Conflict is inevitable. Even in a healthy marriage, family and church.
Like healthy marriages and families, healthy churches don’t avoid conflict, but they deal with it well.
I’ve been in pastoral ministry for more than 35 years. In the early days, I dealt with more conflict than in recent years. Not because the early churches were bad, but because I didn’t know how to deal with conflict as well as I do today.
Unfortunately, I learned how to deal with conflict the hard way – by making mistakes.
Through those mistakes, then through watching and learning from other churches, I have discovered 6 principles that healthy churches use to deal with conflict well:
1. Healthy churches know that conflict isn’t fatal
A strong and healthy human body is able to fight off disease better than a weak and sickly one. It’s the same in a church.
When the church is healthy (not perfect, but healthy) they know that a disagreement between members or staff is like an occasional bout of insomnia or the common cold in an otherwise healthy adult. It’s unpleasant, but it will pass if we deal with it correctly.
When we feel like every conflict is a disaster in the making, we will either refuse to acknowledge them (thus driving them underground only to be bigger and badder when they come back up), or we’ll press the panic button every time a staff member tells the pastor “I may have a better way to do that” and never hear anything fresh and new ever again.
Both ignorance and panic are dangerous.
A healthy church knows that disagreements are normal and survivable.
2. Healthy churches reduce the number of conflicts through better team dynamics and communication
Dealing with problems while they are small helps stop them from becoming big.
No one in a healthy church should ever feel afraid to bring a legitimate problem to light. Especially when communicating to and among the leadership team.
For years, my youth pastor (now our lead pastor, Gary Garcia) would come to me occasionally with a problem that he had discovered by telling me “I don’t want you fighting a battle you don’t know you’re fighting.”
That was very healthy. For him, me and the church. It happened because we created an environment where people were free to share problems as soon as they saw them, so we could deal with them while they were easy to fix.
3. Healthy churches anticipate many oncoming conflicts by looking for early warning signs
An attentive person knows when they’ve put themselves at risk for sickness or burnout, so they follow the scriptural mandate and take Sabbath days, vacations and other down time as a way to keep rested and refreshed.
A healthy church does the same. When we pay attention to our key leaders, watch patterns of attendance, offerings, prayer, ministry involvement and so on, we can often anticipate a potential problem before it arises.
For instance, if your church has a huge commitment of your leaders’ time and energy for a season like Christmas or Easter, you need to build in an appropriate down time for them in the weeks immediately following those events. This will diminish stress, increase appreciation and reduce the triggers that cause conflict.
4. Healthy churches resolve conflict in a healthy way
Even with all the right systems and relationships in place to anticipate and reduce the severity of conflict, arguments will still happen. Knowing that this is inevitable means we have an obligation as leaders to have a plan in place to resolve conflicts in the healthiest way possible.
Some of that comes from what you don’t allow, like
- Refusal to talk
Some of it comes from what you require, like
- Open, honest communication
- The presence of a third-party mediator
- Sticking to the issue
And so on.
This is not a full list. No one can give you that, because every situation is as variable as the people involved and the issue at hand. But there are a handful of essential ground rules which, for believers, must also include the guidelines found in Matthew 18:15-17.
5. Healthy churches minimize the negative impact of conflict
When a conflict does occur, a healthy church knows how to reduce the amount of damage it causes.
The main way to do this is to limit the circle of those involved to just the people who are either in the conflict or actively helping to resolve it.
Then, after the conflict is over and relationships have either been repaired or (in hopefully rare occasions) ended, there’s one principle above all others that needs to be followed.
Tell the people who need to know before the grapevine does.
In conflict management this is called getting ahead of the story, or controlling the narrative. This sounds manipulative, and certainly can be done in a manipulative manner, but when done in a healthy way it simply means this: it’s better for people to find out what happened from you than it is for them to find out second or third hand, with bad information that you have to correct.
Trust good people to hear difficult truths, and be honorable enough to tell them as soon as they need to know it.
6. Healthy churches learn from past conflicts to move forward even stronger
Like an occasional sniffle, a disagreement that’s handled well can actually help inoculate a church from bigger problems in the future.
When I do pre-marriage and marriage counselling, I often tell the couple that a day with an argument that gets resolved is better for the long-term health of the marriage than a day without an argument.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take as many argument-free days as I can – in both my church and my marriage. But I’ve come to learn that the lessons learned from disagreeing well are a great way to strengthen a church, a marriage and any relationship.
Besides, if you’re going to argue, why not get something valuable out of it?
The way we do this is very simple. Take a small amount of time after the disagreement has ended to ask all the involved parties “what have you learned from this?” insisting that their responses must be healing, honest and helpful. (Comments like “I’ve learned that Terry is an unteachable idiot” means you haven’t resolved anything.)
It’s a family, but it doesn’t have to be a feud
If a church really is acting like the family of God that we are supposed to be, we will have all the ups and downs that every family has. We will work together, laugh together, cry together and disagree ocassionally.
But we’ll always be family. Not just while we’re on this earth. But as the church, we will be family forever.
We might as well learn how to get along here and now.
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