Church has always been, and is, and will always be a place of tension, dissension and conflict.
Of course, conflict isn’t all bad, some is very necessary, but all too often, conflict is done badly – the Old Adam rising to the surface, making demands (without love), speaking the truth (without love), speaking plainly (without love or wisdom) – all the pain, anger and frustration gushing out like an unstoppable Tsunami of muck!
Christians hold in tension a vast array of beliefs and preferences whilst holding to a collective Credal declaration. A lot (most) of disagreements can come down to the secondary issues and preferences, not to mention ‘historical romanticism’ about the past, or as one friend recently said, historical amnesia!
A great teacher I have leant much from once said to our class, “In life, in Christian ministry, choose the mountains you die on!” In other words, work out what is primary (die for those things); work out what is secondary (don’t die for them but learn to hold them in a creative and humble tension).
In the book Mastering Conflict and Controversy, the authors highlight six helpful points to dealing with conflict:
1. Conflict can be healthy and useful for our church. It is OK for people to differ with one another.
2. Resolutions for the sake of quick agreement are often worse than agreements that are carefully worked out over time.
3. Fair conflict management includes:
- Dealing with issues one at a time.
- If more than one issue is presented, agreeing on the order in which the issues will be addressed.
- Exploring all the dimensions of the problem(s).
- Exploring alternative solutions to the problem(s).
4. If any party is uncomfortable with the forum in which the conflict is raised, it is legitimate to request and discuss what the most appropriate forum might be.
5. Inappropriate behaviour in conflict includes, but is not limited to:
- Name calling.
- Mind reading (attributing evil motives to others).
- Inducing guilt (e.g., “Look how you’ve made me feel”).
- Rejecting, deprecating, or discrediting another person.
- Using information from confidential sources or indicating that such information exists.
6. Fair conflict always allows people who are charged with poor performance or inappropriate behaviour to:
- Know who their accusers are.
- Learn what their accusers’ concerns are.
- Respond to those who accuse.
The authors then suggest that if these “rules” can be agreed, a variety of conflicts can be worked through.
For me, the oil in the engine of all conflict must be love, wisdom and grace. The “rules” above do not cover all bases and sometimes, frankly, pastors and leadership teams deal with rude, obnoxious, immature, repressed and infantile church members. Pain can go very deep and often come out of nowhere.
Church isn’t perfect (yet), but I’d rather be in the ring fighting than outside the ring offering my tidy suggestions.