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Breaking The Cycle Of Conflict

By Gary R. Allen

Nearly 85 percent of churches today are either not growing or are declining. One of the primary reasons for this is the fact many churches are stuck in interpersonal conflict that hinders effective ministry. This conflict cycle continues because the church does not have the ability to resolve conflict.

The pastor is key to managing conflict and teaching others how to manage conflict. If the pastor is intentional in learning better conflict management skills, demonstrating those skills, and leading the congregation through effective conflict management, he can significantly minimize conflict in the church.

People can learn to manage conflict. It is crucial for a pastor to adopt this belief and teach it to others. People do not want to live in constant unhealthy tension and destructive conflict, but they often do not know how to behave appropriately in their relationships. Interpersonal conflict becomes a vicious cycle and those involved feel helpless and hopeless. When the conflict cycle is not broken, the church usually becomes ineffective in sustaining itself and reaching its community. Those outside have no desire to affiliate with a conflicted church.

The Conflict Cycle

The conflict cycle described by Norman Shawchuck is a predictable, cyclical process through which conflict passes. By understanding this conflict cycle and learning the skills necessary to reverse the cycle, people can often bring resolution to present conflict and minimize future conflict. This is an excellent tool that assesses the current stage and intensity of a conflict.

Stage 1: Tension Development

All conflict begins as tension in a relationship. The tension signals that someone is sensing a loss of freedom in the relationship — and this sensed loss of freedom sets the stage for conflict. Something is different in the relationship, but it is hard to identify.1

Stage 2: Role Dilemma

The confusion that develops as a result of the tension creates questions. What am I doing to cause this tension? What is he or she doing? What’s happening here? Who’s in charge?

Stage 3: Injustice Collecting

This is the first dangerous stage. People are convinced that matters will only get worse, so they begin to pull apart and prepare for the battle they believe will come sooner or later. They begin collecting injustices and hurts they will later use as artillery. Injustice collecting generates negative energy that must be spent before persons will focus on the issue rather than on the enemy. This is the blaming stage where persons justify their attitudes and behavior by pointing out the other party’s faults.

Stage 4: Confrontation

Confrontation may range from clearing the air to outright violence. In unmanaged conflict persons confront each other. In well-managed conflict they confront the issues that caused the tension.

Confrontation is the fight or contact stage. The battle lines are set and the conflict erupts. The contact stage is inevitable after injustice collecting has gone on for some time. This is often the point where the church becomes stuck and cannot determine what to do. When they do determine what action would help resolve the conflict, they find they do not have the resources and skills needed to accomplish it.

Stage 5: Adjustments

Adjustments are the changes people make to end confrontation. Adjustments made in poorly managed confrontations result in avoidance, divorce, domination, and cold war. Adjustments made in well-managed confrontations involve renegotiated expectations and freely made commitments to honor the new expectations.2

If the adjustments are not adequate to resolve the conflict, the tension develops again and the cycle of conflict repeats itself. When conflict becomes repetitive, it creates a downward spiral of dysfunctional relationships that continues the destructive cycle, usually fragmenting the relationship to the point that resolution is nearly impossible.

Cycle of Conflict Management

Shawchuck designed a cycle of conflict management in response to the conflict cycle just described. The cycle of conflict management is intended to reverse the downward spiral of tension development, role dilemma, injustice collecting, confrontation, and adjustments that can be damaging to personal relationships and organizational structure. This process can also be beneficial as a preventative measure for conflict in the initial stage of tension development. The cycle of conflict management includes five stages:

Stage 1: Tension Defused

Most conflict can be averted at this stage if there is a proper understanding that some interpersonal tension is constant and normal and that tension can be a creative force.

Define healthy tension and unhealthy tension.

Within the church, healthy tension is in the diversity of people, ideas, and opinions that necessitates clarifying values, vision, mission, goals, and strategies. Unhealthy tension results when there is an effort to coerce or impose ideals and opinions on others. If the church quickly capitalizes on healthy tensions, it can better divert unhealthy tensions and sustain an atmosphere of interpersonal and organizational creativity.

Tension can develop from the abuse of power. Control, authority, or influence is used to exert power. While control and authority may need to be exerted in special circumstances, influence is usually most effective for the strategic leader.3

When tension develops, a sense of injustice often emerges from personal insecurities and wounded feelings. This injustice can surface from past experiences and may not be directly connected to the present situation.

We can depend on the Holy Spirit to help us discern the dynamics and contributing factors in a conflicting situation: “Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). In Acts 5:1–11, the Holy Spirit revealed a selfish plot of deception. Peter’s discernment, or knowledge, of what Ananias and Sapphira had done was a manifestation of the Spirit.

