One of the most frustrating elements of pastoring is dealing with the inevitable squabbles that pop up between church members. It’s not only difficult from a conflict resolution standpoint, but it’s also incredibly disheartening when you think about all the time you pour into communicating the importance of unity, fellowship, and love.
Unresolved conflict is a church killer. If you trace the issues that led to church splits back to their source, you’d be surprised how often they started with petty arguments between a couple of members. Believe it or not, disagreements about parking spaces today can easily become the church splits of tomorrow—which people will remember as being about some noble doctrinal dispute.
Left unchecked, small conflicts can quickly become entrenched and turn into factions of one group against another, and like a small fire they’ll quickly engulf your church. Sadly, many pastors don’t respond while the blaze is still manageable. They assure themselves that it will all blow over soon, and before they realize, it’s grown out of control.
Since you can’t legally lock people in a closet together until they promise to start acting like Christians, we’ve put together these 10 tips for conflict resolution.
1. Pray for unity
The best healers focus on prevention. Why fight a cancer that you could simply avoid? The same is true for conflict. If we can remain spiritually empowered and hold unity up as our highest ideal, we’re doing a lot to protect our wholeness.
Jesus’s priestly prayer (John 17) focused intently on Christian unity. If that was the the number one issue on his mind prior to his crucifixion, it should be ours, too. Pray for your congregation on your own time, and have regular times of corporate prayer to focus on maintaining oneness.
2. Normalize conflict
One of the reasons that disputes get out of control is because they start in secret. While people still have their wits about them, they feel like their frustration is shameful and so they nurse it quietly. Eventually it becomes so huge and hard to live with that they no longer care how it makes them appear. By the time it gets to that point, everyone’s in trouble.
We need to be able to hold up unity as an ideal while operating with the understanding that there is going to be conflict. It’s not shameful or bad to be angry, but it becomes a problem when let it fester. If you can create a process that offers people a safe place to work through frustration before it turns into conflict, that’s incredibly valuable.
3. Figure out what conflicting parties need
Pastoring isn’t like parenting. You can’t just walk into the room and yell, “Hey you guys, knock it off and get along!” Resolving conflicts between adults is going to require some detective work.
First you need to decipher what the issue is truly about. If you can sit both parties down together and talk through it, great. But you’ll likely need to do some reconnaissance.
Helping the wounded parties work through what they want or need to bring this conflict to an end isn’t just for your edification. Half the time warring factions haven’t thought through this question themselves. They jump into a conflict with no real exit strategy, and being forced to think about what their end game is can be a real eye-opener for them.
4. Look for a win/win scenario
As you start looking into this conflict, it might become obvious that one person’s truly to blame. It’s still your best bet to find a way to resolve the conflict in a way that allows everyone to maintain their dignity. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a come-to-Jesus discussion with the guilty party. You just want to do everything within your power to ensure that they can save face in public.
If you don’t, you’re likely planting a seed of contention that’s going to sprout later. And when that friction resurfaces later, it will be twice as resilient to your attempts to squelch it.
5. Don’t treat conflict like sin
In this broken world, conflict is natural. It doesn’t do anyone any good if you wade in and start behaving like an authoritarian. If there’s a fire of discontent burning in your congregation, your anger is only going to act as an accelerant. In fact, communicating your disappointment and sadness will have a much more profound effect than adding your anger to theirs.
The conflict is probably running on pride, gossip, jealousy or any number of attitudes. And it will be important later to come back around and begin doing some soul care. But for the time being, resolving disharmony is your most important job.
6. Don’t demand everyone kisses and makes up
In Acts 9, Barnabas encourages the disciples to let Paul fellowship with them (despite his former violence against the saints). Out of this act of kindness, a bond is formed between the two. On their first missionary journey together they were joined by Barnabas’s cousin, John Mark. At some point during their journey, John Mark left and went home. (Acts 13:13)
When another campaign was planned later, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement about bringing John Mark. Barnabas thought Mark could be a helpful addition, but Paul was resistant to the idea because John Mark had abandoned them. Scripture says that it was such a strong disagreement that Barnabas and Paul separated.
It’s important to recognize that reconciliation doesn’t always mean that the relationship is instantly repaired. While both parties need to recognize that waging war is ultimately hurting the body, it’s irrational and idealistic to assume that the parties involved will be able to simply hit the reset button on their relationship. Make sure that there’s an opportunity for people to take a break from each other and give themselves some time healing time.
7. Create allies in peacemaking
One way to helpful resolution is to help the clashing parties to separate the conflict from themselves. If you can help them see the conflict as an issue that needs to be fixed for the sake of the body, everyone can work together to put an end to the contention without having to feel like the relationship is totally fixed.
Think of it like brokering a cease fire between warring countries. If you’re trying to resolve every relational conflict in order to stop the war, you may never get anywhere. Instead, convince them to work with you to bring an end to the conflict. When they both agree to stop lobbing rockets at each other and saying inflammatory things in the media, you can begin working with them to heal the divide. Meanwhile, you don’t have to worry about further collateral damage.
8. Create a future-oriented focus
By its nature, conflict is focused on the past and played out in the present. If a vision isn’t created for an antagonism-free future, the conflict will continue to play itself out. There’s something about a war that’s so immediate and myopic that the battle is all the combatants see. A good peacemaking pastor will help them to lift their gaze and focus on the future that both parties truly desire.
People are already forgetful of their highest principles and values. Strife magnifies our tendency to lose the plot. As a leader, you should be able to remind the parties who they are in Christ and what is at stake in this drama. They need to remember that our prayer as believers is that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and our responsibility is to facilitate that peace with each other.
9. Never break confidentiality
Throughout the process of resolving conflict, you’re going to be privy to a lot of information. Obviously no one is helped when you spread it around. The real temptation enters when you think you’re speeding up the peace process by telling person B about the person A’s frustrations. Without expressed consent, you should never speak for either party in the conflict. If you can get them together and mediate a discussion, great. Otherwise, make sure you ask for permission about anything you feel it would be helpful to share with the other party.
Trust is the most important element in conflict negotiations. If either of the parties feel like you’ve broken their trust or are favoring the other, you’re in trouble. You end up like the poor fool trying to break up a dog fight. It doesn’t take too much interference before the dogs turn on the interloper. I’ve seen too many church fights that indiscriminately focused on the pastor because of a laps in the pastor’s judgment and a perceived break in trust.
10. Celebrate resolution
The enemy desires to stir up conflict and disharmony. Every time he is unable to do so is a cause for celebration. If you and others are able to negotiate conflict’s minefield, it’s important for you to really help the parties recognize what was averted. Maybe you want to send them a card and congratulate them on a job well done, or maybe you want to treat them to a coffee or a dinner to celebrate the thwarting of the devil’s plans.
The more you are able to tie their resolution to real kingdom work, the more perspective they’ll have next time conflict threatens to raise its ugly head.