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10 reasons churches should be the experts in conflict resolution

8 years ago

1106 words

As I work around church communities, it is quite confronting to recognise that churches are naturally conflict prone.  We should be leaders within our communities, knowing and demonstrating reconciliation practices and then ministering these to families and community organisations.  Instead we spend a lot of time denying and suppressing our own conflict and never really get good at dealing with it. So we end up being a conflict prone community which is also conflict averse.  Here is why we need to be experts.

1. Churches have a mission of transformation.  They actually prompt and create a certain amount of conflict by having an agenda of personal and social change.  Churches do not want communities or individuals to stay the same as they are.  They pray and work for justice, growth, maturity, goodness and transformation.  A recipe for tension – you bet!  Remember Jesus’ rather enigmatically saying “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  Conflict is not in itself a negative.  It is needed and often has a positive outcome.  It is how conflict is managed that is critical.

2. Connected to this, is the reality that any church’s mission takes place in within a larger contextual conflict between good and evil in the world.  The Bible describes the Kingdom of God in a spiritual conflict with the dominion of darkness.  However people understand this dominion of darkness and its activity, (and there are quite different theologies around this), it works at some level against the church’s mission of transformation.  An effective way to disable mission is internal conflict with churches.  Some of our conflict is dis-empowering and destructive to our purpose.  We need to be guarding our process to ensure conflict does not become damaging and hurtful for people.  Many have left the church and been marginalised in terms of their involvement in mission through the pain of conflict.  Conflict is also the number one reason pastors leave Christian leadership.  While no one would lay the whole blame for conflict at the feet of sin and evil, to ignore this would be to misunderstand the way conflict operates.

3. Churches are not always well thought out in terms of conflict resolution process.  Because we have high levels of confidence in individuals’ personal behaviour and integrity, we tend to use open, poorly facilitated and often unstructured processes to deal with tension.  Other organisations learnt long ago that these informal processes do not always work, particularly in situations of low accountability for behaviour.  The church is a voluntary institution whose structures and processes permit and even promote unaccountable uses of power, potentially dysfunctional group dynamics and often poor decision making processes.

4. An implication of this poor process is that many individuals, leaders and whole communities have been deeply wounded by conflict in the past. Many people of faith carry this woundedness with them, which further increases the fear and suppression of conflict.  

5. Conflict is always at its roots driven by complex needs and values.  Churches are important social environments which supply acceptance, a place to belong, significant roles and responsibilities for people (these are usually volunteer roles, which increases their social importance, as individuals are usually highly committed), and significant relationships in which people experience intimacy and understanding.  Church families for many people are more important in their lives than their own natural families, and their expectations of community are high.  The church often functions like an extended family, permitting familial type relationships with other members of the church. In this environment when needs are not met or are threatened by change, significant conflict can result.

6. Churches are actually an unusual gathering of people.  What holds a church community together is a commitment to God and often not much else.  There can be significant theological and ideological differences between people in churches. Prior to the information age, there was often substantial uniformity of belief as members all received their only teaching from their minister.  These days beliefs and theological ideas come from a wide range of accessible sources.  These differences are not just about marginal or esoteric beliefs, some of these ideals are deeply held values and principles which individuals hold as foundational and even essential (absolute truths) not only for this world but for the next. Without an openness and ability to converse around theology and church practice conflict can easily erupt.  Our 2000 years of church history is an important lesson in the significance of theology to how we get along.

7. This diversity is not only in theology and beliefs but in differences of socio-economic background, occupation, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, political allegiance, education and life experience.  While this diversity is usually an expressed value, it is also a cause of conflict.  Membership of churches is also increasingly dynamic with families and individuals moving not only more often geographically between parishes also more freely between Christian denominations bringing with them a variety of experiences and ideas on how the church should work.

8. There are high expectations of Christian leaders. Priests and pastors have unique sources of authority power which must be understood in order to be used wisely and well. These include relatively unrestricted pastoral access to minister to parishioners, the respect most parishioners give to the spiritual and moral authority of the minister as a teacher of God’s Word, the ability to facilitate and mobilise community and the administration of the sacraments.

9. Of all institutions, churches, particularly because of their view of truth are particularly subject to traditionalism. Traditions get attached easily to practices and to objects. Many conflicts arise around the need to deal with change and tradition. The church is a unique and a powerful system in this sense and will always tend to equilibrium and resist change. In fact many parishioners see churches as a changeless refuge from a crazy changing world. Consequently any attempt to move a church toward a more relevant expression of community might cause significant conflict.

10. Because of the high value placed on unity, care and forgiveness in the church, conflict is often interpreted as failure or sin, a violation of love and like-mindedness. Issues causing disagreement in the church are often then interpreted through a spiritualising or moralising framework; becoming either good or evil depending on whether there is agreement or disagreement.  Conflict is consequently often suppressed, denied and avoided. Those in conflict are often caricatured as ‘unspiritual’ or ‘ungodly’.

These 10 reasons together make the Christian church both conflict prone and conflict averse.  Conflict is a normal human experience and is often useful and healthy. As God’s family we need to take some time to learn well how to manage and resolve it.

Written 2013 updated 2014

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