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Preemptive Strategies To Reduce Church Conflict

A Study in Organizational and Management Systems

By Richard L. Dresselhaus

You will have a riot in the hen house if you leave the door open and the fox gets in. You will scatter the sheep if you lower the gate and welcome in the hireling. You will never get cows to produce milk if the barn is cold and the stalls are crowded. And you will never have church unity if the climate is incorrigible and the organizational structure is flawed.

This article is not about patching up differences between church members, figuring out ways quarrels can be quelled, or describing the relational dynamics of life together in the body of Christ. Rather, this article focuses on the organizational climate, intentionally created by leadership to direct inevitable church conflict to a positive and constructive conclusion.

I was stopped once for drunk driving — more accurately, for suspected drunk driving. I was on my way home from a church business meeting. It was so long ago and I do not recall why I was invited to attend the business meeting at a neighboring church. But the battle lines had been drawn, and there was war in the place. I sat quietly by (anything else would have been dangerous) as both sides sparred for position. The foray ended with little resolution. It was a night at church I will never forget.

The flashing red lights warned me that my trip home might become an adventure as well. Never will I forget the officer’s words: “Sir, have you been drinking?”

I replied: “No, sir, I am on my way home from a church business meeting, and the events of the evening were a bit shocking. My mind was still on the meeting rather than on the road.” He seemed satisfied, but puzzled. I received a verbal warning for erratic driving. I was fortunate.

I have attended other church meetings that were similar. In fact, you would have to look far and wide for a church that has not had its existence threatened by a major conflict. In other words, we are dealing with the inevitable — churches will face conflict. It was true in Corinth. It was true in San Diego. It is true in your city as well.

Conciliatory consultant, Ronald S. Kraybill, in the fall 1986 issue of Leadership, admits this inevitability, but sees its potential for good. “My experience has taught me: Manage conflict, or it will manage you. Whenever churches have faced conflict openly, the congregations have grown stronger in the process. But whenever they have hidden from conflict, it has emerged when the congregations are weakest and least prepared. The longer the congregation hides, the more ‘political’ and power oriented the struggle becomes, and the more destructive its impact.”

Kraybill goes on to define an interesting, yet liberating paradox: “If you want to experience less conflict in your congregation, try to have more.” In other words, exposed and expressed conflict loses its mystery and magnetism, and the way is cleared for resolution and acceptance. Typically, keeping things quiet only exacerbates emotions and obstructs the process toward a positive solution. Conflicts left unattended only intensify.

What are the preemptive strategies that can turn the inevitability of conflict into a positive force in the local church? Or, to rephrase the question, what can leadership do to create an environment where conflict can be channeled in ways to advance congregational vitality and spark relational renewal among church members?

Knowing Who We Are

The church has been inundated with instruction from Romans 12:6–8 — the so-called motivational gifts. If I may be so bold, I must insist that it is on this well-traveled ground that we should discuss the essential principles for healthy congregational life. When leadership promotes an understanding and practice of these gifts, they launch a powerful preemptive strike that provides the bedrock for a positive resolution of congregational conflict.

Let me illustrate. My wife Elnora is gifted with a God-given ability to manage and administrate. She views the world through a management lens. She thinks and feels administratively. In contrast, my personality is characterized by mercy. Try as I might, my assessment of nearly every event in congregational life is marked by a merciful response.

An awareness of each other’s giftedness will produce a much deeper understanding of how we function — both in our thought patterns and our emotional responses. Elnora tends to clarify function while I tend to emphasize perception. We generally make a great team.

Our challenge is to discipline the ways we express our respective giftedness. For example, I must guard against passivity (not confronting a problem), and she must guard against over-reaction (not responding with appropriate sensitivity). We misuse the gifts God has given us when they become our excuse for irresponsible behavior. It is God’s intention to equip us well for service.

In the mid 1970s, San Diego First Assembly of God developed a new campus. During the first phase of construction, the dominant giftedness of the church board centered on serving. After the completion of the first phase, the composition of the board changed due to term limits. The weight of the new board shifted to those gifted with the ability to teach. As might be anticipated, conflict developed. In retrospect, an awareness of spiritual giftedness helped me understand the dynamics inherent in this conflict.

Wise leadership will model, instruct, and affirm an understanding and respect for spiritual giftedness. This is an essential organizational strategy to preserve unity and foster constructive resolution of the inevitable conflicts that characterize congregational life.

Since spiritual giftedness is vital as a preemptive strategy, it may be helpful to list the principles that are essential in a biblical understanding of spiritual giftedness.

