Church ripe for conflict?

By Ronald E. Keener

Asking questions often can be a first means to resolving church conflicts, say two authors of a new book, Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care (Baker Books, 2012). “We begin by helping leaders and members learn what it means to ask not just the right questions but the ‘best’ questions so that the path followed to redeem and resolve conflicts avoids the pitfalls generated by the pursuit of non-essential controversies,” say authors Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling.

“Too often people involved in church conflicts fail to recognize that until everyone is on the page concerning what issues are at stake efforts to bring about resolution are wasted,” they say in respond to questions on the book from Church Executive. “The best way to get everyone on the same page is through a careful crafting of the best questions that capture the heart of the real conflicts and not just collateral matters. With some instruction the church member can certainly do this and become a peacemaker contributing to the unity of their church.”

Barthel is a former attorney and director of the Institute for Christian Conciliation, a division of Peacemaker Ministries. She lives in Billings, MT and is a mediator, arbitrator and conflict church intervention team member. Edling was a director of Peacemaker Ministries, and living in Colorado Springs, CO, and is in private practice of Christian conciliation through his church’s reconciliation ministry (see sidebar).

What is it about churches that seem to engender conflict?

First, many people have a misunderstanding about the nature of the church. The church of Jesus Christ is not just another volunteer organization that can be joined or left like people join or leave their local gym. The word translated “church” in the New Testament is a compound word literally meaning “the called out” and “the gathered assembly.”

If more people recognized that the church is to be a place for God’s called people gathered together by him for his purposes they would likely be more careful both about joining and leaving.

Second, many people in the church don’t recognize that the church is composed of a wide range of differing levels of spiritual maturity, including those who may not even be actual believers regenerated by grace through faith.

Third, because we live in a very “loud” majority secular culture many people bring into the church concepts of governance and tolerance from their secular experiences that they believe are also appropriate in the church.

And, fourth, religious beliefs for many people go to the core of their personal identity and whenever those treasured beliefs and practices (even if inconsistent with the Scriptures) come under attack they respond with deep emotion and anger. All of these factors make churches places ripe for conflict.

You write that “leaders must lead” but when does that begin to look autocratic and nonproductive?

Whenever church leadership becomes anything but shepherd-leadership the authority granted by Christ to lead in the church is lost. True shepherd-leaders champion humility and all of the other spiritual character traits that qualify a person for a position of church leadership.

God’s Word condemns the “hired-hand” as a church leader as well as any who would prey on God’s eternal children. True leaders lead through the compelling nature of God’s Word being applied in a manner that people following intuitively know that it is Christ’s faithful under-shepherd promoting God’s agenda for the church and never his own.

Further, faithful church leaders know their leadership will not be productive whenever it strays from God’s model of gentle shepherding because it will not be based in his revealed truth. God’s under-shepherds are called to be examples of holiness so that those they lead will grow in their own holiness. Such models of holiness are never, of course, autocratic.

You write that “Christ enlists us as his co-laborers in the process of peacemaking.” But you say we are “saturated with worldly ideas of what personal relationships are to be,” that “church members don’t read or understand their Bibles,” and “many of us make our church conflicts worse.” How so?

Christians become meaningful co-laborers with Christ when they study God’s Word and follow the principles, precepts and rules that govern life in the faith. Because we have been so crafted into the pattern of this world in our thinking and acting we need first and foremost the correction of Scripture to transform our thinking by the renewing of our minds so that we may be useful and effective co-laborers with Christ as we redeem conflicts for God’s glory and our spiritual growth.

The evidence of such usefulness and effectiveness becomes apparent when our goals and desires align with the goals and desires of Christ for His people. People who inhabit the church who fail first to understand God’s process for the redemption and reconciliation of conflicts only contribute to deepening and extending conflicts that destroy the witness we are to have to one another and to the watching world.

Many church members do read and understand their Bibles; however, unless consistent application of those truths is practiced such knowledge becomes ineffective and unproductive.

How does governance structure help or hinder a church in the midst of a conflict?

A church’s polity (governance practices) will often set the boundaries within which efforts to respond to conflicts in a biblically faithful manner can be undertaken. Clear expectations for governance are an important aspect of doing everything decently and in good order. The opposite is also true. When there is confusion over governance practices there will usually be little order and lack of progress in the quest to redeem and resolve conflicts.

