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11 Sep '14

Seven things to understand about church conflict

Posted by T.J. Addington in church conflict
Anyone who is in church leadership for very long, either as staff or board members will experience church conflict. Unfortunately the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17 and which Paul asked for in Ephesians 4 is often missing in the church. We live in a fallen world and fallen people have a hard time getting along. 

As a veteran of helping churches negotiate through and out of conflict there are seven things that one needs to keep in mind when it happens.

First, the presenting issues are very often not the real issues. This may be counter-intuitive but it is true. Often in trying to negotiate conflict staff and  boards take what is said by an opposing side as the truth. Often, the real issues are hidden behind the presenting issues and one should not assume that the presenting issues are the real issues. It can take a skilled individual to ferret out what the real issues are an until one can identify what the actual concerns are it is not possible to resolve the conflict.

Second, some involved have no first hand knowledge of what the real issues are but have taken up the offense of others.Often, friends and relatives of those who are unhappy will be caught up in conflict even though it is not their issue and sometimes without even knowing what the underlying issues are. This is one of the things that makes church conflict so confusing. Some people are just caught up on either side because they identify with other people but don't really have a stake in the issues.

Third, truth often becomes a victim of emotion. In the midst of church conflict a lot of words are written and spoken that are often not accurate but they are taken as truth. One person says something which gets repeated as truth when in truth it is not at all true. Emotions are stronger than rational thinking in many instances and those emotions often get in the way of truth. It is sad. When I was the target of disgruntled people many years ago, much of what they said was blatantly false. But in the heat of emotion, it was taken by their friends as truth.

Fourth, some individuals are unable to modify their positions even in the face of irrefutable evidence. This is the result of emotions taking precedence over truth. Once a position is taken in the heat of emotion many individuals are not able or willing to modify that position even when presented with evidence to the contrary. This is one of the reasons that conflict cannot always be resolved in a win/win scenario. When entrenched opinions and emotions do not allow individuals to respond to evidence to the contrary there is little hope of those individuals ever seeing the situation differently than they do.

Fifth, it is not always possible to satisfy everyone. This goes back to what I have already said. This side of heaven some conflicts will not get resolved either because two sides are so far apart, or because logic is lost in emotion or because individuals who have become entrenched in a position are unwilling to move. Sometimes in order to resolve conflict individuals need to say they are either sorry or were wrong. Some will never go there.

Sixth, the longer the conflict remains unresolved the more that truth gets lost. Conflict thrives on rumor, assumptions about motives, emotional triangles and the demonization of those who we disagree with. The longer the conflict remains unresolved, that these poisonous issues flourish and the messier it gets to clean up. Sometimes after a long period of conflict the two sides don't even know what started it all. All they know is that they no longer like each other or want to work with each other.

Seven, conflict flourishes in darkness but not in the light of day. One thing I have learned about conflict is that once brought into the light so that everyone in the congregation is informed of what is going on, things become resolved far faster than when the issues are kept in the back room. We are often fearful of just telling God's people what is going on and what the positions are. Yet, the sooner that is done the less harm comes to the body as a whole. If we believe that each individual has the Holy Spirit within them, we then need to trust that if the congregation knows what is going on they will make decisions that are best for the body as a whole. I always suggest transparency over secretiveness.

All of T.J. Addington's books including his latest, Deep Influence,  are available from the author for the lowest prices and a $2.00 per book discount on orders of ten or more.