Jim Van Yperen says that church conflict is normal. The problem, he says, is the way leadership respond to conflicts.

Van Yperen is founder and director of Metanoya Ministries, a nonprofit Christian ministry that serves churches in conflict resolution and in leadership formation. He is also the author of Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict (Moody).

How common is church conflict?

Almost everywhere you go, you find churches that are struggling with conflicts either great or small. All churches face conflict. It's how we deal with conflict that's the problem.

Are sick churches in conflict aware that there is a problem?

We have this notion of Christianity in which we think there should be no problems—that we go to church, we put on our masks, and we do our nice happy smiles to each other.

That's not the church of Scripture. The church of Scripture was full of problems. They were always dealing with conflicts. The Apostle Paul spends a good amount of his writing talking to churches that were in deep conflicts, sometimes out of sin and sometimes out of disagreement.

Conflict is actually an opportunity to change. So it's important to have an understanding of what the church is and what God wants to do with it through conflict, not in spite of it.

Is there one thing often at the root of most church conflicts?

We say that all church conflict is ultimately about leadership. I don't believe that leaders are the cause of the problem all the time. Conflicts that turn into big fires are often started by small things.

It can be anything, from style of worship, moral failure, politics, decision-making, or even seemingly positive things like rapid growth. All of those things have the seeds of conflict in them. We should expect it. That's part of living in a world that's unredeemed.

However, the way the leader, the pastor, or the spiritual leadership of the church responded to the conflict is what determined whether it would be reconciled or get worse. Most of the churches [our ministry is called into] do not have problems necessarily with the leader, but with the leader's response to the conflict that made it far worse.

What is the problem with the way churches try to reconcile these problems?

Most evangelical churches ascribe to the idea that we need to be reconciling and redemptive, but they don't always live that out. The big problem is a lack of a foundation of biblical community—living in community with one another so that there's fellowship to be restored if someone falls away. [There's also a lack of] loving one another, serving one another, forgiving one another, forbearing one another. We're not doing that. And because we're not doing that we find in times of crisis that we have no means to reconcile it.

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So why would we not want to commit to community?

We're too committed to our individualism and to privacy. From early on you're taught that individualism and reaching your own self-actualized position is what you're all about. You're taught to think about yourself first. You think of others as a kind of commodity that will serve your purpose. When we go to church, a lot of people go to church to get their needs met.

What are the classic responses to conflict in a church setting?

A passive responder is one who is really committed to seeing the love and mercy of God, but they do so at the expense of truth. They are typically those who don't want to deal with conflict in any way, shape, or form. They will keep silent about it. They will deny it. They end up surrendering their relationships with others and really with God.

Evasive responders will know that there is a problem and they will admit it, but they'll run away from it. They want to protect themselves. In doing that they're going to compromise relationships and often twist the truth. Evasive people are very common in the church. In fact, most evangelical churches, I would say, are functionally evasive when it comes to conflict. They're always trying to make it go away by minimizing it.

Defensive responders are pastors or leaders who will respond in a way to promote themselves. And that usually means manipulating relationships and bending the truth. These are folks who will ride one aspect of the problem for all it's worth and ignore some other truths.

Where the passive responder is someone who doesn't want to admit there's any problems, the aggressive responder says, "Let's get at it." He then—through language or sometimes even physically abusive tendencies—attacks or shames. These people are all about power. They want to empower themselves, they control relationships. This is the pastor who stands up and says, "This is the way we're going and if you don't like it, leave." This is destructive.

How can a church reconcile all these personalities?

The point is to see ourselves truthfully. All of us have one of these styles we employ habitually. The first step to learning anything is to understand what the dynamics of the situation are. This is the first part of seeing ourselves truthfully so that we could be not passive, not aggressive, but redemptive in our approach as Christ calls us to be.

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How do you actually get people back to that starting point?

We call everyone to the foot of the cross. We call everyone to acknowledge where they've been wrong and where they, in seeing themselves truthfully, can begin to be redemptive. You start with confession: "This is what I've been thinking. This is how I've held bitterness in my heart."

A redemptive approach to handling conflict, unlike the four personalities we learned about earlier, calls to a spiritual dynamic that is impossible for us to do alone. It has to be done guided by God's word, empowered by his Spirit, and lived out in the community of faith.

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Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."

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The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
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