Interpersonal tension can also evoke defensiveness and anger that interferes with productive conflict management. Most anger is rooted in the fear of embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, position, or power.

At times the pastor may need to be firm in dealing with people who have become angry and defensive, but it is important to be kind. When the leader becomes angry, loud, and defensive, tension will escalate and the real issue of the conflict is lost in the tension.

Value diversity

To value diversity in the community of faith is to appreciate different cultures and establish a unity that can defuse tension. Conflict can be avoided when basic differences are valued and accepted.

Valuing diversity does not mean approving another person’s sin. The concept of Christian diversity is respecting each person’s God-created differences. When we knowingly behave in a manner that is contrary to biblical principles and intentionally aggravate each other, we are not not expressing diversity; we are sinning against our brother or sister.

Observe personality types, leadership and conflict management>

Having a basic understanding of why people act the way they do is essential to maintaining unity within diversity. Utilizing tools such as a personality-type survey, a leadership-styles survey, and a conflict-management style survey can greatly reduce tension by helping people in the organization better understand and appreciate each other.

Understanding the behavioral tendencies of basic personality types under stress provides valuable insight into why and how people act. Though it does not excuse inappropriate behavior, it does allow some predictability of a person’s response to conflict. For example, the dominantpersonality type will become autocratic, the influencer will attack, the steady will acquiesce, and the compliant will avoid.4 (See sidebar Personality Profiles.)

Disseminate vital and useful information to everyone

The church should maintain consistent and thorough communication that provides vital and useful information to everyone. This empowers people. Tension develops when information is only given to a select few or is used to coerce others. Important verbal announcements should be clear and supported by written material that people can take with them. How many times has a clear, well-meaning public statement been misquoted and misapplied?

Maintain an accessible feedback system

Leadership may better facilitate valid feedback by providing an open-door policy, providing adequate discussion in meetings, and exhibiting an attitude of appreciation for opposing views. Often team members simply want to know they are heard and respected.

The phrase conflict prevention may be used to describe stage 1. Matthew 18 provides a biblical model for this stage that instructs us to go to the other person with whom tension has developed. Usually, the sooner this is done the quicker tensions can be relieved and conflict averted.

If the steps in this stage are implemented to defuse tension, most destructive conflict can be averted. If the tension is not or cannot be defused, however, it will progress to role dilemma and becomes a situation of conflict management.

Stage 2: Role Defined

When interpersonal tension is not immediately defused, people begin to question their role and function in the relationship and also the role and function of others. The following steps will help people keep proper role definitions:

Provide appropriate role descriptions

People work better when they understand their role and how they are expected to interact with others in the organization. Job descriptions enable participants to work effectively within a functional structure to accomplish the church’s mission more effectively. Vague job descriptions for staff and unstated role expectations for members leave church parties vulnerable to conflicting assumptions about one another’s callings.5

Define expectations

Workers need to know exactly what is expected of them and to whom they are responsible. When people are uncertain about their roles and expectations they may infringe on the roles and expectations of others and create unnecessary conflict.

Give clear instructions

Knowing the boundaries of their authority and having clear instructions enables workers to concentrate on the effectiveness of their efforts. Knowing the boundaries of their fellow-workers also minimizes conflict.

Commit to mutual accountability

Those in leadership who expect accountability from the community of faith but are not accountable to those whom they serve will quickly lose respect and credibility within the community. Loss of respect and credibility leads to interpersonal and organizational conflict.

Mutual accountability applies to most interpersonal relationships. We are to live in a godly, ethical manner with everyone regardless of organizational role and function. Pastors encourage this kind of accountability as they demonstrate it in their interaction within the congregation.

This kind of accountability does not make us each other’s policemen. Mutual accountability is how I hold myself accountable to others more than how I hold others accountable to myself.

Stage 3: Justice Disbursed

In this stage, behavior is critical. How we have treated one another and how we are presently treating one another determines if we move into the collaboration stage. As we practice the preceding stages, we minimize injustice collecting because we have lowered tension, defined our respective roles, and held ourselves accountable for our behavior. We can now intentionally disburse justice by:

Distinguishing between equality and fairness

Often the first impulse of leadership is to treat people equally. But each person is distinct. By treating people equally their personal development and ministry in the church may be limited. Therefore, it is important to know people well enough to provide the kind of leadership necessary to help them be effective in their ministry.

Demonstrating fairness

Leaders must be fair to everyone. To verbalize fairness and then intentionally practice discrimination destroys the authenticity and credibility of leadership. When the leader is fair, the people he serves are more likely to be fair with each other.

Being expeditious in decisions

Trust and unity are developed, maintained, and reinforced when decisions are made quickly. Delays in making decisions frustrate team effort, threaten trust in leadership, and fragment unity.

