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5 sources of congregational conflict

9 years ago

1023 words

I have been consulting with conflicted congregations since 1994. I had seen and been involved in many situations before then.  Congregational conflict is common.  It helps a little, I think, to identify a handful of the key sources of conflict.  This enables us to be better prepared for what will normally unfold at some point in a churches life.

1.  Conflicted or unclear expectations around the role of the pastor. 
Because of the central role pastors play in the leadership of congregations, they are often in the centre of conflict.  This may be over the balance of leadership responsibilities between the pastor and church council, who makes which decisions in the life of the church, a pastor’s leadership style or ‘fit’ with the congregation, the pastor’s gifts, skills and where he or she spends ministry time and energy.  Most of these conflicts come down to unclear expectations around the role.  It is important that everyone understands how the pastor is empowered to lead and how and to whom the pastor is accountable for leadership.

2.  Differing vision, values, identity and directions
Churches may have groups within them who have quite different sets of values and vision about who the church is and what God is calling the to do.  The formal vision statement might read something like this: We are a gathering of God’s people who seek to share God’s grace and love with each other and the local community in which we live and serve.  However behind the scenes, the real and ‘informal’ vision that drives behaviour might read something like…  We are a small remnant of faithful believers in a hostile, unbelieving world.  We pray for others to repent, to agree with us, change their lives to reflect our values, and on proving themselves faithful like us, they are most welcome.  Maybe this: We are a close and caring family who have done a lot of life together, we know and understand each other pretty well, warts and all, we will be quite happy to grow old and grey together, just don’t change us too much.  Of course, no one is going to document a statement like this, however these sorts of vision and values underpin many churches and are a source of conflict particularly around mission, how we do church and where we spend money and resources. 

3.  Hidden power structures, family systems, informal roles and rules
Churches often have lots of tradition and history.  Sometimes this can be empowering but at others it creates systemic dysfunction.  Often the formal rules and roles are outweighed by the hidden informal roles and rules under which a church operates.  E.g. a decision made in a church board meeting is overturned in the car park afterwards when two gatekeepers decide “it will never happen” and “no one will hear about it again”.  Power in churches can be vested in families, in tradition, in objects.  These structures make change difficult and can create significant conflict when challenged. 

4  Unhealed, broken and tense relationships, needs not being met
A congregation may actually be an unusual group of people to be sharing life together.  Often members do not have a lot in common except their choice to worship together.  The are all volunteers giving of themselves with a range of motivations.  Some are seeking a place of inclusion and acceptance where they can simply be themselves, others are looking to find purpose, meaning even significance in service and activity, still others are looking for deep relationships and trusting community where they have not found that in other places.  An incredibly rich and deep matrix of spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual and social needs are met or at times not met within a faith community.  This is why relationships can be challenging in a church environment.  There are often incidents where people hurt one another, particularly where needs are high.  Many churches do not deal with this well, preferring to deny the hurts rather than to deal with them up front.  Consequently there can often be tense and broken relationships left to fester for years in some churches.  Every time a new conflict emerges, the lines are already drawn by the brokenness that has long existed, sometimes sadly for generations.   

5 A lack of healthy communication, conflict resolution, delegation and decision making processes
Secular organisations by and large over many years have learned the importance of clear processes of communication, to keep everyone who needs to know things well informed.  The secular working world also has its share of conflict and has had to work out methods of resolution so they can get on with whatever job they are doing.  Leadership and delegation processes in any organisation need to be streamlined so everyone knows each others’ roles and responsibilities; who reports to who, when and how.  Decisions in any team need to be made and implemented in timely fashion.  Jobs, profit and viability depend on all this.  The Christian church has often been left behind on good, healthy process.  Often the default is to just let things happen, trusting that someone somewhere will do the right thing.  Maybe a simple meeting where everyone can say what they think will sort it out.  Anyone who has spent any time around churches will be able to recount meetings where highly inappropriate and at times ungodly behaviour has taken place, often without any accountability for those involved.  Lack of process is the common downfall of many a well intentioned church meeting.   Significant hurt can result from simply not knowing how to communicate, make decisions and conduct meetings.    

There are obvious and clear remedies and processes for limiting each of these sources of conflict in churches.  Be on the look out for conflict and put in place healthy processes which allow ordinary and normal conflict to be dealt with wisely and well.  

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