Some go into ministry romanticizing what it will be like. They imagine that everyone will always get along and that people will love every leadership decision they make. This myth is propagated by the notion that “Things will be different in my church.” The rude awakening is that every church or Christian organization has its share of conflict.
In fact, for various reasons, conflict can be more prevalent and complicated in the church than outside of it. The reasons for this are positive in one sense, but they can have negative side effects.
Three reasons in particular are significant:
1. Volunteers. The church is a magnificent volunteer organization where most people freely give of themselves to the work of ministry. However, since volunteers are unpaid, leaders don’t have the same leverage for decision-making and dealing with conflict as those who supervise and lead in environments where people are compensated. People more quickly line up with leaders who have the ability to reward or punish them financially (salary, benefits, etc.). Church leadership, on the other hand, requires a completely different set of influencing skills in order to gain acceptance for major decisions and to deal with conflict when there is disagreement.
2. “My opinion matters.” Because we work with volunteers, and these people give willingly in support of the church, many of them feel they have the right to voice their opinion and be heard. Of course, they’re right—provided that the way they express their opinion lines up with God’s Word (Ephesians 4:15). When channeled correctly, people’s feeling the freedom to voice feedback is a good thing. It reflects a high sense of ownership and concern among the church family. Yet, this creates a challenge when there is a large quantity of concerned and opinionated people and when what one person would like to see take place differs from the preference of another. In the church, as opposed to a paid work environment, opinions are often more outspoken because ownership and loving concern for the church is higher.
Leaders must create legitimate and safe channels
for people to express concerns and questions.
3. Everyone can do your job. Many people in the church feel that they are as much an expert on ministry as the leader is. People often don’t consider the experiences and training pastors and ministry leaders have had, nor are they aware of the sensitivities involved in how decisions must be made. This reality often rubs church leaders the wrong way. Therefore, leaders must find a means of remaining humble enough to listen, at times, to inexperienced and uniformed people. This does not mean that the pastor alone must entertain every opinion of every person who has one. Still, leaders must create legitimate and safe channels for people to express concerns and questions.
Regardless of the reasons that it happens in ministry, conflict must be responded to in effective and emotionally stable ways. Healthy conflict responses are built upon several key truths that leaders should accept:
1. Conflict is normal. Churches are filled with sin-stained and emotionally needy people who are different from one another in personality and perspective. These traits are also true of the church’s leaders. This therefore means that conflict will occur. Conflict among Christians has happened from the beginning of Christianity (Luke 9:46, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 3:1–8), and it is good for leaders to normalize it to a degree and accept it as a fact of church life.
2. Conflict is healthy. Conflict is actually a sign of health. It means that people are talking deeply and caring deeply about things. A total lack of disagreement would indicate a low sense of ownership and burden about the church. In truth, there are many dying churches that experience no conflict. This is often because people are fearful to share their thoughts and feelings or to proactively express a concern. The leader might be unwilling to listen and callous in attitude. It might also indicate that people just don’t care much about the welfare and success of the church. As a sign of health, unquestioned uniformity and indifference are much worse than a small degree of conflict.
3. Conflict is creative. Conflict, handled biblically, often gives birth to positive things. It is not only creative in that it leads to solutions, but it has the potential to bring about oneness between people through the process of problem-solving and conflict resolution. When conflict is managed properly, people will be closer to one another afterward than they were before. Said another way, churches will not be as unified without conflict as they can be with it. Remember, tolerance is not the same as unity. Tolerance means that people are putting up with one another. It is a passive and reactive reality that, while important (Ephesians 4:2–3), does not achieve God’s very best for the church. The Lord wants us to do more than tolerate each other. His desire is that we be unified in heart and purpose (John 17). Unity is an active, affirming reality where people who are different come together to join hearts and hands in the great mission of God. Tolerance is surviving. Unity gives life. The process of conflict resolution, as opposed to experiencing no conflict at all, has the potential to bring unity and vibrancy to a congregation.
In the next article to come, we will pursue further how to respond to conflict as leaders.