Christian churches are dynamic communities with strong values and beliefs. They are concerned with the transformation of individuals lives, with creating community and engaging the society around them. They are made up of volunteers who come from very different walks of life, with different personalities and who would not necessarily be together if it was not for the sake of God’s kingdom. Christian communities are also engaged with matters of eternal significance and they operate within a framework of personal, corporate and cosmic good and evil. All this is particularly fertile ground for conflict. While churches are particularly conflict prone, they do not usually understand this and often dismiss, deny or suppress creative disagreement in the name of love and unity. Consequently the organisation in our world which should be the most skilled and capable at dealing well with conflict is often paralysed, disabled and sometimes destroyed by it.
Conflict is normal
Churches need to re-discover from the New Testament that conflict is normal. It can be creative and healthy. It is a normal aspect of change, transformation and growth. If we are not working through disagreements, differences and perspectives that challenge each other, are we really alive and growing?
Conflict is frightening because it is not often handled wisely and well. People get hurt and clearly ungodly behaviour is often tolerated without accountability. This has resulted in many Christians carrying hurts from previous church conflicts increasing their anxiety. Churches often lack wise and appropriate processes for dealing even with basic complaints and conflicts.
All churches should regularly teach about conflict and how it can be handled with Christian families, relationships and churches. Dealing with emotions like anger, resentment and fear should be discussed regularly. Spiritual practices like restoration, forgiveness, truth-telling, justice-seeking and grace-giving should be well understood and practically applied.
The teaching above becomes significantly more important in leadership. All ministry team leaders, pastoral care team members, youth leaders and home group leaders need to be well equipped with an understanding of conflict and with resolution processes. Training should include understanding conflict styles, the biblical principles of conflict resolution, commitments at times of conflict and the principles and policies of the church. If the church does not have the ability for this training within, it is well worth inviting a trainer to come and set it up in a way it can become part of the churches culture.
Policies and procedures
All lay governance boards, elderships, parish councils, leadership and ministry teams need to establish some clear policies and procedures which will guide individuals, teams and the church in times of tension. Ideally these should be discussed, agreed collectively and adopted before conflict:
* A teamwork covenant for leadership teams including the governing board
* A grievance policy (based on Matt 18)
* Covenant Commitments for Christians at Times of Tension
* A Pastor – Congregation relations group
Peacemaking Team / Mediators
For larger churches, an excellent add-on for the pastoral care ministry is to equip a team of mature skilled individuals in peace-making skills from a Biblical perspective. This can include mediation skills, facilitation skills, negotiation and even arbitration. This group can be used in family, small group and even leadership conflicts. For whole church conflicts, external facilitation is usually required for objectivity.
Once healthy policies, practices and attitudes to conflict are in place, take every opportunity that comes to practice. Do not be afraid to name disagreements and to use them as means to apply conflict resolution skills and gain insight into how processes work.
If conflict does unfold, respond to it quickly and firmly. Most situations that eventually become ugly in churches have often been ignored for some time and people have been unnecessarily hurt through lack of process. It is best to be well prepared, but do not be cautious in seeking advice from mentors, denominational leaders and others who may be able to offer advice.