Gifts are to be expressed in a complementary way

Most believers possess one of the seven spiritual gifts in predominance (giving, administration, helps, mercy, teaching, prophecy, or encouraging). All of the other gifts, however, are to be expressed in a complementary way — prophets are to serve, teachers are to give, and servers are to teach.

Each gift is equal — there is no place for upmanship

Each gift is equal in value and importance. There is no place for upmanship in the body of Christ. All serve with equal status.

The playing field is level

Authentic spirituality is measured by one’s obedience and faithfulness. A person given to prophecy is no more spiritual than a person given to serving. The playing field is incredibly level. A misunderstanding here has sometimes led to a preferential regard for those who minister prophetically and a thoughtless dismissal of those called to serve.

This is a biblical description of spiritual giftedness and who we are in this area. A comprehension of this God-given provision will preemptively set the stage for a positive and fruitful resolution of the congregational conflicts that will most assuredly arise.

It might be helpful to define the word conflict. A problem is a challenge faced by a group of people. A conflict is when someone in this group feels his self-esteem has been threatened. For example, a decrease in church income is simply a problem that needs a solution. But, if the pastor is told that his weak preaching is the reason for the decrease, the problem has turned into a conflict — at least as far as the pastor is concerned. Conflict results from an affront to a person’s self-esteem. This, too, is part of understanding who we are and the forces that influence our responses.

Leadership that guides a congregation in a careful assessment of who we are as the gifted members of Christ’s body will be preemptively prepared for the inevitable crosscurrents in congregational life that spark conflict. Conflict will then become problem solving, and God’s people will move together in a spirit of unity.

Knowing How We Work

I have worked with approximately 30 associate ministers over a 40-year span of pastoral ministry. Each of them exhibited a different style of leadership. The challenge for me was to understand and work with each particular leadership>

While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, I found a definition of leadership that described four different leadership styles. I present here a paraphrase that describes each>

Supporting/Giving

“I find it easy and enjoyable to affirm people in their ministries. My eyes are always open to observe someone who has accomplished a task well so I can compliment him for a job well done.”

Controlling/Taking

“I am a strong leader. My ideas are usually sensible and workable. Most people are attracted to the vision I project. I enjoy a good challenge, and I have success in meeting its demands.”

Conserving/Holding

“I am a strategist at heart. There is nothing I would rather do than collect data, arrange it, and then demonstrate how that information will solve a problem.”

Adapting/Dealing

“I am a master when it comes to arbitration, bargaining, and conciliation. The dynamics of give and take intrigue me. I take great delight in helping people resolve differences in a logical and forthright way.”

Years ago, I brought a young man on staff who had a controlling/taking style of leadership (this combined, as is often the case, with the motivational gift of prophecy). I needed an understanding of his leadership style to work harmoniously with him. He was a dreamer, highly motivated, strong, and creative. I was challenged to ensure his incredible potential was fully released for the glory of God. Without knowledge of various leadership styles, I would have been needlessly threatened and intimidated. In this situation, the ministry of this young associate developed in a positive way. I worked with him to develop his leadership style, and it served us in a way that advanced the kingdom of God.

Most leaders have a predominant style and a secondary style. For example, I lead by affirmation — a supporting/giving style. Adapting/dealing, however, has been a close second.

Here are some practical principles that also need to be explored:

A link exists between leadership styles and spiritual giftedness

An obvious link exists between spiritual giftedness (Romans 12) and leadership styles. The gift of mercy complements a supporting/giving style of leadership, while the gift of prophecy complements a controlling/taking>

Different leadership styles can be equally effective.

Each style is effective if it is understood and disciplined. A pastor who leads by supporting/giving must be prepared to cut across natural inclinations and make hard calls. Conversely, a pastor who leads by controlling/taking will be wise to temper that style with a touch of supporting/giving.

Leadership styles should be considered when selecting a pastor.

A church should carefully consider a candidate’s style of leadership when selecting a pastor. If a church gets the wrong mix, it may spell disaster. The illustrations are myriad. A board that desires a strong leader may resist that leadership once it is in place. The consequences of that choice then are painfully clear. Or a senior pastor desirous of strong affirmation selects only those associates who will serve that need. The inevitable result is tragic mediocrity and inertia.

Leadership styles must be in submission to Christ.

