“Life Beyond Church Conflict: An Overview”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol.
9 – Transforming Conflict
Course Objective: Transforming Conflict, growing out of research and extensive field testing, presents a practical, shared leadership process for pastoral and lay leaders in the congregation. Transforming
conflict is a process where:
- mutual trust and understanding are vigorously pursued;
- openness and acceptance are practiced;
- development toward maturity in discipleship is supported;
- achieving Christ’s kingdom mission is the objective;
- and biblical values and principles form the foundation of the effort.—L. Elder
1. Transforming Church Conflict
- Transforming conflict in church life becomes one of the most significant and inevitable tasks of a servant leader in the ministry of Christ. The minister must help create a fellowship of mutual trust, solve problems, claim opportunities, and keep the focus on kingdom mission. To do so with compassion, wisdom, and skill is what this series of articles is all about. There is healthy church life beyond conflict. Such transformation begins with the teachings of Christ, not the least of which is found in Mark 5:25,
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, . . .”
- Dictionary: to transform–means to make over radically in a different form or state; to commute, change, transfer, transfigure; to alter, modify, adapt, or refashion. Most of these synonyms are subsumed in
the thesis of our study: Transforming church conflict is a shared leadership process where mutual trust is vigorously pursued; openness and acceptance are practiced; improvement or development is a constant objective; and values and principles form the foundation of the effort.
- Strategies for transforming: The forms and application have great diversity; each article on “transforming conflict” will deal with specific strategies: 1) Small conflicts are resolved early and simply. 2) Enlarged conflicts are managed wisely, directly, compassionately, and with needed knowledge. 3) Out-of-bounds conflicts are structured and brought under disciplined control. 4) If the source of conflict relates to ministry improvement or expansion, conflict may be accepted, even stimulated. 5) If the conflict is based on methods, opinions, and differing positions, “transforming” may seek to manage, to reduce, to accept, or to resolve. 6) Transforming dysfunctional conflict may involve intervention, rules of participation, containment, deescalation, or destabilizing.
- Survey results on church conflict:
In a written survey with 420 ministers responding, findings related to interpersonal skills were quite telling, especially on the existence of church conflict
and the skills needed by ministry leaders to deal with it:
- 78% indicated they were personally acquainted with serious conflict arising in a church.
- 88% indicated that printed materials and/or videos dealing with churches
in conflict would be helpful.
- 77% indicated that they see ways for outside resources to be utilized in resolving conflict in churches.
- 83% indicated outside consultation by trained persons in conflict resolution would be of value.
- 72% indicated there is inadequate training and information available for ministers and church leaders in recognizing and resolving conflict.
- 68% of those who had attended seminary indicated that the seminary they attended provided inadequate preparation that they have needed for dealing with church conflict.
(from an Executive Summary of Minister Survey, BGCT Executive Board)
2. Conflict: Reality and Understandings
- Servant leaders demonstrate their preparedness for the Christian ministry most clearly when they are dealing with church conflict. To do so with biblical instruction, wisdom, compassion and disciplined skills is true service to Christ. As our unfailing example, His most significant teaching about servant leadership is given during a time of resolving conflict among His disciples. (see Mark 10:35-45 NIV)
- Conflict is universal, normal, inevitable in human and congregational affairs: it can be helpful and positive; may be destructive; must be dealt with in most cases; cannot always be avoided; and may often be resolved. When it comes to conflict in the church, the biblical bias is in favor of resolution and unity.
“The easiest, the most tempting, and the least creative response to conflict within an organization is to pretend it does not exist.” (from The Change Agent by Lyle E. Schaller)
- This study focuses on congregational conflict. Conflict, as a way of life for some and an inevitable experience for all, may be expressed in every human arena and relationship and with many faces; for example:
- congregational conflict
- inner conflict
- personal conflict
- family conflict
- community conflict
- social and cultural conflict
- denominational conflict
- national conflict
- international conflict
- Conflict in its simplest expression is a situation in which two or more human beings desire and struggle over goals perceived to be mutually exclusive. Depending on several sources, “conflict by the dictionary” describes far too often life in the church:
- fight, battle, warfare, strife, especially prolonged controversy
- quarrel, argument, contention, dispute, rivalry, confrontation
- competition, antagonism, or opposition as between interests or principles
- discord of action, feeling or effect, disunity, disharmony, variance, dissension
- incompatibility or interference as of one event/activity with another
- a mental struggle arising from opposing demands, impulses, a striking together, a collision.
