5 ways to navigate church conflict. Auto-correct doesn't always work.
The auto-correct function can create a real mess at times. It's partly because people on the fast track aren't the best proof readers and generally hit the "post" or "send" buttons before the thing has been vetted. It's the same in conflict situations too. Only in very unique circumstances will human train wrecks settle themselves. Why? Our species has some focus issues too, especially when the heat is turned up. The apology note to your wife loses some of its meaning when auto-correct changes your word "sweetheart" to a very incorrect "sweat-hog". Oops. Stupid auto-correct. Unless there's some deliberate, intentional action, things tend to escalate if not addressed. Fast.
In some instances accessing the "delete" button can actually forestall human conflict and prevent escalation by simply over-looking minor offenses. This is, of course, an intentional and actively purposeful action on the part of someone who has even a small gripe. To contemplate the wrong and then decide to let it pass isn't side-stepping it or hoping it will work out in the long run. It is a biblically recommended calculation of the offense and the decision to overlook it. It prevents escalation of conflict by ending it before the quarrel gets wings (see Proverbs 17:14). It's not avoidance or denial. It's just wisdom calming the waters.
Some people, including many Christian leaders and pastors, fear conflict, confrontation, speaking the truth in love, or any of the biblical actions for addressing stressful situations between people. I can't tell you how many times a pastor friend has said, "It'll work out in it's own time and way", naively believing that the troubled waters human stir up can calm themselves. The instruction of Scripture requires a much more definitive, active approach in providing biblical solutions to the messes we human make. Most of the references involve action phrases---go and tell, bearing, forgiving, be reconciled, put away, take the log out, love, be slow to anger, confess, strive, and more. This means that leaders must not only know the Word of God and how to apply his Word to real time human drama, but also have the confidence and courage to address the divisive issues and the people who have created them.
Why do so many spiritual leaders run from this assignment? Here's some speculation---
(1) A good number of spiritual leaders, pastors at the front of the lin, visualize the "Jesus, Jesus meek and mild" depiction of our Lord that we gathered in Beginners. Somewhere in the process of following his example they have conveniently forgotten his turning the tables in the temple, direct confrontations with the Jewish religious people, his scolding Peter, James, and John, his stance even with Pontius Pilate, and some frustrated words aimed at his slow-to-learn disciples. A pastor told me that confronting church members violated his image of a Good Shepherd. Give me a break!
(2) You can't talk about this without mentioning fear. During my time as Director of Pastoral Ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention it was my impression that fear was the controlling emotion of most pastors and church staff. This created an empathy and sensitivity in me that enabled close relationships and dealing with the phobias of ministry, which are many. But, siple fear allowed many hard situations to persist and define the church.
(3) Over and over leaders would blame their own personality or strength array or other psychological reasoning for their lack of aggression in dealing with conflict. More than a few times I heard, "...that's just not my gift..." or "...I'm not wired that way..." while the fires of conflict blazed around them. Leadership means doing the hard and difficult things, and learning skills that are not natural too us.
(4) Because conflict left alone tends to escalate, and the wires of communication usually get more tangled as conflicts grow, finding the causes or origins of the trouble gets harder and more time consuming. It's just true: when you're up to your neck in alligators it's hard to remember you came to empty the swamp.
(5) As mentioned Monday, far too many of us are unschooled and untrained in dealing with even the most basic conflict issues. What is more, solutions don't always settle the issues involved. Our systems may quiet things down and relieve some of the tension at the moment. But, human systems rarely settle the deeper things that separate and aggravate.
Pastors and church leaders must aggressively and intentionally implement biblical ways to deal with the inevitable conflicts that happen between people, and especially among people with deep convictions and strong beliefs. At Northwood Baptist Church we taught the staff and deacon body the systematic work of Peacemaker Ministries. The mechanics of resolving conflict were addressed in my pulpit ministry very often, usually at least once a year. Several times a year either I or a designee would teach Resolving Everyday Conflict, the Peacemaker Ministries material based on the most basic Scripture rationale for dealing with personal conflict. This is to say that resolving conflict in the Body of Christ was central to our discipleship and teaching ministry.
Years ago Harriet and I were at a church event. I ran into some people I had known in high-school but had not seen since. So, I introduced Harriet to them. I introduced her as my first wife, which she was, even though she was also my only wife. My goodness, the rumor mill and gossip factory went on double shifts. At first I decided to let it go, express my love to her on every opportunity, and allow the error to be corrected over time. We just brushed it off. Then, I had a visit from some concerned citizens. They wanted to tell me what "everyone" was saying. So, I straightened it out with them and told them I would talk to the church about it on Sunday. So, during my sermon, I was a man, and told them that Harriet wan't really my first wife. I added that she was my only wife, but many of them didn't hear that one. What a mess I made.
Thinking that "auto-correct" would take care of it was my first mistake. As the lady said, "Stupid auto-correct. You always end up posting thongs you didn't Nintendo."
Be purposeful and intentional when dealing with church conflict.