Leadership styles must always be in submission to the Spirit of Christ — both for example and for empowerment. Arrogance and pride will make any leadership style ineffective. Jesus demonstrated the attitude and spirit that must accompany and characterize each leadership style. His life and ministry were in perfect balance. He was an affirmer (consider His words of consolation and comfort so frequently spoken), a controller (consider His march through the temple — whip in hand), a conserver (consider the care taken in His analysis of mission and purpose), and an adaptor (consider the many ways He fostered consensus among His followers). Jesus is our example as we seek to work our>

A knowledge of the way we do our work provides a valuable preemptive strategy for positive resolution of the conflicts in the ongoing life of any church. Wise leadership does not wait for disruptive conflict to develop. It acts preemptively to provide the organizational climate that will be conducive to positive conflict resolution.

Strong churches welcome conflict. They focus it in a positive direction and allow it to become an occasion for dynamic growth and development. Some have said: “Pity the debt-free church.” Would it not be just as appropriate to say: “Pity the conflict-free church”? Conflict, that is constructively and biblically managed, builds spiritual muscle in the body of Christ (although conflict typically feels far more like foe than friend).

Knowing Where We Are Going

Dan Betzer, senior pastor of First Assembly of God, Fort Myers, Florida, has pinpointed the mission of the church: “The church is in the redemption business.” He has also stated that a congregation with this vision will not have the time, energy, or interest in quarreling over trivia. I would agree enthusiastically. This assessment is both biblical and incredibly motivational.

Embracing a captivating vision creates congregational unity, spiritual wholeness, and positive conflict resolution. It is hard to find a church that is driven by a Spirit-given vision that is also struggling with issues of unity. Followers of Jesus who are united in the mission to win the world for Christ will find any distraction from that mission unbearably distasteful.

Over 3 years ago San Diego First Assembly launched a capital campaign to eliminate long-term debt. I remember well the spirit of unity that joined our hearts around this common vision. We had a job to do. Urgency and a definite purpose characterized our pursuit together. It was a wonderful and successful venture.

Projecting a vision is the hardest work a leader can do. Nothing strains one’s imagination, faith, and energy more than vision-casting. Its pursuit and articulation will call for the best and deepest in every dedicated leader. Only the leader can fulfill this assignment.

This is the third preemptive strategy. Wise leadership will accept the challenge and lead the people to meet a goal that is so compelling and captivating that matters of lesser significance are lost in the execution of the vision. Without a vision people perish. Put positively, where there is a vision, people prosper. Let this preemptive volley be released in the name of the Lord.

Knowing Who Is in Charge

As a young man, I waited anxiously to view the new models in the automobile showroom. I still recall my first glimpse of a 1957 Chevrolet — with a compact and classy-looking V-8. This model is still one of my favorites. General Motors got it right on that one.

Showrooms. This is where we went to view automobile design up close.

And this is the role of the church — at least it should be. When the world wants to view the gospel up close, the church must be the showroom. There, the world will view the good news of Christ’s redemptive love being demonstrated in real life.

The world knows better than to expect perfection in the church. After all, people are people. But they do have a right to expect church people to understand how to resolve conflict in a way that demonstrates the restorative grace of God. They must be able to observe reconciliation up close — in the rough and tumble of life.

Here is the challenge: “And He [Christ] has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The church, by inference, must deal with all that requires reconciliation — including conflict. It is the positive and godly resolution of conflict that provides demonstrable proof of this biblical injunction. The church becomes the showroom where the ministry of reconciliation is demonstrated.

We readily admit to the world that our imperfections surface from time to time, but our request is that they stay around along enough to observe the process of reconciliation in operation. This is a challenge that will humble and sober the most confident among us. But anything less violates the clear mandate in this passage. What God has done to reconcile the world to himself through Christ is gloriously observable in the ongoing life of the church. By God’s grace the church fulfills the ministry of reconciliation visibly through the healing of its own hurts and brokenness.

It is reassuring to know that the church lives in the power of Christ’s promise given in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Up against a hostile Roman empire, in repeated seasons of bitter persecution, despite threatening doctrinal heresies, regardless of the encroaching influences of godless societies and cultures in every generation, and irrespective of persistent conflict within its ranks — Jesus builds His church.

Spiritual leadership must act preemptively to prepare the people of God to see inevitable conflict as an opportunity for spiritual growth and personal development. It is sheer folly to leave the flock of God unprepared to work through the challenges of conflict resolution. This preparation calls for well-formulated organizational systems that are intentionally designed to promote organic wholeness and spiritual vitality. This must be preemptive and highly intentional.

The last time I checked, there was no fox in the hen house. The sheep were safely in the field, and the cows were producing well. That is, the church is healthy and strong when the climate is corrigible and the organizational structures are sound.

That we may all be one.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

RICHARD L. DRESSELHAUS, D.Min., is an executive presbyter and former senior pastor, First Assembly of God, San Diego, California.

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