(More complete definition of church conflict will build on this base.)
- Conflict exists at some level or stage of intensity at all times in every congregation. Church conflict, within reasonable bounds, is inevitable, routine, healthy, and not intrinsically bad. This is sometimes called “functional conflict.” Such kinds of church conflict positively accepted and well-managed may, in fact, contribute to spiritual growth and ministry expansion.
- Not all church conflicts respond to simple, constructive “win-win” strategies by the members; some are complex, out-of-bounds, and may require outside support and guidance, even intervention. Rules of participation may need to be developed. Often such conflict as this is called “dysfunctional conflict.” Reflection:
“If God lived on earth, people would break out His windows.” –a Belfast maxim
- We are referring to dealing with conflict as “transforming conflict”; each article will deal with specific strategies for serving in this way. If the source of conflict relates to ministry improvement or expansion, conflict may be accepted, even stimulated. If the conflict is based on methods, opinions, and positions, “transforming” may take the form: to manage, to reduce, to accept, and to resolve. Transforming dysfunctional conflict may involve intervention, rules of participation, containment, deescalation, or
- No matter what the nature of church conflict, normally resolution can be achieved by God’s guidance and by the skillful management of church leadership and members: positive good can result; negative damage can be limited. Conflict resolution skills can be learned and will contribute to one’s quality of life and effectiveness of leadership. Reflection:
- Ultimate conflict seems always to exist within the life of the church:
that is, between good and evil, in standing for the truth of the gospel, or obeying the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. “Transforming conflict” may take on different approaches: proclamation, education, persuasion, or patient waiting. James 1:2-5 instructs us, in all sorts of trials, to ask wisdom from God. Reflection:
3. Servant Leaders Library Articles
We need to prepare with strategies and tools to respond to conflict. A middle-school principal noted: “If you’re going to be a bridge, you’ve got to be prepared to be walked upon.” True, but I am convinced there are other options available. The Library articles will present proven strategies for dealing with conflict in the congregation, including:
- Objective: to develop an understanding of conflict and to acknowledge it as part of the church’s experience now as it was in the New Testament era:
- Conflict: reality and understandings
- Conflict: New Testament case studies
- Objective: to identify existing contexts and specific causes of church conflict; and to develop a process for dealing with it within church life:
- Sources of local church conflict
- Transforming conflict: a ten-step process
- Objective: to develop the leadership skill of transforming church conflict by assessing the minister’s conflict management style and the church’s level/stage of conflict experience.
- Conflict management styles
- Seven levels or stages of church conflict
- Objective: to become well-acquainted with seven strategies to transform conflict; and, to complete an action plan to deal immediately with church conflict situations.
- Strategies for transforming conflict
4. Study Objectives, Values and Benefits:
Servant Leaders Library articles seek to contribute to your performance and satisfaction as a minister/leader transforming church conflict with these objectives, values, and benefits:
- Understanding: To add to your understanding of the nature, causes, and cures of conflict in church life.
- Assessment: To use these materials to make an assessment of your present leadership style in dealing with conflict, and of areas where you may need improvement.
- Development: To develop your conflict management skills and broaden your choice of effective strategies as a servant leader.
- Diagnosis: To assist you in diagnosing specific levels and stages of conflict in your church at this present time–and to match that with your skill.
- Resource: To provide this workbook as a “toolbox” so that you can take from it the right tool(s) needed to get the job done in conflict management.
- Action Plan: To pack up your “toolbox” and go home with at least 3 to 5 transforming actions you are going to take immediately that will make a difference in the life of your church.
- Lifetime: To use this and other study material for your lifetime collection of tools and practices on transforming conflict in church life.
Conclusion: “Life Beyond Church Conflict”
A good reminder: Through the process of transforming conflict into healthy church life, it is good to know there is “life beyond church conflict.” Effective Christian leadership seems always to deal with conflict. But the truth of the matter is that constructive ministry throughout the life of the church often diminishes occurrence and intensity of conflict but also restores the joy of service and releases energy and time for an enriched quality of life.
© 2006 servantleaderstoday.com; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at www.servantleaderstoday.com
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership