No More Casualties
Here are six effective strategies for conflict management in the small church.
By Lori O’Dea
Eight years. It was the longest pastoral tenure in the church’s 73-year history, and it came to a heart-rending end at the hands of a brutal conflict.
There was no bloodshed. No one ended up in jail. But the fruit of this small-town church conflict was no less ugly. A year-long trajectory of growth — in salvations, attendance (average Sunday morning 160), missions support, and finances — came to a sudden end. A year of lost ministry, settling for a poorly qualified candidate, hemorrhaging members, and near bankruptcy followed this event.
How did it come to this? There is no one, simple answer. A retired member of the congregation became frustrated with the pastor’s secular work situation, which the church board had approved. One day, after not finding the pastor at the church, he confronted the pastor’s wife at her place of employment. He shouted and made such hateful accusations that left her in tears.
For the next few weeks the man met with groups of people from the church, attempting to stir trouble. The board advised him to stop or face the consequences. He agreed and apologized to the pastor’s wife but continued with the same behavior. After another meeting with the board and a follow-up letter warning him to stop or face revocation of his membership, he persisted. The board revoked his membership and held a meeting to share the situation with the members.
The man continued to attend church. At the annual business meeting he disparagingly questioned every financial detail. For the next 6 months he groomed an increasingly critical spirit toward the church leadership (pastor and board). The pastor’s wife suffered physically and emotionally under the stress. Finally, when the antagonist began to circulate a petition calling for the return of his membership, a change in the bylaws, and a review of the pastor’s effectiveness, the pastor resigned. He said, “God did not tell me to resign.” He did so to protect his family.
They could have won. They had the votes. But it would have split the church.
Interviewing the pastor and his wife many years after this incident, they highlighted several things that surprised them during the incident:
1) The instigating troublemaker had not been a perennial problem. Though occasionally exhibiting signs of spiritual immaturity, he had not been a vocal or behind-the-scenes antagonist prior to this situation. This man carried considerably more clout with the congregation than the leadership had previously been aware. Also, in the community, the man had a poor reputation. Until the problem, they had not known this.
Fact: Conflict situations may out your closet heathens (aka nominal believers). These people have perfected a double lifestyle — one for church and one for everywhere else. Incognito antagonists are not an anomaly. They often present themselves as the pastor’s greatest supporters. Leaders should not live in paranoia but with fresh discernment. While it would be ideal to investigate and learn the reputations of members outside the walls of the church, it is neither practical nor always possible. We can rely on the Spirit to lead us and open our eyes when we must exercise caution.
2) The presbyter provided little support. (His advice? “Sometimes you have to let them shoot you.”) He also had a serious bias; he had grown up in the church so he backed the antagonist.
Fact: Conflict education and ongoing training are necessities at every level of organization. Poor accountability and unwise or miscommunicated direction opened the door for multiple errors in handling this situation.
3) The greatest amount of support came from non-Christians. Because the family was well established in the small community, people knew them and held them in high regard. People sent cards, visited, and even gave financial gifts. They expressed deep regret at the family’s pending departure and provided much needed encouragement.
Fact: The communities we serve are watching, even if they do not attend our churches. How we conduct our lives in the good times and bad calls for awareness of our position before a watching world. Because conflict is universal, it provides a connection point with people, particularly those who want to see if Christians will conduct themselves with integrity.
The Enemy’s Playbook
Satan’s mission statement is to “steal, kill, and destroy.” His strategies are equally simplistic; he only has a handful of plays — lie, deceive, divide, isolate, and attack. That’s about it. Poorly managed conflict enables all of the above. Please note the qualifier: “poorly managed.”
Conflict itself is neutral (and to be fair, not always instigated by the enemy). How we handle conflict determines how we will view the process. Changing our perspective from the outset — seeing the situation as a problem to be solved, possibly an opportunity for growth of the vision, the relationship, and or the organization itself — allows us to face the conflict head-on, rather than avoiding or mismanaging it.
As long as God’s people are carrying out His great commission, the church will find itself in a context of change and conflict. We give the enemy more leverage with his feeble plots when we find ourselves surprised by them.
In a smaller church, conflict has the potential to wield greater impact than it might have in a larger church, which simply has more people to absorb and insulate an incident. In the smaller church, everyone may know about the problem before anyone has taken steps to resolve it. No leader — in small or large settings — can afford to avoid conflict. But smaller-church leadership must be especially prepared and proactive to address situations immediately.
Big Picture Church Conflict Management
Prayer seems the obvious thing to do, but sometimes we come to prayer as a last resort. Human nature defaults to self unless interrupted. Let prayer be that interruption.
A.T. Pierson, speaking at a student missionary conference in 1896, testified: “I was the pastor of a great church, where I found that there was an irreconcilable feud between certain members, officers of that church. I laboured eighteen months and used every expedient I could think of, and was unable to heal the breach. Then I went to the Lord, and said with tears, ‘My God, I cannot serve Thee in this church while this feud continues; I have essayed to heal it, but it has not been healed; lay Thy hand upon these parties, and remove them from the church, or bring them to a mutual understanding.’
“From that day, not one of these disputants has been inside the walls of that church. In my despair, ‘This poor man cried unto the Lord,’ and the Lord heard him. One of the members in question had sickness in the family, which demanded his removal from the town; the other had a rise in his rent and went away; another was found involved in a defalcation [embezzlement], and was forced to leave, and now the church is a perfectly harmonious body. My quickest way was by the roundabout process of the Throne of Grace.”1
Roundabout? Not so much. Going straight to the Throne of Grace is the best kind of end run. We cannot triangle God into our conflict inappropriately. He will resolve it for us or give us the wisdom to lead through the conflict.
