Conflict in Church

About Conflict

Conflict is normal; we experience it in all our relationships, especially with those we consider close. Often it is unspoken, sometimes it leads to arguments or to a breakdown in relationships. When conflict is handled and engaged appropriately, it has the potential to bring us closer. In fact, conflict is often what provides both substance and intimacy to our relationships.

The Church, like the rest of life, is full of conflict; however, we often ignore or avoid conflict in our churches. In church we have to be ‘nice' to each other it seems and the boat should not be rocked. Conflict, however, can be both a healthy and positive experience for a church when handled appropriately. So, the question is not how to avoid conflict, but rather how and when a church engages in conflict.

A first step is recognising that conflict is natural and not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy or divided church. A church that encounters conflict can come out of it with greater clarity about its mission and purpose and be better prepared to handle conflict in the future.

Strategies to Manage Conflict

The following are five brief descriptions of strategies that are often used to manage conflict:

Avoidance - Conflict is avoided or ignored. This action (or inaction) can often cause the conflict to be submerged only to arise again in the future, usually in a more dramatic fashion.

Accommodation - In response to conflict, an attempt is made to please most or everyone involved. Great energy is taken to maintain relationships with all sides, often causing resentment.

Competition - The focus in a conflict is on achieving personal goals/targets and on winning. It is often difficult to maintain relationships after the conflict.

Compromise - This can be a mixture of accommodation and competition, resulting in people not being fully committed to the issues. Sometimes people will use a vote in order to convey a sense of fairness while seeking to get their way.

Collaboration - The focus is on the problem and not on people's personalities. There is deep concern for preserving relationships and meeting objectives. In most cases, there will be a commitment from all sides to resolve a conflict.

It is important to recognise that conflicts which appear minor may often involve deeper issues. When conflict results in a breakdown of relationships, it is often because the underlying issues have been ignored and the conflict has become about the personalities and identities of the groups involved. Taking time to explore the deeper issues of conflict will help a church focus on the real issues rather than on personalities.  Below are ten contrasting examples of a church divided by conflict and a church bound by conflict.

Divided by conflict

 Bound by conflict

1. Issues and people are frequently confused. Personalities are the focus rather than specific concerns. Issues and people are separated. The focus is on what needs to be done rather than on what personalities will be involved and what people's motives are.
2. Conflict is viewed as wrong or dangerous. Conflict is viewed as an opportunity.
3. Disagreement means a lack of respect or caring. Disagreement means engagement and involvement.
4. Leaders discourage differences. Leaders welcome open disagreement.
5. In the stress of conflict:
a. A few vocal leaders are heard, intimidating other members
b. Direct dialogue decreases and indirect dialogue increases
In the stress of conflict:
a. Many voices are heard
b. Direct dialogue increases
6. Individuals react defensively or explosively to the views of others. Individuals interact thoughtfully with others and only offer their own response after making an obvious effort to understand the other side.
7. Discussion focuses on solution. Discussion focuses on process.
8. Timing is uneven. People delay a decision as long as possible and then rush to take a final vote. Timing is steady. People foresee issues, plan procedures, examine options, then prepare for a final decision.
9. There is low tolerance of uncertainty. There is a willingness to move calmly through the inevitable periods of uncertainty as all options are considered.
10. People repress inner conflicts caused by past experiences and continually project them into the current conflict. People are consciously aware of past hurts or unresolved conflicts and take responsibility not to project these in the current situation.

Being in one accord and united as a church does not mean a church does not have conflict. It means the church is focused on moving forward together even if there are different views on how to move in that direction. Ultimately, it is difficult to know when and how to engage in conflict. The church needs to use discernment and rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to move into and through conflict.

Thanks to the Edgehill Theological Reconciliation Programme who contributed this article.

Helpful References