There may be times when the decision is to do nothing — waiting for a greater degree of openness in the group to find a better opportunity of intervention.

The key is to understand your own tendencies in decisionmaking. If you are too quick to shoot-from-the-hip, you may miss consultation from others and the assessment you need. On the other hand, if you are too analytical and seek too many counselors, you may miss the window of opportunity to make strategic decisions.

Being quick to admit errors and make appropriate adjustments

The personal pride of a leader can get in the way of admitting wrong, expressing regret, asking for forgiveness, and changing behavior. When leaders are quick to demonstrate humility and ask for forgiveness, they influence others to do the same.

Stage 4: Collaboration

Getting the right people to the right place at the right time is crucial when addressing conflict. Collaboration means coming together to process and reason through the conflict and reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. Confrontation is often a win-lose process because some people go away feeling they have not been heard and in some aspects, lost the contest. Collaboration is more of a win-win process where everyone has opportunity, voice, and ownership. The collaboration process should:

Involve everyone who needs to know

Everyone involved in the conflict needs to be a part of the solution. Those who need to know are those who have been directly affected by the conflict and its resolution.

Facilitate participation and ownership of those involved

Every participant must have a sense of ownership of the information, the conflict-management process, and the resolution. When only a few in the group are viewed as owners of the situation, others in the group are disenfranchised. This sets the stage for more tension and more conflict.

Ownership develops when participants sense they are respected, that their input is valuable, weighed, and considered in the situation. Even if participants come to realize they are wrong, they remain a valued stakeholder.

Ensure that all relevant information is obtained and available

It is the responsibility of leadership to gather information and maintain focus on what is germane to the situation. Irrelevant information slows the process and creates diversions. Everyone in the process must have access to the same information to avoid possible manipulation of power and control.

Facilitate open discussion

Everyone must be free to state his perspective and ask relevant questions without fear of reprisal. The group must be free from coercion and intimidation. It is the responsibility of each participant to respect the others and stay on the subject.

It is better for the stakeholders to process information through open discussion if possible. If an outside mediator or negotiator is involved, it can add another conflicting element.

Stage 5: Adjustments

Adjustments involve both personal and organizational matters. Usually some personal adjustments of attitude and behavior are necessary before organizational adjustments will be effective. In this stage it is necessary to:

Clearly define the adjustments

Determine what needs to be done and why. It is helpful to define, state, and rephrase the adjustments until they are clear to everyone. Putting them in writing may prove beneficial for immediate clarity and future reference.

Adjustments should be in response to the primary cause of the conflict. Adjustments that only include side issues to the main conflict can be interpreted as avoidant, superficial, and will probably reignite tension.

Utilize a consensual process

Formulate decisions by involving everyone who is a stakeholder in the situation. A process that disenfranchises any of the participants creates tension and risks beginning another cycle of conflict.

Disseminate vital and useful information to the entire organization

When vital and useful information is disseminated throughout the church, the potential for future conflict is minimized. Most conflict resolution results in some degree of personal and organizational change. However, change is not really change until everyone in the organization understands and embraces it.

Affirm people

People need to know they are valuable and appreciated. They will continue to participate in an organizational process that works if they know they are as important as the issues and the processes.

Affirm the process

When people realize that the process has worked well, they will continue to utilize it and will be more likely to influence others in a positive manner toward the process in future conflicting situations.

Conclusion

The cycle of conflict management can be a helpful tool in the ongoing process of managing conflict in the church. It helps people feel empowered and more confident and, if continually utilized, can avert many conflict situations and minimize the conflicts that do arise.

Every personal relationship and every church will at sometime have conflict. A church is not unhealthy because it has conflict. The church is unhealthy when it refuses to acknowledge conflict and is unwilling to take intentional steps to address it.

The healthy church realizes that some conflict is inevitable and trains its leadership in conflict management. When a church provides a stable environment for personal and spiritual growth, it will also be more attractive to those looking for a church home.

Neil B. Wiseman

GARY R. ALLEN, D.Min., is executive editor of Enrichment journal and national director of the Ministerial Enrichment Office, Springfield, Missouri.

ENDNOTES

1. Norman Shawchuck, “Managing Conflict and Change” (Lecture at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Mo., October 1999).

2. Norman Shawchuck, How To Manage Conflict in the Church: Understanding and Managing Conflict, vol. 1 (Leith, N.D.: Spiritual Growth Resources, 1998), 37.

3. John H. Spurling, “Strategic Leadership” (Lecture at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Mo., June 2000).

4. Team Building: Leader’s Guide (Atlanta: Walk Through the Bible Ministries, 1993), 21.

5. Hugh F. Halverstadt, Managing Church Conflict (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 3.

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