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The Peacemaker Church: Lessening The Impact Of Church Conflict

With Ken Sande

Many churches are not prepared to proactively deal with conflict. When they become involved, they do not have the tools to solve the conflict in a positive way. Sometimes churches become so embroiled in conflict they need outside help in resolving it.

Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, and his team of associates have used biblical peacemaking principles to help resolve thousands of conflicts, including business, employment, and family disputes; church divisions; and complex lawsuits. Sande is an attorney, a Certified Christian Conciliator,™ and has authored numerous resources on conflict resolution, including The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide To Resolving Personal Conflict, and Peacemaking for Families.

Richard L. Schoonover, associate editor, Enrichment journal, talked with Sande about church conflict and how churches can learn to manage conflict in a Christlike manner.

What Causes Church Conflict?

Sande:James 4:1 says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”

Ultimately, church conflicts are caused by people’s desires. Some desires are inherently sinful, such as power and control. But good desires can also take on controlling proportions.

The desire to see a church grow is a good desire. But if people who want to see numerical growth aggressively push new programs and strategies that may not be appropriate for their church, this can be harmful.

Others may have a desire for missions. But if they become consumed by this desire, they might judge and criticize people who are not as enthusiastic about missions.

A pastor wants more staff. But if he becomes consumed with this desire, people who stand in his way become his enemies. This becomes a controlling desire and causes conflict.

The list goes on and on: budgeting, staffing, vision, worship, and the role of women in ministry. Most people view these issues positively. But they become divisive when they become controlling demands, we begin to judge or punish other people because they are not as enthused as we are, or people are standing in our way.

People often dress up their controlling desire as something good. One of the warnings signs of a controlling desire I listen for is someone saying, “All I want is. … ”

Why Do Churches Ignore Issues Where One Group Has A Conflict With Another Group?

Sande:I give the same answer Jesus gave the Sadducees: It is often ignorance and unbelief. Lack of training is one reason churches ignore conflict. In many cases the church has never learned how to deal with conflict. When pastors are asked what was most lacking in their Bible college and seminary education, the top answer is training in conflict management. It should not be a surprise, then, that the average elder or deacon is not trained.

Second, churches don’t obey the Bible. First Corinthians 6 instructs Christians to bring lawsuits with each other to the church for resolution. The average pastor properly exegetes this passage, but often says, “We cannot do this.” This is unbelief. We need to believe that when God commands us to do something, He also gives us the grace and ability to do it.

Discuss Ways Pastors And Churches Can Lessen The Negative Impact Of Conflict.

Sande: An ounce of prevention is worth hundreds of hours of cure. The No. 1 way to lessen the negative impact is educating, training, and equipping people before the storm hits. This is like sailing a ship. If your crew is well trained, when the storm hits you are not in danger. But if you wait until conflict breaks out, it is more difficult to survive.

There are three levels of training I would encourage a church to receive. We call our church-conflict management seminars The Peacemaker Church. The first level of material is geared toward leadership and focuses on how to give leaders a vision and a framework for creating a culture of peace that can change a church’s entire culture. Certain skills are needed to guide a church through controversial new ministry programs, a new building program, a philosophic change in ministry, or a change in worship style. If leaders have been trained to guide their church through these things, they can transition smoothly.

This training also addresses how leaders view conflict and respond to it. This comprehensive program lays out the process for the church in a simple format. The program contains a set of DVDs and different classes for leadership.

The second level of training involves teaching basic peacemaking principles through Sunday School classes, small-group Bible studies, or discipleship courses. We have three types of training a church can choose from depending on its educational system. We even have material for children. If we can teach these principles to children, we have less work to do later on.

The third level of training is Reconciler Training. The church finds gifted people in the congregation who can coach others through conflict disputes. They sit down with people and give biblical counseling on how to live out the gospel and resolve their conflicts.

Reconcilers are also trained to mediate in disputes. For example, church members know and trust each other and often engage in business transactions. When these deals do not go well, members need to be able to turn to their church for assistance. Every church needs trained reconcilers who can sit down with them members and help them work through their problems.

An example of this is in Exodus 18:13–27. Moses is judging the people, and his father-in-law tells Moses that he cannot continue to do this alone. He needs to appoint other judges.

That is what a wise pastor does. He knows the enemy loves to overwhelm him with nitpicky conflicts that take him away from his important work. The senior pastor, like Moses, has a responsibility to make sure people are properly taught about biblical conflict resolution. The pastor also needs to delegate responsibilities to gifted people such as associate pastors, small-group leaders, elders, and deacons.

The numbers Jethro suggests to Moses are interesting. He said to appoint judges over groups of 10, 50, and 1,000. This is comparable to a small group, a Sunday School class, and a large sub church. Moses chose people who could lead resolve conflict in each of these groups.

