoned response may seek to avoid the conflict simply by presenting both options to the church board and holding a vote to determine who wins and who loses. Most pastors know that it would result in one or more members leaving the church with a negative attitude.

Viewing conflict as a negative that ought to be ignored can be detrimental not only to the pastor, who wants a growing, thriving church, but also to parishioners, who follow the pastor’s example in handling conflict. Conflict need not be ignored, for God has equipped pastors to manage conflict to disciple their church members in working out the scriptural mandates of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Moreover, in today’s rights-oriented society, a simple conflict at the moment could become a major lawsuit at a later time. One of the blessings of a minor conflict is that it can prepare the parties to handle a major conflict with understanding in the future so that it does not destroy relationships.

The ministry of reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel message. Over the next few months, drawing on real-life conflict situations, we will explore scriptural principles for the biblical resolution of conflict within a legal framework. Prayerfully, this can help minimize the number of conflicts growing in publicity to a world system that does not understand why Christians have conflict with one another.

Conflict has no pat answers, no formulas for simple use. However, if we have a desire to be proactive rather than reactive to a conflict situation and competently meet it rather than ignore it, we can minimize difficulties and legal ramifications that might flow from disputes.

Is conflict good or evil? It is neither. Moreover, that is not the real issue. The real issue is how will we choose to resolve conflict — in our way or in His way?

—Bryan H. Sanders, j.d., is associate professor of government and legal studies at Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri.

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