5 ways to navigate church conflict. Teach Scripture systematically.
Over a cup of coffee one day a pastor friend said his church hadn't had conflict at any point of his pastoral leadership. I responded with something like, "Congrats on your recent move. When did you become pastor of First Baptist Church of Lala Land?" Not trying to be cute, I was just making the point that conflict is inevitable when humans are doing life together, even in the church. No, correction. I should have said, "especially in the church". Exclamation point.
In seminary one of my New Testament professors reminded us that we wouldn't have most of the Pauline Epistles had there not been differences in the early church. And, differences there were, and are. A recent study by Leadership Journal indicates that 95% of responding pastors had dealt with a significant conflict event in their church at some time, and that 20% were experiencing conflict at the time of the survey. Furthermore, the exit ramp of local churches is clogged by people escaping the horrors of church drama, with 40% of people leaving local congregations because of a significant disagreement in the body. And the reason? Their study indicated that 85% of the tension is the result of control issues. You know, what color will the carpet in the worship center be, wink, and nod? Going a step further in the study of church conflict is the most troubling statistic of them all: seventeen hundred (1,700) pastors leave the ministry every month, many of them as a direct result of church conflict outcomes. There are dozens of reputable studies about church conflict. May I suggest www.christianitytoday.com, www.peacemaker.net, www.expastors.com, intothyword.org.
Of course, most of us agree that Scripture is all-sufficient in matters of faith and practice. Therefore, the Bible should be our guide in dealing with every topic touching church mission, governance, leadership, relationships, administration, and everything else, including our disagreements. Just as clearly, the Bible addresses every aspect of human relationships and all of the sub-texts that grow out of them. The trouble isn't that there is no biblical path through the treacherous under-growth of gnarled relationships, but rather that few of us can comprehend and reference each of them while the flames of trouble are engulfing us. So, the base-line of dealing with conflict in the church is to be familiar with Bible teaching relating to human stress and tension, and ready to interpose spiritual truth into the hyper-emotional world of human drama when it happens.
Several years ago I had the privilege of serving as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Serving as advocate, coach, counselor, and listening post to 2,000+ pastors gave me a unique vantage point much broader than my own experiences as pastor of three congregations. Instantly I observed that most of them were not equipped to deal with the many layers of church difficulty they faced every single day. They weren't biblically illiterate nor did they intentionally ignore the counsel of Scripture in addressing trouble as they led their flocks. In a broad sense, they didn't have a ready guide to walk them through the teachings of Scripture when conflict landed on their desk.
So, I did some study. My interest at that time was to find a biblically accurate, systematic approach to dealing with church conflict. In the process, Peacemaker Ministries (www.peacemaker.net) flashed across my screen. Their CEO at the time was Ken Sande, a mechanical engineer and lawyer called to assist churches in resolving conflict. His book The Peacemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991) has been translated into 15 languages and is broadly acknowledged as one of the most biblically accurate guides to dealing with church conflict. From that one foundational book, Sande and the Peacemaker Ministries team introduced a stunning visual, the Slippery Slope of Church Conflict, and smaller written resources Resolving Everyday Conflict, Peacemaking for Families, and a number of brochures and pamphlets that are helpful in teaching peacemaking in various church settings.
As a result of this study, I recommended that Peacemaker Ministries materials be used in our associations and churches so that there would be consistent, uniform teaching to deal with this troubling aspect of church life. Because we are a denomination of fiercely independent churches, we could not mandate use of their non-denominational materials. Even today, thirteen years later, this is still the resource I recommend for local pastors and directors of associational missions who are on the front lines of these destructive skirmishes.
There are attitudinal steps in dealing with church conflict, however, that must be addressed before selecting a uniform guide to the teachings of Scripture.
1. Conflict is real in the church. Face it.
2. Spiritual infants will act childish. We must teach them.
3. The teaching of New Testament truth involves many Scripture references. They must be
gathered and assembled for consistent, systematic presentation, regularly.
4. Stress in the body is symptomatic of spiritual dysfunction.
5. Only application of God's Word can correct this kind of spiritual brokenness.
What is more, discord in the church negates the one clear sign of our belonging to Christ. When Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35) he was asserting the one visible proof of our union with him. When these internal relationships are strained, the testimony of Christ through us is tarnished and the possibility of a new creation in others is brought into quesstion. This has become an important side-bar to the number of younger believers who are abandoning traditional churches and denominations in hordes. Rarley is it about theology or even ethics. Mostly it is about the inner workings of church and the obvious discrepancy of churches that fuss and fight.
STEP ONE in dealing with church conflict is to identify and utilize systemic Bible teaching material to educate and instruct God's people about dealing with conflict in a biblically constructive way.
And, guess what, Mr. Pastor or church leader? That begins with you. Solomon counseled, "Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds..." (Proverbs 27:23). It is imperative that church leaders acknowledge the unique character of the times and the unusual stresses of doing church in a fast-paced, information-ready culture like this one. Jesus commissioned his followers to beware of their times and warned them that he was sending them out as sheep among wolves. He then told them to be as innocent as doves and wise as serpents. It's time for some wisdom in the church office and the application of Scripture to the conflict situations that have disconnected us from the big, bad world he commissioned us to change.
There are more than 5 ways to navigate church conflict. But, this week I will present 5 ways of navigating church conflct that are broad in scope and guaranteed to begin a process that can change the landscape of your church. Here's praying that it will assist someone who's dealing with it.