We love to see conflict management done in small groups. When Christians meet in small groups on a weekly basis, they form relationships built on trust. They understand each other. When a conflict breaks out, they go to their small-group leader in whom they have developed a high level of credibility and trust. Teaching and peacemaking at that level are wise.

A church can also draw on its most gifted people for what we call a church-based reconciliation ministry. These people are the S.W.A.T. squad who handle the tough cases. Allow these people to practice internally the first 2 or 3 years to develop their skills and gifts. Then consider opening up their ministry to the community. This can be a tremendous outreach and witness to the community. People will begin to say, “That is the peacemaking church. You can go there with difficult problems. They can even help you settle a lawsuit.”

We trained about 60 reconcilers at one church. They now have a vibrant reconciliation ministry. One night each week volunteers help anyone who walks through the door. People from outside their church, even unbelievers, have heard about this ministry and come. Volunteers help people with failed marriages, conflict at work, and family conflicts. This church is introducing people to the God of peace by ministering to conflict in people’s lives. This becomes an evangelistic and church-building tool. The more these reconcilers help people, the more excited and confident they become.

Describe The Steps Pastors And Churches Need To Take To Solve Conflict.

Sande:The specific steps that need to be taken depend on the conflict. Every situation is unique. Our approach to conflict has four basic steps that will work in every conflict: lawsuits, sexual abuse cases, or failed marriages. We call these the four Gs.

The first G: Glorify God. We encourage people to get their focus back on the Lord, not on what they want or on what they are afraid of losing. It is amazing how many conflict resolution passages in the Bible tell people to get their focus back on the Lord. Philippians 4:4 is an example: “Rejoice in the Lord.” Paul was not writing about a prelude to a meeting but about the first step in resolving a conflict, which is to get our worship and attention back on the Lord.

Having a person ask himself, How can I please and honor the Lord in this situation? has a tremendous effect on how he goes through conflict. He stops focusing on his agenda and begins focusing on having a positive witness for Christ.

The second G: Get the plank out of your own eye (Matthew 7:3). We encourage people to take responsibility for their contribution to the conflict before pointing a finger at someone else. Usually the whole complexion of conflict changes dramatically when one person says, “Here is what I did wrong.”

The third G: Gently restore (Galatians 6:1). How can we lovingly correct so a brother or sister thanks us later? Christians can learn skills that enable them to correct one another in a loving, constructive way without attacking or tearing down.

The fourth G: Go and be reconciled (Matthew 5:24). This means resolving the substantive issues in a just and fair way. Then also restoring the relationship — not with a superficial forgiveness that really means I don’t want to have anything to do with you again — but with gospel-powered forgiveness. The richness of forgiveness is amazing.

Another key part of resolving conflict is what we call building passport. A passport is relational. It is the point in a relationship where people trust each other enough to open up and share personal information. There are three keys to building passport. These three keys are the questions people ask themselves when they are considering how much they will tell you.

Can I trust you? Will my confidences be respected or will this be broadcast from the pulpit next week? Will you throw this back in my face and use it against me? It is essential to build trust and confidence.

Do you care about me? Unless people sense that you love them and are looking out for their best interests, they will not open up to you.

Can you help me? People might believe you will guard their confidences and that you care, but they may not believe you have the skills to help. Developing the expertise to deal with conflict is important.

Our teams are backed by the reputation of our ministry. That is often a key to building passport. But it is also something we encourage pastors and church leaders to be deliberately building day by day. Each time a pastor steps in the pulpit he is either building or destroying passport with the people in his church. If he is acting deliberately, he can steadily build passport.

Pastors can build passport with others by being transparent about their need for God and by admitting some of their struggles in appropriate ways. At least once a year my pastor makes a confession before the whole church. Recently, during public prayer time, he responded to a woman in what seemed to be an abrupt way by moving on to another prayer request. Several people noticed his abruptness and mentioned it to him. The first thing he said as he entered the pulpit the next Sunday was, “I need to ask forgiveness.” He named her by name. He said, “I am so sorry I spoke abruptly. I was not paying attention and showing you respect.” Many people think that would cause him to lose respect, but our people love to see this kind of honesty. This is a key part of building passport.

What Is A Conflict-Management Resource Team And How Does It Help Solve Church Conflict?

Sande:The more a church can deal with its conflicts internally the better. A church loses that capability when the leadership gets dragged into the issue and is viewed as being a party to the conflict. As long as leadership can maintain neutrality, objectivity, and trust, they can do much of this themselves. If they lose neutrality, people think the pastor has an agenda or the elders are not willing to listen. Then they need an outside team.

We believe the ministry of peacemaking belongs to the church, not to a parachurch ministry like ours. While we have several teams that help bring peace to major church conflicts, we prefer to work with denominations at the church and district level to train people in a region. If a church has a conflict they cannot resolve, they can look to their district. If this fails, the church can call us and we can field teams with many denominational backgrounds.

Education is the most important part of what we do when we are asked to help with a church-wide conflict. We are primarily an equipping ministry — like an attendant to a bride. We want to make the bride more beautiful.

Our typical approach is to have a 1-day Peacemakers training seminar to train the major players in the conflict on the basic concepts of peacemaking. This way, when we talk about forgiveness we all mean the same thing. We also take the personal peacemaking structure — the four Gs — and use it to help the entire church.

Each person needs to go through the process. Conflict is not two big groups against each other; it is people angry at one another. Each person has to deal with anger at his own heart level. Anyone who wants to participate in the conflict-resolution process must come to that training. If they do not want to learn how to grow, but only want to fight, they are not welcome to be a part of the process.

Sometimes, depending on the nature of the conflict, our team preaches or teaches Sunday School on Sunday morning. Then, depending on the size of the church and the extent of the conflict, the team spends the next few days working with various levels in the congregation, helping them, listening to them, hearing complaints, and putting together a complete picture of what is going on. An article on our website “The Key to Revival” describes this intervention process.

Early on we also like to identify people who can work with our team and start learning the techniques and skills necessary to resolve conflict. When the team leaves at the end of the week, these people are trained to continue the process. They continue working with different groups in the church for the next few weeks or months. Within 30 days of our first visit, the trained church members prepare a report listing suggestions on further action. In some cases, they ask our team to come back in 3 months. Our team then comes back to reassess the situation and deal with those unresolved issues. We often have a celebration service to honor what God is doing.

How Does Your Team Uncover Hidden Issues In A Church?

Sande: Many churches have issues that are simmering below the surface. We uncover these by talking to people in safe groups. We want to help people — whether it is one person or a group of people — to share difficult issues. We form a group where each member feels safe and can say whatever is on his mind without fear of retaliation. If people sense the conciliator is someone they can trust, they will open up and share what has often been below the surface for years. Little things can trigger a conflict, but the true cause of major conflict is often a hidden problem that has lurked under the surface for a long time.

Discuss The Role Of Forgiveness And Restitution In Conflict Management.

Sande:Forgiveness and restitution in conflict management are absolutely vital. Forgiveness is the mark of the gospel. Sin offends a holy God and makes each of us worthy of eternal punishment. Yet, God sent His Son to die for us, opening the way for forgiveness. Colossians 3:13 says, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Forgiveness is one of the greatest opportunities we have to show that the gospel is real, especially when there has been a deep hurt, such as infidelity in a marriage or people slandering their pastor. We must truly forgive people. I do not mean a superficial-type forgiveness like, “I forgive you, but I still do not want to have anything to do with you again.”

We describe true forgiveness as four promises. When I say I forgive you, I promise to not dwell on it anymore. I will not think about it and brood over it. Second, I will not bring it up and use it against you in the future. Third, I will not talk to other people about it. Fourth, I will not allow the issue to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship. This is where we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, especially if there has been a deep hurt. When we forgive others at this level and people see us live it out, it lends credibility to the gospel. We can say, “I couldn’t have done this on my own, but God through Christ gave me grace to model what He has done for me.” This creates tremendous evangelistic opportunities.

Restitution is equally important. In my book, The Peacemaker, there is an important appendixon restitution. This is an important concept, especially in America where we are rights oriented, damage oriented, and money oriented.

The Bible has much to say about restitution. The simplest statement in Exodus says when we have damaged someone we need to make him whole. We need to do whatever it takes to return him as close as we can to his initial position. For example, if I smash someone’s car, I need to pay for the damage and make sure his car is fully repaired or he is given an equivalent vehicle. If I slander someone, I need to go to others and set the record straight.

When we forgive, it does not mean we cancel the other person’s obligation to make things right. In the church there is confusion on what forgiveness is. Some believe forgiveness completely cancels the consequences of one’s behavior. This position does not reconcile with Scripture. In the Bible there are examples where God forgave His people Israel, but still corrected them with loving discipline.

The real issue is whether to insist on restitution or not. We can determine this by asking ourselves, How can I help this brother grow? If someone accidentally damages something I own and he is hard pressed financially and I can easily cover the cost of the repair, to release him from his obligation is an act of mercy. But if the 16-year-old across the street comes home drunk and sideswipes my car and I let him off the hook, he will smash another car next week, and the following week.

A part of restitution is to prayerfully consider how to help someone grow and overcome the obstacles in his path. When we ask these questions and when we make restitution a part of the process of forgiveness, it is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in us.

What Is The Positive Outcome Of Conflict?

Sande: God has chosen to make conflict one of the primary vehicles of building His kingdom and displaying His glory. Genesis 3:15 says, “I will put enmity between … your offspring and hers.” Conflict is woven throughout Scripture. Every major spiritual advance takes place in the midst of conflict. God uses conflict to remind us of our need for Him. Like the Israelites, when things are going well many of us tend to drift from God. Conflict brings us back.

Second, conflict reveals our sin. We see our pride, stubbornness, and unforgiveness. In His great love God exposes our sin so we can see it, repent, and call out for Him to forgive us and help us grow.

Third, conflict provides the opportunity to practice the spiritual disciplines of patience, forgiveness, forbearance, and gentleness. It is like lifting weights. You do not get strong if you do not go to the gym. That is how we develop spiritual characteristics.

Fourth, through conflict the power of the gospel is revealed. Conflict puts believers in the spotlight so others may witness how they demonstrate the saving, redeeming power of Christ. When a marriage is torn apart by infidelity or a church is threatened by a split, Christians need to get their focus back on God, remember what Christ has done for them, and live out that same love toward other people. When these situations are reconciled, the world notices. We can then proclaim Christ.

A woman who had attended our first level of training heard about a conflict in her company involving two top executives. This conflict was going to have a multimillion-dollar effect on the organization. Because these two men were estranged, their company could not accept a particular contract. This woman went to these men and asked if she could talk with them. In 60 minutes she did what the president of the organization and the hr team had not been able to do — reconcile them. By the discerning power of the Holy Spirit she helped them see the real issue. The next morning they walked into the president’s office and said they had been reconciled and wanted to work on the contract. In the days following, the woman who reconciled them had many opportunities to share the gospel as others approached her and asked how she had done it.

Are There Legal Issues That A Pastor And A Church Need To Be Aware Of In Conflict Management?

Sande:Yes. However,most legal issues can be avoided if pastors act in a godly way. We must not slander, gossip, or tell lies about people, but live out our faith and treat others as we want them to treat us.

One area where even the most faithful pastors can get into trouble is with church discipline. The situation may involve someone who has been stubbornly involved in a sin and refuses to repent. The church, in obedience to the Lord’s command in Matthew 18, decides to take disciplinary action, perhaps to the point of disfellowshipping that person.

Church discipline is ultimately an act of redemptive love. It is a wake-up call to help people see the seriousness of their sin. It is designed to open their eyes and show them their need to repent and return to the Lord. Discipline should always be done redemptively. But even if we discipline out of love, we can easily find ourselves facing a lawsuit for invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

Most of these problems can be avoided if a church trains its people in biblical peacemaking before conflict arises. A church also needs to make sure its bylaws clearly spell out a biblical course of action when there is a conflict, and how the church will administer discipline. Our ministry works with churches and denominations to draft bylaws that will complement their church governance.

A church’s bylaws should specifically spell out some of these issues. For example, if someone is disciplined, in what situations will the leaders announce it to the entire congregation? Sometimes that is necessary. If a man has been defrauding elderly people in the church, you do not want him to continue preying on elderly people after he is disfellowshipped. You want to warn them not to do business with this man. The bylaws need to allow the church to inform the congregation of matters it needs to be aware of for its own protection. Make sure you have informed your people, and they have agreed to it. The legal concept here is informed consent. If the church establishes biblical policies, writes them out, teaches them to their church, and the church adopts them, the church can avoid almost any legal problem in this area. We have model forms churches can download and work from. All of our forms come with our materials. Without informed consent, a church can be in enormous trouble.

The second area of caution is sexual abuse, especially of children, but also seduction of women in counseling. This is an area where an ounce of prevention can save the church thousands of dollars in legal fees. A church needs to have good screening guidelines in place and a good policy for responding to allegations of abuse. Pastors must not counsel women alone or have offices with obscure doors. These are some common sense steps churches can take to guard their members, and especially their children, from being sexually abused.

Sexual abuse is probably the most destructive type of conflict with which a church deals. A church that guards its members will reap many benefits. They will make new people feel more secure, and that is what you desire to do.

What Resources Does Peacemaker Ministries Provide?

Sande: We have a new Peacemaker Church program. We would like to train Assemblies of God people so they can be available to serve as peacemakers and reconcilers within your own denomination. This would provide you with your own in-house peacemaking ministry.

The third edition of my book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide To Resolving Personal Conflict became available January 2004. We also have a book entitled, The Young Peacemaker: Teaching Students To Respond to Conflict God’s Way by Corlette Sande.

Pastors can also visit our website at http://www.Peacemaker.net for more information.

 

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