Of course, polity structures must be consistent with God’s Word so that both church leaders and members have confidence that more than merely man’s wisdom is being followed. Frequently, a church’s rules of order become seen as merely human wisdom used to manipulate and control. That will undermine the efforts being taken to redeem conflicts and bring about the kinds of change needed to satisfy the legitimate concerns of those who rightly desire a more Christ-centered church environment.

You note that churches, despite having a system of church governance in the bylaws, over time deviate substantially from its own documents. So does the conflicted church then turn to its practices in real life?

The point we are making is that when conflicts come to the church there will frequently be those who will use official written policy as a weapon against those who have been following an unwritten practice that has taken on the apparent force and effect of policy.

In such cases the written policy will be upheld by the courts of both the church and the state, so, no, actual practices as governing policy usually fail. While some in the church may argue that unwritten practices should triumph, the usual pattern is that people will feel that they have been misled by leaders and wrong expectations have been established. This dynamic usually brings about mistrust of leaders and is another important reason why leaders and members alike know their written bylaws and other governing documents and follow them with consistency.

How does a pastor deal with factions in his conflicted church and get beyond that?

Factions in the church reflect a level of spiritual immaturity that should be seen and used by the pastor as an opportunity to teach and model God’s call for unity among his eternal children. Pastors should, in our opinion, never ignore the fact that factions may exist in the church and then tackle the issue head-on. That is what the apostle Paul did.

Failure to face the issue with the force of Scripture will only feed the notion that factions in the church are acceptable. The appropriate use of redemptive, corrective church discipline may be required to hold accountable those who perpetuate the idea that factions can continue. Unless God’s own methods for curtailing factions are employed the church will never be free of divisions that will undermine the mission of the church. Dealing with factions can be a pastor’s golden opportunity to help people grow in their maturity if addressed biblically with confidence in God’s Word.

The last five pages of the book deal with “the illusion of a conflict-free church,” that churches alternate from keeping the peace to denying obvious problems. What are early warning signals for conflict and heading it off at the pass?

One early warning sign is when factions begin to appear and people associated with those factions begin advocating favored outcomes over God’s priority for meaningful relationships. Whenever evidence emerges that relationships are being placed in a secondary position behind favored agendas then the need for biblical peacemaking efforts are in order.

Also, when people stop having a passion to honestly pray for one another — prayer that is other-centered and not self-centered, then the danger signs should go up. In the church, if people aren’t honestly praying for one another there is a need for a serious discussion related to what is at the center of any conflicts that may be emerging.

Usually, “heading it off at the pass” means getting back to the basics of the Gospel and all of its implications. God expects us to have a bigger heart and passion for His priorities than our own and that means renewing our commitment to His call for “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace” that unite us in His church.


Congregations have reconciliation ministries

Village Seven Presbyterian Church (PCA), a congregation in Colorado Springs, CO, of about 2,000 members, has a ministry called Peacemakers of Village Seven. As a church-based reconciliation ministry, it provides conflict coaching, mediation and arbitration services to members of the church as a benefit of their church membership. There is no charge for this service.

The church has a team of peacemakers staffed by church members who have been trained by Peacemaker Ministries, Billings, MT and they stay busy assisting church members in resolving marital disputes, family conflicts, business and employment issues, and church conflicts involving members and church leaders.

Peacemaker Ministries encourages churches to develop Peacemaking Teams and provides helpful support services. They also have group discount rates for team training and team attendance at the annual Peacemakers Conference (this year in Denver, Sept. 13-16).

David Edling notes, “As a conservative Presbyterian church our members take their faith seriously and desire to live consistently with the commitments they have made. We are not an especially contentious or conflicted congregation, just one where members know that the peacemaking responses to conflict are to be pursued over the escape and attack responses that so many others seem to follow. Having a ministry of the church available to quickly assist and equip members to respond to conflicts biblically has been a great benefit and spiritual blessing as marriages have been reconciled and relationships healed.”

Tara Barthel is a member of Rocky Mountain Community Church (PCA), Billings, MT, and a participant in the congregation’s peacemaking team. On their website, they explain: “We have adopted the Peacemaker’s Pledge as a practical guideline for how Christians should resolve their differences, and we are committed to assisting our members in living out these principles in the midst of life’s conflicts.”


One Response to “Church ripe for conflict?”

  1. Kunle Animashaun

    This is a wonderful message that needs to be properly digested and useful for the growth and development of churches during conflicts and its settlements

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