Disciple, disciple, disciple
In nearly, if not every church-conflict situation, we can trace the difficulty to spiritual and emotional immaturity. Too many churches become incubators for developmentally disabled believers. They continue to age, but not mature. Sadly, advanced age or lengthy tenure alone can open doors for leadership positions — official or unofficial — but every bit as influential.
Discipleship provides the antidote. We need to grow up in Christ. According to the directives of Ephesians 4, maturity is neither optional nor independent. When we refuse to speak the truth in love to immature believers around us, we perpetuate their conflict-inducing behaviors. Since conflict is already inevitable, let us make sure we are not exacerbating it.
Teach and carry out the process of admonition, as found in Galatians 6:1–3: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”
The stakes are simply too high to ignore this kind of confrontation. Anyone who has been through a moral failure understands that it functions as the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) of the church world. When a leader or a member fails morally in either their personal behavior or leadership responsibilities, it lays the church open to multiple conflict injuries, including loss of members, credibility in the community, and even faith itself.
Teach doctrine. Start with the fundamental truths. Our faith statement provides us with the foundation for a biblical worldview, but it also gives us a basis for unity. Theological and ideological issues represent the most difficult types of conflict to resolve. While you may never find common ground in the ideological realm (worship styles, Bible versions, etc.), you must build a solid foundation in the theological realm with those God entrusts to your care.
Undiscipled members and attendees create vulnerability for the enemy to exploit. Spiritual and emotional immaturities offer dual entry points to every kind of deception and potential division of the body of Christ. Relentless discipleship should be a church’s chief security strategy.
Teach conflict resolution principles
Our discipleship and leadership training curricula are incomplete without solid, frequently revisited conflict-management subjects. Thankfully, there is no lack of relevant Bible passages and outstanding Christian and secular resources. One class, one brush with the topic will not cut it. Become a lifelong learner. Preach and teach regularly on the subject. Dedicated series will help, but intentionally bringing primary conflict-resolution principles into view in the contexts of other teachings will remind people of conflict’s pervasive nature, as well as equip them to deal with it practically.
Start with Matthew 18:15–17. Actually, if we just taught Matthew 18:15 (go directly to the person with whom you have conflict) and held people accountable to this, we would greatly reduce the length and influence of the majority of church, marketplace, and interpersonal relationship conflicts. Teach the importance of going to others directly and immediately, without making an end run to others and authorities. Teach people not to allow others to draw them into another person’s conflict until they have held the person accountable for following the process outlined in Matthew 18. Ministry leaders, this means you, too.
Our desire to help can stunt other’s spiritual growth, not to mention make us conflict magnets. If you are guilty of wading into other people’s conflicts (called triangling), do what one church administrator vowed after his enlightening moment of self-recognition. He purchased a farm vehicle safety sign (fluorescent triangle), put a piece of black electrical tape over it, and mounted it above his office door.
Train at every level. This includes pastoral staff, elders, deacons, small-group leaders, ministry leaders, and every person in the pew. We make a mistake when we provide leadership training only to leaders. Pastors need to teach good leadership material at every level of the organization to strengthen it as a whole. This is particularly true of conflict-management training. We cannot hold people accountable to something we have not taught them.
Finally, create a church-discipline policy. Most church constitutions carry a general statement regarding church unity and a hint of dire consequences for conducting divisive activities. These are rarely specific enough to be actionable. Create a church-discipline policy applicable to all members and attendees with expectations and clear procedures. Then be willing to carry out the policy. Most churches do not practice church discipline. When required, their rusty, sometimes awkward actions complicate things.
Hidden things gain undue power. The more information you share with the community, the more likely you will be to kill the half-life of gossip. In conflict, the rule always is to keep the circle as small as possible. When one or both parties violate this within a church, the pastor has no choice but to call everyone affected to the table for a conversation.
Invite questions. Root out rumors. Respond to those you have heard. Ruthlessly avoid tones of ridicule or punishment. Be sure not to default to your inner autocrat, who, when given voice, generally says something to the effect of, “We’ll do it this way because I said so.” That may be appropriate within the context of a young family, but it smacks of pride and poor communications skills in a leader of adults.
Be financially sound
For many reasons, churches need to have beyond-reproach financial practices in place at every level of the institution. Some of the most serious conflicts arise out of suspicions over handling or using funds. For the record: The church is not a bank or a check-into-cash institution. No loans to anyone (including leaders), ever.
Get counsel from a trusted outsider on your current practices. Many ill-advised procedures have come about from years of habitually bad behavior. “Because we’ve always done it that way” does not work in change or conflict management.
Have you updated your church insurance policy lately? Have your agent walk you through every line of liability coverage and give examples of the occasions that may call for its use. The comprehensively stupid things churches have done and the things that people have sued for will stun you. You will also be convicted when you find some of your own practices among them.
In his book, High Expectations, Thom Rainer identifies the top 10 reasons people leave churches. Seven are conflict-centered. In smaller churches, where we live and die over the return of a visitor, where every new family is a hard won victory, where troublemakers sometimes gravitate in the hopes of big fish-small pond power, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and continue to treat conflict with hope. Hope is not a strategy. Hope needs to fuel immediate action.
For every generation reared in a conflict-adverse culture, the church will descend that much further into a conflict-ruled operation. These churches become pastor killers. Let our mindset be no more conflict casualties. The ministry we save may be our own.
1. “Prevailing Intercessory Prayer Quote.” Accessed July 9, 2012.